ARCHIVES: Tears for Levi Stubbs (1936-2008)

The Four Tops from 1966. From left: Duke Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson. (Associated Press file photo.)

This pre-Franorama World post is from the Fresno Beehive Oct. 17. 2008, 5:45 p.m. PDT:

It’s not totally unexpected news; he had been ill (cancer and strokes) for years. But that doesn’t make the passing of Levi Stubbs this morning any less jolting or less sad.

It’s jolting because of that voice — the voice that launched millions of cranked radios, moved millions more bodies to dance floors, boosted adrenaline levels throughout Young America and provided the balm for thousands of deeply aching hearts. It was a voice that screamed life, not death. (Of course, it was also a voice that screamed “Feed me!” but that’s another story.) As the frontman for The Four Tops, Levi was maybe the most impassioned pop singer of our generations.

Thanks to years of repetition, the usual oldies-radio suspects — “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and “The Same Old Song” — have indeed been ground down into the same old song. But many of the Tops’ hits from their association with the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team have entered timeless territory. “Baby, I Need Your Lovin'” is eternal and smooth and beautiful. “Ask the Lonely” is just as beautiful — and oh, so sweetly and powerfully sad at the same time, as Stubbs convinces you he’s the loneliest one in the world. And “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Bernadette” hit heights of passion and melody that have never been touched in the four decades since. And there was that inimitable teary, descending arc to his voice, the one that prompted Billy Bragg to name-check him in his song “Levi Stubbs’ Tears.” The best example, appropriately enough, is when he sang “And the tears stream down my face” on “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over).”

Stubbs took every song and made it his own, assumed every ounce of emotion being conveyed in the lyrics and poured it out as if he wrote the songs themselves — with all the subtlety of human emotions and all the might of a sledgehammer. That’s soul. And that’s a distinction Michael Bolton, with his unsubtle, Muscle Beach approach to music, never understood. And even their post-heyday hits — “Are You Man Enough,” their versions of “Walk Away, Renee” and “If I Were a Carpenter” — had might to them, those delicate balances between smooth deliveries and raw power.

And The Four Tops were not only testaments to incredible singing, but to patience and to brotherhood. The foursome teamed up in 1953 — when Stubbs and high school friend Duke Fakir met Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson at a birthday party — and performed together, with the same four guys, until Payton’s death in 1997. (Fakir is the lone survivor, as Benson died in 2005, and he carries on with three other singers.) Who stays together 44 years, let alone 44 months? And they worked for 10 years — singing jazz and R&B, playing nightclubs and supper clubs and working with Billy Eckstine — before Berry Gordy signed them to Motown. They didn’t acheieve success until long after other acts would’ve said “I quit.” The good things usually rise to their place; sometimes it just takes longer than one would like.

Stubbs never got nearly the recognition he deserved because, like Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of The Temptations, he was part of an ensemble. But even if you didn’t know his name, you knew his songs and you sang along. And if you were high on life, you played some of their uptempo songs and felt even higher. And if you were down, you put on one of their sad songs and felt at least someone understood.

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