Saturday, October 18, 2008


Levi Stubbs passed away yesterday. A great voice has been silenced.

Levi was the lead singer for the Four Tops, one of the most successful groups of the Motown era. His voice was commanding, plaintive, soulfully emotive. You could hear pain and anguish and just a little hope when he sang; there was no more distinctive voice in his or any era.

He was my favorite male singer of the rock era. (Favorite female rock-era singer: Dusty Springfield. Favorite pre-rock singers: Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald.) I wanted to use the Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" as the recessional music at our wedding (it's the perfect tempo for strolling down the aisle -- plus I love the song), but my wife vetoed it; we settled on a Stevie Wonder tune instead, which was fine, but not a Tops song.

And there were so many great Tops tunes, most written by the premiere songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, all backed up by the pitch-perfect Funk Brothers, and all featuring the gospel shout baritone of Levi Stubbs. Remember them all: "Baby, I Need Your Loving," "It's the Same Old Song," "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)," "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," "Standing in the Shadows of Love," "Bernadette" (with its ground-breaking James Jamerson bass line), and exquisite covers of "If I Were a Carpenter" and "Walk Away Renee." Plus many, many more, classics all, all songs that hold up nearly a half-century later. I can listen to the Tops all day and all night and not tire of them.

(To honor his memory, here's a clip of the Four Tops singing "Baby, I Need Your Loving" from 1965. Enjoy.)

The Tops were unique in that they stayed intact with original members for so long. Levi and Duke and Obie and Lawrence were the Four Tops from 1954 until Lawrence's passing in 1997. The Temps didn't stay intact for near that long (20+ members and still counting), nor did the Supremes. But the Tops were the Tops, musical soul mates from beginning to end.

I had the good fortune of catching the Tops in Las Vegas in the early 1990s. They were on a double-bill with the Four Seasons (Four Tops/Four Seasons -- get it?), and it looked to be a standard Vegas lounge gig. It wasn't. Oh, the Four Seasons were as lame as you can imagine (and even then Frankie Valli couldn't hit the high notes), but the Tops brought the house down. The show was super high energy, nonstop hits, everybody dancing in the aisles and on their seats. It was a joyous noise, propelled by Levi and that voice. There was nothing like it -- and there probably never will be.

It saddens me to see the great performers of my generation getting old and passing on. Isaac Hayes a month or so ago, Levi Stubbs just yesterday, who's next? I don't want to know.

Anyway, here's to Levi Stubbs. I will miss his voice.

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