Theo Peoples, former lead vocalist for The Temptations and the Four Tops, joins Dr. Vanessa Weaver, CEO of Alignment Strategies, to speak about his pathway to success. Peoples’ shares how unjust experiences can manifest itself in varying ways and advice on how the youth today can be successful in today’s music industry. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation.
Peoples: I got started doing music at my father’s church. My parents got me lessons when I was 8 and I used to play “The Lord’s Prayer,” but I didn’t know how to play well. I struggled through the piano part of “The Lord’s Prayer” and then I would run outside and start crying. My father kept pushing me, “You can do it, son.” I developed the courage that I needed to do what I do now. I did not like my father back then, but now I love, respect, and cherish him for pushing me to that point. Now I see what he was trying to do for me. I didn’t start singing until I was 19 years old. I didn’t even know I could sing.
Weaver: How did you get to The Temptations and then the Four Tops?
Peoples: My first professional music job was at a piano bar, a five-star restaurant, called the Seventh Inn. The church had mixed emotions about me playing for the five-star restaurant and the church. They said, “You can’t play for the devil and for God.” I said, “The devil pays more money. If you could pay me what the devil’s paying, then I’ll play for the church.”
I got kicked out of the church. God gave me this gift and I feel that there’s no reason why I cannot use it to provide for my family.
The Temptations were doing the private function in St. Louis and they were staying at the same hotel where I was performing. One of the members came downstairs to the lounge. He heard me singing and playing. He said, “You’ve got the potential to be one of The Temptations.” Six months later, Otis Williams calls and offers me a job to sing with The Temptations. And it was so exciting for me.
At that time, my wife and I were dating. She was happy for me, but she thought that I was never going to see her again. And here 27 years later, we’re still together.
Weaver: What happened to you to go from The Temptations to the Four Tops?
Peoples: I got overzealous with the excitement of being a Temptation. I took advantage of the drugs, the women, the lifestyle. If you have any weaknesses, the road will bring it out. Inevitably, I missed a curtain call and I was let go. But The Temps and the Tops were performing together all over the world; traveling as a group. When the Four Tops heard that The Temptations were letting me go, Duke and Obie said, “We want you to get yourself together, Theo, and we’re going to give you six to eight months to do your rehab treatment. And then we’re going to call you.
Weaver: You’re at the top of your career with The Temptations and you’re let go. How did you handle that?
Peoples: At first, it was embarrassing, and I had to own up to my actions. I had to assess my life and realized I had lost the spiritual part of my life. I had let all that go and was doing what I wanted to do instead of having some type of structure and discipline, like I was taught.
So, I had to go to in-patient rehab for 90 days.
Shortly after that, one of the Four Tops reached out to me to check to see how I was doing. First, they called Otis to make sure that The Temptations were not going to hire me back. After that, I get a call from Otis, offering me a retainer’s fee. But he didn’t know that Duke had already offered me the job. I ended up turning down his retainer’s fee because what the Four Tops offered me was per show. What The Temptations was paying me was per week. That was a no brainer for me. At that point, I became a member of the Four Tops.
Weaver: You did the work that you wanted and needed to do and now you were with the Four Tops. How was that?
Peoples: When I did my first show, I went to The Temptations’ dressing room to say hi to everybody. Someone said, “Uh-oh, we got an enemy in the camp.” It felt strange for me to be on another team on the same stage with a group that I used to work with and here I am with the group that we used to compete against. Overall, Otis and The Temps were happy that I had gotten myself together. They were really looking out for my welfare. We are still friends to this day.
Weaver: You didn’t start as the lead of the Four Tops?
Peoples: No. I sang background for the Four Tops for about two or three years.
One day, we were on our way to Las Vegas and Levi Stubbs, the lead vocalist, was struggling with his health. On the sixth night of the Vegas show, he blindsided us and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been performing for you for over 47 years. And no one knows this yet, but this will be my last show. Allow me to introduce to you: Theo Peoples!” At that point he had passed the torch to me. And I sang with them for 12 years.
Weaver: Theo, have you experienced racial discrimination?
Peoples: I’ve had one instance with the Four Tops where I’ve had a discriminatory issue. And it wasn’t with the group at all.
It was at a golf course in Florida. A friend of mine named Scott Tolley is Jack Nicholas’ right-hand man. They designed golf courses all over the world and Scott told me, “Any Jack Nicholas golf course that you want to play, give me a call and I’ll set it for you.” We were in Florida for a three-day weekend at the same venue and Scott sets up a round of golf for us at this very nice country club.
My friend and I got up to the gate, there was an old white man there and he said, “What are you gentlemen here for?”
I said, “Sir, we have a tee time.” So, he picks up the phone and calls to the pro shop. Sure enough, we have a tee time. He did not want to let us into that gate, but he did. We got to the pro shop, no one was in the pro shop.
“Is anybody here?” I yelled that at the top of my lungs. This little kid comes out and he’s shaking. You could tell that he was put in this position to help us because whoever the person was that ran that shop didn’t want to deal with us because of the color of our skin.
As we were teeing off, my friend looked behind us and he said, “Look at the audience of people.” It was like everybody came out of the clubhouse to watch these two black guys tee off. And that night at the show, Scott Tolley came to the show. He asked me about the course. I said, “Scott, I love the course, but I didn’t feel well received.”
He said, “If you are here tomorrow, do me a favor. Go back.” We went back to the golf course the next day. The guy at the gate was fired. The person at the golf course who was the general manger, gave us free t-shirts, hats, balls. When we teed off, he had a cart girl drive with us from hole to hole providing any beverages or food we wanted. That’s why, sometimes you don’t have to say anything, just let go and let God and things will work out. But, you know, I could have acted a fool, but always maintain your dignity.
Weaver: Did you ever talk with Scott about that after the difference with the first visit and the second visit?
Peoples: He told me he made some changes and said “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. And Mr. Nicklaus does not want that for any of his golf courses.” I felt really redeemed at that point.
Weaver: What closing point would you like to make to young people who will want to get into the industry?
Peoples: Don’t let the job become you. It is just a job. When you walk off that stage or whatever part of the industry you’re in, you’re back to being a human being. You don’t need to be spoiled and pampered. It’s a job; leave the ego up on the stage.
For more information: www.VoicesofClassicSoul.com .