I’ll Be There: My Life with The Four Tops is a cause for celebration—a celebration of life, longevity, and legacy. Duke Fakir, the last surviving member of the Four Tops, and his longtime friend Kathleen McGhee-Anderson beautifully chronicle the Tops’ journey in the music industry along with Fakir’s life story. Initially, I approached another artist’s autobiography with hesitancy. Not because there is an overwhelming number of them but because written accounts of artists often shift to a curated image of the artist and move away from who the artist is. The polished professionalism of the Four Tops, a product of Motown and Berry Gordy’s charm school, made me uneasy about what I would read. However, after a few lines of an in-depth depiction of his childhood, this hesitancy melted away, and Fakir proved he would indeed be there with an authentic and honest story.
Fakir sets the scene in Detroit and takes audiences on a journey back in time. In this vivid account, he reflects on growing up with his parents Nazim Ali Fakir, a devout Muslim with a strong work ethic, and Rubyleon Eckridge, a devout Christian and a choir director. His parents’ background would soon prove beneficial, as it was in his mother’s church that Fakir first explored his vocal ability. Although Fakir had a tremendous vocal ability at a young age, he was often overwhelmed by stage fright during his solo attempts. Finally, during one attempt, he was so mortified that he ran out of the church in the middle of the song. While on the street, he encountered an unknown woman in white clothing. She stopped him to say she could see angels around him and asked if he sang. After a small exchange and discovering he could sing, she declared that he would one day be singing for people everywhere. Barely able to complete one song in his mother’s church, Fakir wondered who the woman was and how this would become a reality.
The span from the forties through the sixties was an exciting time for Detroit music, music that later inspired the world. With acts like Jackie Wilson, Della Reese, and Nat King Cole cruising through Detroit’s Paradise Theater, Fakir’s musical interest grew, and he was soon motivated to put his failed solo attempts behind him. Shortly after, he connected with a child prodigy and the first cousin of Jackie Wilson, Levi Stubbs. When he was only eleven years old, Fakir had seen Levi Stubbs perform at Paradise Theater. Stubbs and Fakir would take on any performance opportunity they could find, which led to them being requested to sing at a graduation party. For this party, they decided their duet should become a quartet and enlisted the help of Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson. The party performance was successful, and the Four Tops were born, or at least the Four Aims were, as the young singers were aiming for the top.
Although Fakir had a tremendous vocal ability at a young age, he was often overwhelmed by stage fright during his solo attempts. Finally, during one attempt, he was so mortified that he ran out of the church in the middle of the song. While on the street, he encountered an unknown woman in white clothing. She stopped him to say she could see angels around him and asked if he sang.
Before the Tops were the R’n’B crooners we know today, they sang jazz standards with harmony inspired by the Hi-Lo’s, with occasional sprinkles from artists like Ray Charles. Each member served a distinct role in the group’s harmony, and they were all taught their parts by Lawrence Payton, who served as the group’s early arranger. Their set of jazz standards and dazzling harmonies with Stubb’s on lead vocals was quite the hit amongst clubgoers. However, despite their terrific stage performance, they were still unsure how to garner a hit record. Motown propelled the careers of many famous acts and did the same for the already popular Four Tops. Before their Motown hits, they sang background for various artists, including the Supremes. Once paired with the famous writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, there was no stopping the Tops.
The group’s inception, name, and hit records were half the battle. Fakir and his group members faced many challenges while climbing fame’s ladder. These challenges were financial, relational, and even physical. Nevertheless, these challenges are nothing new in the music business as we have all heard the stories of other famous male singing groups, yet this one is different. In this narrative, one component rings out strong, loyalty. Through various stories and anecdotes, Fakir emphasizes the group’s commitment to one another, even when solo opportunities presented themselves. Fakir praises group members for their contributions to the group and asserts that it was not only their voices that blended well but also their personalities. Unlike many groups, the Temptations, for instance, the original line-up never changed while all members were alive. The Four Tops were indeed a brotherhood from the very beginning.
No group is without imperfections, but Fakir takes that as an opportunity to provide a somewhat reflective perspective of his story. Throughout the text, Fakir goes in-depth about his struggles and shortcomings. This includes his relationship with his children, a failed first marriage, addiction, and finding his current wife, Piper. In addition, he leaves no stone unturned in a cautionary tale approach as he cheerfully reminisces while warning readers about the sacrifices one makes for fame and success. Fakir considers himself a Christian with principles from his dad’s Islamic background. As he recalls stories, he often mentions how his spiritual roots have sustained him throughout his journey. In complement to spirituality, Fakir’s life determination radiates throughout the entire book. From arriving early in high school, hustling up the group’s first uniforms, managing the group’s funds, and now preserving the group’s legacy.
In this narrative, one component rings out strong, loyalty. Through various stories and anecdotes, Fakir emphasizes the group’s commitment to one another, even when solo opportunities presented themselves.
Fakir did not sing many solos, but his role in the group was maybe the most important. The principles he reflected on the most in the text, like loyalty and spirituality, are what he seemingly exuded the most. Fakir served as the bond for the Tops. He took care of his brothers in an industry that prizes the soloist. Because of Fakir’s sacrifice and dedication, the music of the Four Tops will endure. Overall, I found this book difficult to put down. The words seemingly flowed off the page as the stories were exciting and vivid. The authors did not get bogged down with academic jargon but soared by catering to the average music lover. As a lover of music and Detroit, I received my fill from this text. The descriptions of places and people made me feel like I was there. Moreover, Fakir, painted a clear image of his character, his musical journey, and the people who helped him along the way. This was a stunning account of Duke Fakir’s life and the legacy of the Four Tops.