1: In 1967, ‘The Four Tops Greatest Hits’ became the first Motown album to reach No 1 in Britain. Who did you replace at the top of the chart?
“I don’t know who that is. I wish I did!”
WRONG. You knocked the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band off the top spot!
“Oh wow! That’s phenomenal! But they probably had a long run and it was time for a new number one. That little piece of information did not get to me. Sorry!”
The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was instrumental in helping the Four Tops break the UK…
“He brought us over for a promotional tour. On the last night, before we went onstage, he said: ‘Fellas, if you can give me the best show you’ve ever done, I guarantee I will make you as big here in the UK as my Beatles are in the USA’. That made us feel us great and, guess what? We went out and did the best show we could at the time. We had many standing ovations. He came back and said: ‘You’ve done it! Now watch what happens’. Sure enough, when we came over for the tour, we were front page news in the UK. After the tour, he gave a party at his townhouse attended by Small Faces, The Who, The Rolling Stones, the Beatles and many others. We were treated like princes! I remember Paul McCartney asking questions about ‘It’s the Same Old Song’. The party was extremely wonderful! On the first floor, it was wine drinking and some whisky. On the second floor, it was a little heavier with maybe some drugs. There was a third floor – but I didn’t make it that far!”
2: Which rapper sampled ‘7-Rooms of Gloom’ last year?
“Oh yeah! There were two rappers that did it. Lemme think of the name! My nowadays memory is pretty bad – if you asked me questions from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, I’d be pretty good at those! He was a very popular rapper. It’s on the tip of the tongue.”
WRONG. It was Kanye West feat. T.I. on ‘Ye vs the People’.
“Aaggghh, how could I forget that?! I don’t listen to rap but my kids do – it’s their generation of music. Kanye’s his own kind of guy. He doesn’t conform to anybody or anything. So you know, I just look at him as hopefully a wonderful husband and father.”
You were discouraged from being as outspoken in Motown and put through charm school…
“It was a totally different industry. Motown was breaking through and we wanted the public to know that were good people. It was helping civil rights a lot because our music was seeping into people’s houses which wouldn’t have it in there before. We were showing people we were clean-cut, serious and professional. Motown wanted to make the impression of good strong Americans singing our type of music, so we were taught how to talk and dress well.”
3: Who drummed on the track ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’?
“That might have been Stevie [Wonder]?”
“Yeah, ‘cos that song was written by him. In fact, I’ve gotta call him. He’s supposed to write a song for us for this new album that we’re working on. Stevie is really a wonder to me! (Laughs) He’s so gifted.”
What’s your favourite memory of him?
“One day in the studio, he tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘I heard The Supremes are coming this morning. You know, I really like that Flo [Florence Ballard]. Can you do me a favour? When she’s coming up the steps, tell me what she’s wearing. I’m gonna play a joke on her’. So I looked out the window and said: ‘Stevie, she’s got on this beautiful red and white dress with a nice rose in her hair with patent leather red shoes’. He said: ‘Thank you Duke, I got it!’. When she came in, he said: ‘Ooh Flo! That red and white dress you’ve got on is so cute! And I love that rose in your hair!’, and convinced her that he could miraculously see. Everybody just burst out laughing! He was a prankster!”
4: Which hit song penned by the Four Tops member Obie Benson did the band turn down the chance to record?
“Mmmmn, uh, it might have been ‘What’s Going On’.
CORRECT. Which ended up recorded by Marvin Gaye.
“It wasn’t our type of song. It was as simple as that. I wish we had done it! But it was perfect for Marvin. You can’t win ‘em all!”
That song was inspired by police brutality and civil unrest – which you witnessed plenty of. When touring the Deep South, the Motown Revue had played to segregated audiences and the artists carried guns because of the climate…
“It was scary. When I first went to Atlanta, I had a gun put to my head – this is before Motown – because I’d got off the greyhound bus and went into the white waiting room, because I didn’t know there was a separate one. As soon as I went in there, the sheriff put his gun to my head, used the N-word and said ‘Get out of here!’. I was so shocked, I froze. And a little old lady said: ‘Please son go down the hall to the coloured waiting room’. We had incidents but for the cause we were trying to achieve, we’d overlook them. A lot of us artists carried guns in our luggage. One night, the highway patrol stopped us and took us through the woods – that’s when everyone got really scared because we thought we were going to a lynching party (Dry laugh). But it was just a judge’s house that was deep in the woods in Georgia. But that was back when our country was young and we’re proud Motown helped break down racial barriers.”
5: Which pop star covered a snippet of ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)’ on her 1987 ‘Who’s That Girl’ world tour?
“Hmmmmn….I know it was covered by a male who wore white suits. It was covered by quite a few people. So tell me who – I missed that one too!”
WRONG. It was Madonna.
“Oh wow! I didn’t know that! Well, that’s great!”
You’ve worked with many iconic musical queens over the year. The Four Tops sang back-up for The Supremes. What was Diana Ross like?
“When we first met her, she was this sweet young girl with a lovely pretty voice. We were all surprised when Mary [Wilson, Supremes member] told us that she thought Diana Ross was going to leave the group. She changed and grew up real quick when they had their first couple of hits and she became very close with Berry Gordy, and then she became standoffish. No artist at Motown was happy with her leaving the group – we felt it was a betrayal.”
And the Four Tops toured and recorded with Aretha Franklin several times over the decades…
“She used to call us her brothers. We even sang the Stevie [Wonder] song ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ at one of her weddings. We were very close. During her last days, we talked on the phone a lot. She’d call me and we’d talk about how we were two of the ones still left and how wonderful life has been for us. And how happy she was. She was not sad when she was leaving – she knew it was her time and had prepared herself. Every time we talked, we had tears in our eyes. I told her there were so many people praying for her – she said ‘Yes I know. I can feel it’.”
6: What are you wearing in a 1986 Sun Country Wine Cooler commercial?
“Oh! We were wearing bear outfits and then we finally took the heads off at the end! That was a fun commercial. I remember that. Yes indeedy!”
7: What fruit appears on the record cover of ‘Loco in Acapulco’?
“We still perform that song quite a lot. We open with it sometimes, but I can’t remember there being a fruit on the cover!”
WRONG. It’s pineapples.
“Pineapples?! Okay! Phil Collins sings on the record and wrote it with Lamont Dozier [one third of Motown songwriting team Holland–Dozier–Holland] and we were elated. It was a massive record in the UK. It has such a nice groove!”
8: Who once came to you in a dream?
“My three brothers [original Four Tops members] after they had passed.”
“It was the night before Levi [Stubbs, Four Tops lead singer]’s funeral in 2008. They all came to me in my dream and said: ‘Just tell the folks thank you! We didn’t get a chance’ – which I did. I’ve spoke to them many times in my dreams. Sometimes onstage, you can feel their presence. Me and Lawrence Jr. [son of deceased original member Lawrence Payton, who now sings in the band] have those experiences every now and again. It’s almost like a spiritual thing. They’re very close to us nowadays still. I can feel them saying ‘Hey thanks man for keeping the legacy going’. That’s how close we really were and it seems like we’re still close even after they’re gone.”
9: Who did you present the Best International Male award to at the 1989 Brits?
“Aggghh! Well, I can’t even begin to remember! Who was that?”
WRONG. It was Michael Jackson.
“Oh! I should have remembered that. I remember the first time we heard Michael, Levi and I looked at each other and he exclaimed: ‘Man! That six year old sounds like a young man! What a soul he has!’ We kept looking at him thinking ‘Wow, he’s going to be something!’. ‘Little Man’ we called him – ‘cos he was so young and singing like a guy that had been singing for years and years.”
Following the Leaving Neverland documentary, a lot of people have ‘cancelled’ him. Can you still listen to his music and enjoy the memories you have of him or are they now tainted?
“Oh, I certainly can listen to it. I only look at him in a happy light as one of our finest entertainers ever. I’ll always remember the beauty of what he’s done and how he was truly an artist in every sense of the word. That’s how I want to remember him and I don’t let anything else detour that.”
10: What is the name of the man-eating plant that Levi Stubbs voiced in the 1986 film ‘Little Shop of Horrors’?
“Oh shoot! That’s another one I can’t remember!”
WRONG. It’s Audrey II.
The verdict: 4/10
“Oh boy, you got some good questions for me! Whoo! Usually people ask me questions I can answer right away, but you got me on quite a few today young man!”
Four Tops headline Rewind South on Saturday 17 August.