October 17, 2008

Levi Stubbs, R.I.P.

Can an interpreter be a great artist? I have no doubt that the answer is yes when I note with great sorrow the death of Levi Stubbs, the lead singer of the Four Tops.

Motown had on its roster phenemonal singers who were also fabulous writer-producers (Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder spring to mind) and writer-performers (Michael Jackson), but no one had a better voice than Levi Stubbs, and no group sang better live than the Four Tops.

The Four Tops output was subject to the vagaries of Motown. Perhaps because they weren't the dancers that the Temptations were, and perceived as less sexy, the Tops were never the marquee act at Motown, even during their commercial peak, with hits like Reach Out, I'll Be There, It's the Same Old Song, etc.

The other three tops sang like angels, and could sound like a woman's choir (from the evidence of live performances I've caught, maybe there weren't female voices among the background singers on Bernadette). But even amidst the brilliance of Renaldo 'Obie' Benson, Abdul 'Duke' Fakir and Lawrence Payton, Stubbs stood out. I saw the Four Tops in London in 1972 right after Stubbs broke his leg. He came on stage on crutches, and couldn't execute the classic choreography to I Can't Help Myself and his other hits, but it barely mattered. Stubbs dominated anyway.

Here are a couple of my favorite Stubbs performances. As I think about them, it occurs to me that the Tops, always seemed older than their real age (it's hard to believe that this mature performer is in his mid-20s). This is the first Tops song I ever heard, and it was their first big hit: Baby, I Need Your Lovin'

And here's my favorite Stubbs' vocal, albeit with horrible sound (you can find more pristine versions on You Tube with static images)

Critic Dave Marsh just wrote this obituary, and he captures the Four Tops and Stubbs so well:


SOMETHING ABOUT YOU…When I was 15, I met the Four Tops on a downtown Detroit street, where they were doing a photo shoot with the Supremes. The group—especially Duke Fakir—were extraordinarily kind to a trio of white kids totally out of their element. I love the Four Tops for that, but I would have loved them anyway. They are the voice of adolescent angst and adult heartbreak, the pure, the absolute joy that humans can take in one another. Call them love songs –I’d say it was more like lifelines—but call them silly and you’ve branded yourself as a fool.

Phil Spector once said that “Bernadette” was a black man singing Bob Dylan. The name of that black man was Levi Stubbs. And for those of you who are Bruce Springsteen fans, go find the Tops greatest album, The Four Tops Second Album, and listen to “Love Feels Like Fire” and “Helpless,” two of my alltime Motown tracks (and they weren’t even singles). You’ll feel the same thing. Those crazed sax breaks are as close to free jazz as Motown ever let itself come, and they got away with it there solely because the Tops were such a perfect machine with the most powerful voice of its time at the fore. I could never figure out whether Levi was the toughest or the tenderest singer at Motown, so I finally accepted that he was both.

Yeah, a lot of the Tops is formula Holland Dozier Holland. Sometimes even I think it’s the Supremes when the intro to “It’s the Same Old Song” or “Something About You” comes on. So what? To begin with, HDH created the greatest formula in the history of rock and soul. Now: Go listen again to “Reach Out” and see if you can think of a Supremes record that could grab you in the gut that way. It’s the “Like a Rolling Stone” of soul—with a flute and hand percussion leading the way! The group always got Eddie Holland’s greatest lyrics (and he the most under-rated lyricist of the ‘60s) and that’s one.

They got those songs because Levi could sing the most impossible stuff. Any other soul singer I know would have insisted on editing. The great, long, image rich lines in “Bermandette” and “Ask the Lonely” were too long, that they needed more space to really sing. Not Levi. He charged into those words and wrestled everything out of them, and somehow, he sounded graceful as he did. “Loving you has made my life sweeter than ever” is so multisyllabic that they had to shorten it for the title: “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” fit the label better, I guess.

The Tops got away with that as a group because they knew how to work with such vocal intricacy. By the time they had their first Motown hit they’d already been together for ten years. Duke told me recently that their earlier sojourn at Columbia Records in the late ‘50s came after a brief appearance at the Apollo. The talent scout who signed them was John Hammond—the same guy who found Bob, Bruce, and Aretha. That’s the company the Four Tops, and Levi Stubbs, in particular belong in. Who else could turn “Walk Away Renee” into soul music? Who else could get away with “7 Rooms of Gloom” as a love song without a hint of irony, let alone comedy?

I will testify. Levi and the Tops were among the graces of my own soul. When I get nervous before an interview, I always remember how kind those guys were to that 15 year old kid, and I feel beyond harm. When I listen to “The Same Old Song,” I remember once again the sweetness of sour. “Bernadette” calls to my mind the futility of believing you’re in control, and how easy it is to confuse passion with obsession. “Reach Out” is simply as colossal an extravaganza as rock and soul music have ever produced, as monumental in its way as “Like a Rolling Stone.” The focal point of all that musical gingerbread and the mighty Funk Brothers is not the group—it’s one man, Levi Stubbs, pushed not to his limit but way past it. But there’s not a hint—not a second—where Levi Stubbs sounds like anything but a guy from down the street, across the way or in your mirror. Imagine a Pavarotti on the corner. There he is. All of it helped, somehow, make my own life possible.

This is no case of “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over).” Levi Stubbs was 72 years old. He hadn’t been in good health for several years. This isn’t Marvin Gaye or David Ruffin or Tammi Terrell. This is a man who made his full contribution to our culture, our lives. That doesn’t make it all that much easier to hear the word.

At the Tops’ golden anniversary show in Detroit several years ago, he sang from a wheelchair. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” his friend and attorney, Judy Tint, told me this afternoon.

Ain’t any in this house today, either.--Dave Marsh