From “Baby I Need Your Lovin” to “Indestructable” his career spanned fifty years and brought us some of the greatest music the Motown Sound ever produced. Last Friday the powerful voice was silenced after a long battle with cancer, but the great music he gave us will last forever. The voice of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,” “Bernadette,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Ain’t No Woman Like The One I Got,” Audry, the man-eating plant in the movie “Little Shop of Horrors” and too many more hit songs to mention in this space died last week after living a full life and bringing musical joy to millions around the world. This icon of music history was Levi Stubbs and he was the lead singer of The Four Tops, or as the marquis on the front of Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis posted it: The Top Voice Levi Stubbs RIP
I first saw the Four Tops in concert in 1969. A friend’s mother had arranged for about eight of us to see Iron Butterfly for her son’s birthday. The concert was to be held at the Merriweather Post Pavillion in Columbia, Maryland, but when rock concerts were canceled because of too much rioting, she exchanged the tickets for The Four Tops concert. We were none too pleased with the substitution, but went along anyway out of politeness and respect for my friend’s birthday. By the second song we were out of our seats dancing to the powerful sound of Levi and the Tops, and eight fourteen year old boys were all hooked.
Over the next thirty years, I saw them perform more than twenty times and I never tired of the experience. Levi brought pure power and raw emotion to every song. He once described himself as more of a stylist than a singer. (As a want-to-be singer myself, let me tell you, the man could really sing.) He believed that you had to “live a song,” and that unless the words really meant something to you, the song would never have the emotion necessary for a great performance. As a fan in the audience you felt the emotion flow from the stage, past the footlights, and reach up into the back row of the audience. Even his recordings seemed to jump out from the speakers and into your soul, because he wasn’t just singing the notes, he was bringing emotional power to every note and beat, and thus bringing the songs to life.
But, Levi wasn’t like other superstars who lost sight of their home, family and friends. When Motown moved to California the Tops stayed in Detroit. Detroit was their home. It was where Levi had been born and raised. It was home to his wife of 45 years and their five children. He never left the group to become a solo act; something he could have easily done. While other opportunities came his way, he stayed the course. Though he was the front man, and clearly the one people came to see, he shared the proceeds from the group’s success equally with the other three members. His gift, and his success did not define his life. He was “grounded.” He knew who he was and he never let the heights of stardom or the depths of the “oldies circuit” change him.
The ability to hold it all in perspective – the money, the ego, the priorities of family and career – made for a well lived life. He solved the simultaneous equation of life in a way that very few others in the spotlight ever seem to manage.
One of my favorite memories is of the night he sang the song “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” (from Little Shop of Horrors) at the Academy awards. With all of Hollywood assembled, and the world watching, it could have been an intimidating experience for any singer, no matter how many hit records they had in their career. But from the moment Levi walked onto the stage he owned the place. He commanded the stage, held the audience in the palm of his hand, and his performance was over-the-top fantastic. It seemed to be just another gig for him and there was no fear or intimidation in him. For Levi Stubbs every performance was an opportunity for him to open himself up and pour forth the great emotional depth of who he was. The congruency of his life, the security in who he was, the ability to be himself in every situation these qualities were the power behind a voice that drove the music deep into your soul and made you long for more.
The last time I saw the Four Tops they were with the Buffalo Symphony. I took my family to share the experience. We had front row seats and I wanted to give my boys a memory they would never forget. There was a point in every show of Levi’s where he would stand alone on the stage and sing, “I Believe In You And Me,” and every time it brought the house down. This night with the symphony behind him it was especially powerful. His voice resonated throughout the great concert hall and from the front row the last row we felt the song because he felt the song. When it was over the entire audience felt a connection that drove us to our feet and made us cheer for more.
In a world where most of us hide our emotions for fear of being perceived as weak, Levi Stubbs put his emotions front and center on every record and every stage every night, and said to the world: “This is who I am, this is what I feel, and I’m stronger because of it.”
The Top Voice: Levi Stubbs RIP
Know Who You Are And Be It