Levi Stubbs, RIP

The Four Tops came up together singing in Detroit in the 1950’s and stuck together through feast and famine. When Berry Gordy signed them to Motown and teamed them up with the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team — Lamont Dozier recalled idolizing the Four Tops in the late fifties, when their style veered between rhythm-and-blues and placid vocal harmony — they reeled off hits nonstop for four years. At the center of the productions was the emotive voice of Levi Stubbs.

Stubb’s voice proved not only the vehicle for the chain of hits, but also an impetus to the creativity of the H-D-H team. H-D-H fell “in love with Stubb’s rough-hewn, melodramatic lead voice,” writes Nelson George in Where Did Our Love Go?, and built records like “Baby I Need Your Lovin'” (number 11 in 1964) “I Can’t Help Myself” (number one in 1965) and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” (number one in 1966) around it.

We saw the Tops perform on a double bill with the then-current version of the Tempatations in the old Calton Celebrity Room in Bloomington, Minnesota in 1984 or so. The Tops looked and sounded great. In the video above they perform “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I Got” (number 4 in 1973), showing off the skills of each of the group’s members.

The stability of the Tops as a group seems to have carried over to Stubbs’s personal life. He stopped performing in 2000 after a series of strokes and died at home in Detroit yesterday with his wife (Clineice) of nearly 50 years at his side. They’d been married since 1960. Michelle Maynard’s New York Times obituary of Stubbs neatly sums up his life and career.

After Stubbs died yesterday morning Karen Grigsby Bates recalled on NPR the time a few years ago when Aretha Franklin arranged to have Stubbs brought onstage at a concert in Detroit. They sang “I Believe In You And Me.” The effects of Stubbs’s stroke were apparent; the surviving Tops wheeled Stubbs onstage and mopped his brow. “He was emotional and halting at first,” Bates observes, “but in the end, the notes came out softly, but faultlessly.”

Bates adds: “Watching it on YouTube, I could only think of one of the Four Tops’ classic hits: ‘It’s the same old song, but with a different feeling since you’ve been gone.'” RIP.

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