Four Tops performing in 2014 in Leeds
“My last overseas tour. Music has taken me all over the world,” the Tamla Motown star adds. “But my favourite trip is always to the UK. We’ve made so many friends here over the years. I’m so glad to be back.” How will he feel, taking his final bow?
“I’m going to be teary-eyed. I know I will miss it tremendously because the British people have treated us so royally, so lovingly, over the years. Where I come from, it feels almost like a fairy tale.”
And what a tale it makes. Detroit-born Duke’s spectacular career goes all the way back to 1953, when the Four Tops began as high school friends – “young hoods”, he says with a smile – from the same poor neighbourhood of Michigan’s Motor City.
There was Levi Stubbs, just 17, whose thunderous lead vocal would define their sound; Lawrence Payton, teen tenor with the golden tone; Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, the ocean-deep bass of the quartet. And Duke, with his honeysuckle lead tenor – the last surviving original member.
Duke’s Muslim factory-worker father came from northeastern Indian, what is now Bangladesh. His American mother was black and Christian. He learned important life lessons from both and then forged his own way.
By the time the Four Tops burst onto the world stage in 1965 with their first US Number One, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch), they had already endured a decade of failed singles and false starts.
Then Berry Gordy Jnr, the visionary mogul behind Motown, rescued them; their days as a supper club act, often playing before segregated audiences, were over.
“The blacks had to stand up in the balcony and everybody else would be on the floor dancing and having fun,” Duke recalls. “It was actually Berry’s sister, Esther, who cancelled the segregated tours and said we wouldn’t be back until everybody could enjoy the show together.”
From then on, “it was just a joyful experience in every city, everybody dancing and singing together, jumping up and clapping.”
A string of worldwide hits followed including Reach Out I’ll Be There – their first UK Number 1 in 1966 – It’s The Same Old Song, Walk Away Renee and Standing In The Shadows Of Love.
All of those classics will be heard on their current co-headline tour with fellow Motown stars The Temptations, which climaxes at London’s O2 Arena on October 11.
“I can sing as long as I’m alive,” says Duke. “What’s more amazing to me is how they still love those songs from 50 years ago.”
He confesses, however, that, “I’ve had to cut my steps in half. That’s the only thing, I can’t dance like I used to, but I can still move. I’m almost crippled, but I’m still there!”
With a total of 29 British chart entries, the Four Tops found themselves at the centre of Motown’s history-making stable – the Supremes, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and, most spectacularly, the Jackson 5 featuring 10-year-old Michael.
“We felt part of something. It’s like God planted a musical seed right in that area of Detroit and it just blossomed into a world-loving flower.”
Race was never an issue for the mostly young, mostly white audience that bought Motown records.
“For the first time, nobody cared what colour we were. That was something we’d never known in our lives.”
He intends to spend as much time as he can with his wife of nearly 50 years, Piper
The Four Tops found themselves performing at colleges. “Segregation started just disappearing – from people’s minds anyway.”
Coinciding with the civil rights movement, Duke feels the mainstream embrace of Motown acts like the Four Tops “softened the blow” of Martin Luther King’s speeches and protest marches.
“We were very proud we were a small part of the civil rights movement. That’s probably the greatest thing that I feel we did.”
In 1967 the Beatles manager Brian Epstein organised their first British shows.
“Brian set it up and made it possible for us to be accepted in the UK. He promised something and he made it come true. I’ll never forget him.”
This wouldn’t be a true story of sixties’ pop success, however, if it didn’t also include its share of turmoil and despair.
Broken marriages, struggles with sobriety, their painful departure from Motown after the label relocated to Los Angeles in 1972, all feature in father-of-seven Duke’s tell-all memoir, I’ll Be There: My Life with The Four Tops, published earlier this year.
He admits: “I was no angel. I smoked pot, did cocaine, did all that kind of stuff.” But shrugs, “Everybody did back then.”
It was during a Four Tops residency in Las Vegas in the eighties that Duke finally took stock.
“The real high you got was always from being on stage, it wasn’t from drugs. It took me a long while to realise that, but that’s when I gave it up – all in one night.”
He recalls as if a dream, “Something said, ‘Duke, this is not you. Stop’. I had friends coming celebrating, drinking, smoking and all that. I said, ‘You all go home. Take all this stuff with you. Goodbye’.
“After the show, I got on the plane overnight, went to my church and got on my knees and thanked God for helping me. Now I celebrate because I gave it up. A lot of people weren’t able to give it up.”
None of us however evade the final encore. The first Top to stop spinning was 59-year-old Payton, who succumbed to liver cancer in 1997. Obie’s 69-year-old voice was also silenced by cancer in 2005.
When 72-year-old Stubbs died after a long illness in 2008, Duke had already been fronting a refreshed Tops line-up for several years.
“I lost my three best friends,” he says, the natural ebullience momentarily dimmed. “We were like brothers, we loved each other, respected each other, depended on each other.
“We had said that we would write a book together one day, but they’re not here to do that and so it was up to me to tell the story.”
The current line-up features Larry Payton Jnr in his father’s spot, and Ronnie McNeir, the multitalented MD who’s been ably channelling Stubbs since 1999, with necessary vocal boom courtesy of Alexander Morris, who joined in 2019.
“Because we learned how to entertain before we learned how to record, our concerts are just joyful,” says Duke. “When we sing the classics, it’s like the roof comes off. It’s just amazing to me, honestly.”
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So what does the future hold for him?
“I haven’t figured out when I’m going to stop completely, but it won’t be long. Sometime in ’23, I’m almost positive of that. I can feel it’s about that time.”
He intends to spend “as much time as I can” with his wife of nearly 50 years, Piper.
Getting sober, “I had the help of God and I had determination. I prayed to get myself back and I did.” What has kept him on the path, though, he insists, is Piper.
“She’s been keeping me disciplined, keeping me loving. She’s the best doctor I’ve ever encountered and just happens to be the woman I love.”
As are the multiple gold records and awards, not least when the Four Tops were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award Duke picked up in 2009.
“We did it for 44 years and we were four hoods from the street,” he says. “But that music transformed us.
“It was songs that made people happy, made people want to dance, made people want to hug somebody and whatever else comes after that.”
They still do.
*Tickets for the Four Tops & The Temptations tour at ticketline.co.uk or direct from the venues.