The last classic Top has been spinning on his own for most of this year. And he’s going a little stir-crazy. All things considered, Abdul “Duke” Fakir would rather be onstage.
“We stopped performing March 13,” says Fakir, the only surviving original member of legendary Motown quartet The Four Tops, who continues to tour under that moniker with three talented younger vocalists. Or at least he did until the coronavirus knocked them off the road. “Of all the dates we had, maybe 10 percent were canceled. But most have been postponed until 2021,” he says.
“We’re very fortunate they were just postponed. If we ever start back up again, boy, are we going to be busy.”
And busy is just how he likes it. Because ever since he and fellow Pershing High student Levi Stubbs met Northern High schoolmates Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton at a birthday party in the early 1950s and realized they could harmonize, Fakir has been singing in front of audiences. It’s been 67 years so far. Fakir turns 85 this December.
“He’s more ready than all of us,” marvels Four Tops troupe member Lawrence Roquel Payton Jr., scion of the group’s original tenor and vocal arranger. “This guy is a real road dog. He’s been on the road all his life. This layoff has been harder for him than for us, trust me.”
And Fakir, one-fourth of the group that produced million-selling hits like “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Ain’t No Woman,” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” sees no reason to stop. “As long as I can do it and still have a voice, I’m going to keep going,” he says. “Because that’s my life. That’s all I know that I still enjoy.”
That enjoyment part amazes even him. “I’m really surprised,” he muses. “Because when you’re a youngster and get in this business, you wonder, ‘Hey, how long will I be able to do this?’ You’re thinking maybe 20 years, 25 max. I feel so blessed, because I still feel the same way going onto the stage as I did when I was a kid. The anxiety, the desire to affect an audience and feel their applause.”
Fakir says he can recall missing only one performance, when he was recovering from a successful hip replacement. But in 2018, prior to appearing in a combined Temptations/Four Tops concert in Pennsylvania, Fakir slipped in his hotel room and fractured his other hip.
“We couldn’t get him to go to the hospital,” Payton recalls. “He did the show, got on the tour bus, went back home, then went to the doctor. I’ve never seen anything like it. He is a role model for what an entertainer should be.”
Piper, his wife of more than 40 years, was waiting when the bus arrived and rushed him to the hospital. “She didn’t even let me go inside the house,” Fakir says, laughing. “I wanted my doctors in Detroit to take care of me. Besides, I told the group (Payton, Ronnie McNeir, and Alexander Morris) we had one more show to do. I did it from a wheelchair, explained to the audience, and they understood. It didn’t affect my voice.”
Fakir, son of a Pakistani father who, according to family legend, swam the Detroit River from Canada to get into the U.S. to work in the factories, was born, raised, and still lives in Detroit. (He acquired his nickname from his mother, who used to call him “Dukie.”) He says he and his fellow Tops considered migrating to California as many Motown acts had, but decided against it. “We looked at houses for about two days and said, ‘Man, it’s nice to visit, but I’m not bringing my family out here.’ We all decided that we liked what we had at home.”
Both Fakir and Payton confess that sometimes onstage, when the night is right, they feel the spirit of original Tops alongside them. “Many nights I have felt their presence,” Fakir says. “And tears come streaming.” Does he ever wonder, though, why he’s the last of the Four Tops founders standing?
“Guess what?” he says. “I do not wonder. I know why.” Ever the showman, Fakir claims the answers are contained in his just-completed memoir, Famous Enough Four Us, which he polished during his COVID-induced hiatus and hopes to publish in 2021. He also has been developing a Motown: The Musical-style stage production set to Four Tops hits.
Meanwhile, the current quartet is completing a new album … if they can get Duke out of the house. “We’re not expecting him until this virus is over,” Payton says. “Piper has him on lockdown.”
Before any of that, however, comes birthday No. 85. How will he celebrate?
“Well, I’m not sure,” he says. “The last milestone birthday we celebrated was 75. We went to Atlanta to be with family. A lot of my friends flew down, and my wife set up a wonderful party. For 85, even though it’s big, I’ll probably just have a wonderful dinner, be thankful, and say a prayer. Then try to eat up everything in front of me.”