Love affair ignites Four Tops musical, 'I'll Be There'

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

Picture this: It’s the mid-1960s, and a lively party is going on at the Detroit home of Mary Wilson of the Supremes. The beautiful Wilson has plenty of food and the record player going at her chic home on Buena Vista, as Motown friends mingled. In the center of the action was her boyfriend, the tall, handsome and very married Duke Fakir of the Four Tops.

A 9-year-old girl arrives at the party, dropped off by her mother. She asks for Duke.

“When are you coming home, Daddy?” the girl asks, bringing the party to a halt.  Duke hadn’t returned to the family home for weeks. The shame and sadness was overwhelming.

Levi Stubbs, left, Renaldo Benson, Lawrence Payton and Duke Fakir of the legendary Motown group the Four Tops.

The Fakir-Wilson affair is an important plot point in the Four Tops musical, “I’ll Be There,” currently in pre-production. Duke Fakir, last surviving member of the Tops, also writes about it in his memoir, set for May publication (The title refers to the Four Tops song “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” — not to be confused with the Jackson 5 song).

Because Eddie and Brian Holland needed to write six new songs for the show, Eddie said he needed to “get nosy” and ask Duke more details about his relationship with Mary.

Eddie sensed that he wasn’t getting the whole story from Duke. “Men have problems expressing their feelings to other men,” Eddie said. So he had Shirley Washington, of the Holland brothers’ team, question Duke about it.

“Sure enough, she talked to him, and after I finished the first round of the lyric line, Shirley said, ‘That’s good, but he was more in love than that.’ So I took it and changed it. Shirley said again, ‘No, he was more in love than that.’ And I took it and changed it again,” Eddie laughed. “I took it a third time. Finally, this is what he’s talking about.”

Duke expects that seeing his relationship with Mary on the stage will be an emotional experience. “I think it’s going to be like a concerto. It’s about how close we were, and the thing that happened, that caused the confusion, then ‘Are you really going to leave?’  After I left, we still vowed to be the best of friends, which we were 'til the day Mary died (Feb. 8, 2021). That’s going to be a moment in the musical, it’s going to touch me every time I see it.”

Eddie Holland had to force brother Brian to sit in a room with him and work on songs instead of playing golf, as he wanted, but it was worth it. The music Brian came up with made Eddie cry, he says. “That note my brother put on this song, I tell you something, it’s a sound to behold… my brother’s melody makes those lyrics come alive.”

The Hollands also wrote a song about the situation from Mary’s viewpoint, “I Turned Around and You Were Gone.”

The Tops’ story is vastly different from that of most Motown artists. Growing up in the north end, Levi Stubbs and Duke Fakir met in high school, after Fakir had been roughed up by some tough guys (Levi observed, but didn’t intervene, to Duke’s amusement). They formed the Four Aims with Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton, and unlike most Motown groups, they were a polished, experienced group by the time they got to West Grand Boulevard.

It’s also different from other music stories in that the group was truly a band of brothers. They never broke up, and they stayed in Detroit, even when Motown left for California. Even when Levi Stubbs was offered a movie career.

“We didn’t want to go to California,” said Fakir. “This was our home. We got everything we know right here.” That’s why the musical will premier in Detroit, in, they hope, the fall of 2022.

Michael Swanson, clockwise, Eddie Holland, Nancy Stafford, Paul Lambert and Duke Fakir are working on a Broadway show about the Four Tops titled "I'll Be There."

“That’s what I loved about them,” said Motown A&R director Mickey Stevenson, who signed the group. “They had their arguments, but these guys never separated, theirs was like a holy bond.”

Set to direct the Four Tops musical is a newcomer, Aakomon “AJ” Jones, 42, choreographer of the film “Black Panther,” the “Pitch Perfect” films, and director of many music videos. This will be Jones’ first outing as a Broadway director.

Kathleen McGhee Anderson wrote the script, and along with the new Brian  and Eddie Holland songs, number of the Tops’ Holland-Dozier-Holland written hits such as “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Bernadette,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” and “Ask the Lonely,” will be included as well.

Musical films and plays on Motown topics have been rolling out for years now, since the first iteration of “Dreamgirls” (1981), loosely based on the Supremes; Motown boss Berry Gordy’s “Motown: The Musical,” which premiered on Broadway in 2013; and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Temptations Story,” which opened there in 2019.

Producer Paul Lambert says their show won’t be a jukebox musical. “A lot of musicals get into the talking and the dialogue, and just shoehorn the music in. I think the Temptations musical did it very nicely, the way they blended it all together,” he said.

As for the music, to replicate the funky yet majestic Motown Sound, Fakir and the producers gathered some of the old Detroit musical gang. Along with the Holland brothers, arrangers Paul Riser, McKinley Jackson and HB Barnum are on board.

“In the musical, I am trying to re-create our young sound,” said Fakir, an executive producer. He knows what he wants from the singers. “The young singers (who will be cast), they can’t turn them notes too often,” Duke said, laughing. “They have to do the straight melody. There’s some young guys out there who are willing to do that. “

The Motown Sound was a big one. “Three guitarists — Robert White, Joe Messina and Eddie Willis,” said McKinley Jackson. “Sometimes two bassists, sometimes two drummers. We’re probably the best group of people to get a close facsimile of it.” Jackson was a student at Northern High School when he first played a Motown session, “Ooh Baby Baby” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, in 1965.

“Norman Whitfield was on the floor (producing), Paul Riser was arranging, and on trombone there was Don White, Bob Cousar and myself,” he recalled. Later, under Riser’s tutelage, he became an arranger. Such a big sound may be hard to replicate, but “It’ll be the best it can be,” Jackson said.

The nattily dressed Duke, who always kept the Tops looking sharp, will also keep an eye on the costumes.

Auditions for the cast, to play not only the Four Tops, but also the Supremes, Gordy and other Motown greats, will be held in numerous cities after the first of the year, including Detroit. Those auditions will be the most exciting part of the process for Fakir. “I can’t wait, listening to all the entries and picking singers. But mostly listening for the Tops. In this musical every Top has solos, even Duke!”

Fakir of course was the soaring first tenor, his voice in the background blending with the Andantes, Motown’s female backing group. Levi Stubbs’ gritty, emotional baritone was out in front.

Stubbs was a baritone, but the Holland brothers famously had him reaching way up, beyond that.

Eddie Holland, who was a singer before turning to songwriting (His estimable “Jamie” was a local hit on Motown in 1962), always loved Stubbs’ voice. But he confessed to Duke recently that there was always a slight friction between him and Levi.

“Duke said, ‘I knew it,’” Eddie Holland said. “He said it’s because of what you did, you drove him harder than he had been pushed before.”

It wasn’t just that the pop-R&B songs they wrote were different from the mainstream standards the Tops were used to singing. It was the key.

“Levi would complain all the time about us putting these songs in a higher key,” Eddie said. “It was my brother (Brian). He can hear certain harmonics in these songs, he wanted it to be brought out in a certain key because of the instrumentation. The only thing I did was keep driving it. I was a second tenor and Levi was a baritone with very good range, even tenor range. He did it well! He would give me these little looks in the studio, but I would ignore it. I never told anybody, but Duke knew.”

Duke also knew that Stubbs appreciated what the Hollands were going for.

“Levi got tired of them having him sing at the top of his voice all the time, but he said, ‘They make me sound good, so I’m gonna keep on going.’” Duke recalled. “He had the range of a tenor, he just had a baritone type of voice. Levi hit a note on a record one time that would be hard for me to hit, and I’m a first tenor.”

While “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas kicked off Holland-Dozier-Holland’s run on the charts, and they made stars of the Supremes in 1964, the Holland brothers have a special bond with the Four Tops.

“The music that we did on the Four Tops was more significant to our lives and our creativity and our development than the music we did for anyone else,” said Eddie Holland.

The Tops were older, an established group, having recorded for Chess as the Four Aims, when they were brought to Motown by the brash, confident A&R director Mickey Stevenson. He’d first seen them perform at the Warfield Theater in Detroit in the ‘50s, “dressed like Billy Eckstine, cocoa brown suits and cocoa brown shoes. When they started singing, it was incredible to me. It went from blues to jazz and R&B, all in one song.”  

Stevenson had coaxed them for months, and finally talked them into coming to Motown to sign contracts. But then he had to deal with the always-skeptical Berry Gordy.

“Berry said “’Another male group? We got enough singers,’” Stevenson said. “I said ‘Hold it, Berry.’ Then I said to the guys, ‘Sing a song, I don’t care what you sing, just sing.’ They did — and there was Levi’s voice — I just loved it! And Duke’s voice, way up there in the sky — they were tied together vocally, those guys. All the producers ran to their rooms. When the producers ran to their rooms, that meant only one thing--they were going to get their songs.

“Berry just looked at me and walked away,” Stevenson said, chortling.

Over the years, the boss became one of the Four Tops’ biggest fans. Four months ago, Gordy revealed to Eddie what his favorite Motown song was — “Bernadette” by the Four Tops (written by the Holland brothers and Lamont Dozier).

“Berry said, ‘Not only because of the lyrics, the lyrics were good too, but the track!’” Eddie said. “He was talking about the production, the chord changes. Brian, that’s his specialty. Those types of expansive chords, he’s a master of that.

“Berry even called his housekeeper in, and said, ‘You tell Eddie, what’s my favorite song? I’m singing that song every day.’ “

In a poetic coincidence,   Fakir recalled his last conversation with an old friend from Detroit’s north end, Aretha Franklin, before her death in August 2018.

Duke would call Aretha and reminisce, even when she wasn’t able to respond.

“I just talked to her, and I was bringing back good memories, telling her to keep fighting, and you know what she said? She whispered ‘Bernadette.’ That’s the last thing she said to me.”

At 85, Fakir can’t help but see the big picture.

Duke Fakir of The Four Tops

“It’s all about love,” he mused. “That’s what the musical is about, all the different kinds of love. I think people will enjoy that. Love and togetherness. Love in different generations, with different kind of people. Personal love, family love… it’s just full of love and I’m happy with that. We tried to expand it, put beautiful music behind it and tell those beautiful stories in a way that will entice.”

Susan Whitall is the author of "Women of Motown" and several other books. She can be reached at susanwhitall.com