Cover: Motown Royalty – Mary Wilson and “Duke” Fakir

November 15, 2013
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Chicago will soon be visited by two of Motown’s Royal Family members Mary Wilson and Abdul “Duke” Fakir, both founding and original members of the Supremes and Four Tops, respectively.

Reach Out Entertainment in collaboration with Starvox Entertainment and Marketing presents Mary Wilson’s Holiday Spectacular featuring the Four Tops, December 23, 2013 thru January 5, 2014 at the Harris Theater. Audiences will be taken on a journey through some of the greatest Motown hits which catapulted the Supremes to become the most successful “female group” in history.

In addition,  “Duke” Fakir, the only living original member of the Four Tops will celebrate 60 years of performing. I caught up with both legends as they were rehearsing and preparing for the Holiday Spectacular.

Royally Supreme – Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson is a rare breed of royalty born in Greenville, Mississippi. At the age of five, her mother (a domestic worker) gave her to her aunt in Detroit, MI. She became an only child living in the suburbs and had a fantastic childhood. When her mother came and got her, they moved to the Brewster-Housing Projects. She met her brother and sister for the first time. This is where she first met Florence Ballard. Mary and Florence didn’t know each other but had seen each other around the neighborhood. It was actually while participating in an elementary school (8th grade) talent show the two met. Florence admired Mary’s performance (a Frankie Lymon song) as Mary admired Florence’s voice. Florence sang an aria – Ave Maria.  They became friends during the couple of months to follow. Mary only knew Florence two months before meeting Diana Ross.

“Duke” Fakir

A prince of a singer, 1st tenor Abdul “Duke” Fakir, was born and raised in Detroit, MI.  Attending Pershing High School, it was a favorite pastime of most young black teens his age to get together and sing. They loved singing in groups and finding the right group to sound good and being the best in the area. Duke said that he had no professional aspirations at that particular time. It was at Pershing High he met baritone Levi Stubbs, a cousin of singer Jackie Wilson.

The Four Aims/ Four Tops

Known for their singing, Levi and Duke were invited to a local birthday party thrown by some girls and the pair invited fellow singers Lawrence Payton and Renaldo “Obie” Benson to come along (because they knew there would be some singing). Duke said that they blended so well together (without a rehearsal) that they decided to just go ahead and do a song. They all felt that this was the type of group that they had always been looking for.  They next day they started rehearsing. They named themselves the Four Aims and later changed their names when signed to Chess Records to the Four Tops. The next seven years they failed to have any success at Chess, Red Top, Riverside Records and Columbia Records.

The Primettes

In 1959 as their friendship developed, Florence told Mary about her sister who was dating a guy who was part of the Primes. Their manager Milton Jenkins was looking to form a sister group the Primettes. At the same time “Flo” told Mary, someone told Diana (who lived across the street from Mary) about the group forming. The three of them walked to the Milton’s apartment to audition. There they met Prime members – Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and Kell Osborne. Paul and Eddie would later go on to form the Temptations. Betty McGlown (Paul Williams girlfriend) completed the line up of the Primettes. They sang locally at sock hops, social clubs and talent shows around the Detroit area.

Lu-Pine Records

In 1960, the Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson, help them land an audition with Motown executive Berry Gordy Jr. They sang acapella and he turned them down. Mary told me that now she realizes that it wasn’t because they weren’t any good (as a matter of fact she says they knew they were really good). Gordy didn’t want the responsibility of having four young inexperienced girls running around. He encouraged them to return upon graduating from high school. Determined to record, the Primettes went to Lu-Pine Records and recorded a single “Tears of Sorrow” backed by “Pretty Baby”. During this time McGlown became engaged and was replaced by Barbara Martin. Years later while in England, a fan bought Mary a 7” (vinyl record) to sign and it was “Pretty Baby.  Lu-Pine Records never told them that they released it and of course they were never paid. So today the Lu-Pine recordings are collector’s items. Mary says if anyone has more copies around she’s looking for them.

Motown Bound

Determined to join the Motown roster of stars, the Primettes would hang out on the steps of the Hitsville U.S.A. building after high school. Eventually they were asked to provide hand claps and backgrounds vocals to a song that producers wanted to finish. The girls jumped at the opportunity to do it. They would contribute handclaps and background vocals to other Motown artists including Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. Gordy eventually took them seriously and signed them at the age of sixteen/seventeen years old but with one condition – they changed their name. Given a list of ten names, Ballard chose “the Supremes”. In the spring of 1962, Barbara Martin left the group to start a family which then transitioned the Supremes into a trio.

The Four Tops honed their craft singing doo-wop, country, jazz and soul music while traveling on the road in great showcases – even backing up Billy Eckstine for two years. They learned so much before joining Motown. Now a superior supper club act with notable stage presence and experience, The Fours Tops were convinced by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1963 to join the label. During their early Motown years, the group recorded jazz standards and added back up vocals to the Supremes and the Vandellas songs.

Road to Super-stardom

In December of 1963, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes”, written by H-D-L, peaked at number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Where Did Our Love Go” originally written by H-D-L for the Marvelettes  (who turned it down) reached number one on the US pop Charts and number three on the UK pop charts. It was their first song to appear on the UK pop charts.

 In 1964 The Four Tops put their vocals on a H-D-L instrumental track and as a result “Baby I Need Your Loving” was birthed.  It made it to #11 on the Billboard pop charts. Soon after, more H-D-L compositions made the charts. By August of 1966, H-D-L penned their all-time biggest hit and one of Motown’s most popular songs ever “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. “It was delightful,” Duke says, to see kids make it and buy homes for their parents and it was equally great to see the world accept them with open arms.

Staying on Top

Duke recalls working with other producers and writers when H-D-L left Motown but remained friends with the writing team. When Motown moved to Los Angeles they stayed and signed with ABC Dunhill. But they managed to stay on top with hit’s like  “Still Waters Run Deep” from primarily producer Frank Wilson. He states it was hard getting use to Frank’s rhythm of producing at first. But a great album was birthed.  They scored one top 10 hit after another. Since the 1980s, the Four Tops have recorded for, at various times, Motown, Casablanca Records and Arista Records.

A change of line-up was finally forced upon the group when Lawrence Payton died on June 20, 1997. The band initially continued as a three-piece under the name The Tops, before Theo Peoples (formerly of The Temptations) was recruited as the new fourth member. Peoples eventually took over the role of lead singer when Stubbs suffered a stroke in 2000 with his position assumed by Ronnie McNeir. On July 1, 2005, Benson died of lung cancer with Payton’s son Roquel Payton replacing him. Levi Stubbs died on October 17, 2008. Fakir, McNeir, Payton, and Harold “Spike” Bonhart, who replaced Peoples in 2011, are still performing together as the Four Tops. Fakir is now the only surviving founding member of the original group. Duke says future plans for 2014 includes a new album, touring for their 60th year anniversary and collaboration with Holland-Dozier-Holland writing a musical.

Greatest Achievements

The Four Tops have won many awards during their long and distinguished career including: Rock and Roll and Grammy Hall of Fame. One of Duke’s proudest achievements was when the Four Tops were given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

Of course the Supremes have won almost every award known to the musical world but when asked what’s her greatest achievement, Mary says “first my children and then my eight grandchildren”.  She describes herself as being a very loving grandparent opposed to spoiling her grandchildren. She comes from a place of being honest and open with her grandchildren, looking them in the eyes letting them know that they’re looking at a real person and giving them as much truth as she can give them.

Now that’s heavenly and supreme.

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