Duke Fakir, lone surviving Four Tops founder, talks Broadway musical: 'It was time to tell the story'

·5 min read

As the Four Tops’ stage musical quietly came together the past two years, producers had their sights set on a Broadway premiere. But Duke Fakir, the group’s lone surviving founder, had his own mission in mind: His love letter to Detroit, he insisted, needed to launch in his hometown.

“I said: 'Look, this is my city. Detroit is my New York. It’s my Hollywood. And that’s where it should be,' ” he recounted. “They deserve it and I want them to love it. I’m working hard and diligently to make an outstanding musical.”

And so “I’ll Be There” — now in preproduction — is now set to premiere in Detroit in fall 2022, ahead of planned runs on Broadway and London’s West End.

“I would feel like a fool premiering it anywhere other than home,” said Fakir, who is eyeing the Fisher Theatre. “This is where it belongs.”

“I’ll Be There” follows hit runs for Berry Gordy’s “Motown: The Musical” (2013) and the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud” (2017), another pair of Detroit-based stories packed with classic songs.

Fakir had pondered a Four Tops musical for some time, but he conceded the ongoing success of the Tony-winning Temptations show “did put a little gas in my tank.” He said the Tempts’ Otis Williams — like Fakir, his group’s only surviving original — has encouraged him in the effort.

After talks with several traditional stage directors, Fakir and his team landed on Aakomon (AJ) Jones, an in-demand film and concert choreographer whose resume includes “Black Panther” and “Dreamgirls.” The Tops musical will be Jones’ first time in the director’s seat, but Fakir said he’s the right choice for a show that’s aiming for cross-generation appeal and 2022 relevance.

“I really felt this should be a young director, but someone who also had the ability to capture the color of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he said.

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Duke Fakir (second from right) with "I'll Be There" producer Michael Swanson, director Aakomon (AJ) Jones and producer Paul Lambert.
Duke Fakir (second from right) with "I'll Be There" producer Michael Swanson, director Aakomon (AJ) Jones and producer Paul Lambert.

Fakir is a co-producer alongside theatrical veteran Paul Lambert and television exec Michael Swanson, senior vice president of production at NBCUniversal. Actress Nancy Stafford (“Matlock”) is associate producer.

Fakir said “I’ll Be There” will chronicle he and his original group mates — Levi Stubbs, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton — from the 1950s through the 2000s; from their high-school origins through their Motown heyday; their years with ABC Records and their time as elder statesmen of R&B.

“It’s how and why the four young gentleman that came together out of the clear blue sky, who could harmonize from the very first moment, became magic,” he said. “And why we stayed together for 44 years.”

Having formed as the Four Aims in 1953, the Tops were relative veterans of the Detroit scene by the time they signed with Motown a decade later, armed with crisp moves and tightly embroidered vocals honed onstage.

The Four Tops in 1967, photographed in Times Square in New York. From left: Levi Stubbs, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson.
The Four Tops in 1967, photographed in Times Square in New York. From left: Levi Stubbs, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson.

After unsuccessful stints at labels such as Chess, the group quickly became one of Motown’s A-list acts, striking gold with songs served up by Holland-Dozier-Holland: “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette.” Towering above all was “Reach Out I’ll Be There” — the epic 1966 hit that inspired the stage musical's title.

The show will be full of that vintage Four Tops work. But in a full-circle move that reunites Fakir with two-thirds of that Motown songwriting trio, it will also feature seven new songs by Eddie and Brian Holland, tailored as storytelling numbers in the show.

Speaking with the Detroit Free Press, a part of the USA TODAY Network, in February before the musical was announced, Eddie Holland said he was galvanized by the script. “We’re excited about it. Duke is excited about it. Brian is excited about it,” he said. “When I read the story, it hit me deeply.”

Duke Fakir of the Four Tops (left) attends a read-through with actors in Los Angeles during preproduction for the Tops' "I'll Be There" musical.
Duke Fakir of the Four Tops (left) attends a read-through with actors in Los Angeles during preproduction for the Tops' "I'll Be There" musical.

Anderson’s script is still being hammered out, but a recent read-through with actors in Los Angeles left Fakir confident he has something promising on his hands.

Key to it all, he said, will be casting. Roles will include Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, as Fakir sets out to tell “our version of what happened at Motown.” But most important will be the Four Tops themselves.

“The singers have to be really, really good. I want them to sound like the young Tops. As youth, we were very talented. As we got older, we got a little slower,” he said. “It’s about good music — and singing good music. We’re going to do it with a flair, and we’re going to tell a good story.”

R&B singing styles have morphed since the Four Tops’ glory days, and Fakir said his musical’s young actors may have to rein in the vocal acrobatics and stick with straighter melodies.

“We’re not going to get too slick, but we do want it to be beautiful,” he said. “We’ve got some different zones to cover.”

For 85-year-old Fakir, the pandemic provided a rare break from the road (“I almost felt retired,” he said), though he started to get restless after several months. He and his current Tops lineup recently returned to the touring circuit, back at full speed.

Duke Fakir of the Four Tops (center) poses with L.A. actors and writer Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, who penned the script for the Tops' musical, "I'll Be There."
Duke Fakir of the Four Tops (center) poses with L.A. actors and writer Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, who penned the script for the Tops' musical, "I'll Be There."

Between the musical and the biography, Fakir has found himself in a reflective space.

“It was time to tell the story,” Fakir said, citing his advancing years. “Pretty soon, you’re going to start forgetting stuff you should remember. So I didn’t want to wait any more. Original Four Tops fans won’t be around if I wait much longer.”

But the new projects aren’t merely a nostalgic exercise. In a seven-decade career that has included more than its share of high points, the work has recharged Fakir’s creative batteries.

“I feel like a young man with a brand-new dream that’s coming true,” he said. “It feels great, it really does. I feel like I’m really back in the business. When you’re doing something that’s truly fresh, the excitement comes back.”

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Duke Fakir, Four Tops founder, talks Broadway musical premiere