Thursday, October 30, 2008

Levi Stubbs, lead singer of legendary Motown band The Four Tops, has died at his home in Detroit, aged 72.

To measure the man solely by his golden, powerful and gut-wrenching voice would be a discredit to Levi Stubbs, who died October 17, 2008 at 72. Although his voice is undeniably among the great ones of his time, Stubbs' heart and character far exceeded any simple measurement of vocal talent.

The performer, who had suffered ill-health for several years, passed away in his sleep.
In 1963, with the beginning of Motown, Levi's voice catapulted the Four Tops to heights we had never dreamed of, with such hits as "Baby I Need Your Loving," "Reach Out," "Bernadette," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" and many more.

He hadn't performed since 2000. First cancer, then a stroke. Still, the announcement brought numbing sadness, then, surprisingly, a few tears.

The Tops found fame recording for Motown Records.

Part of the Tops' success were the vocal contributions of the late Lawrence Payton, the late Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Abdul "Duke" Fakir, all personable and inventive harmony singers.

But it was Stubbs' raw, disarmingly emotive delivery, mined from the shadows of love, that contrasted with the smooth Motown way. You could hear his heart and feel his pleading cries for understanding in every note he sang. Stubbs' ability to transform mere song into believeable humanity made the Tops special.

It certainly wasn't the group's dancing -- eight left feet and one spectacular voice.

There was nothing false about Stubbs. You could hear it in the unforgettable way he owned a song, exploring expressions of heart and soul until each song became a vital presentation, a pure and relatable distillation of the human experience.

When Billy Bragg, a British singer-songwriter, wrote a song called "Levi Stubbs' Tears," this is to what he was referring.

But for me, the genius of Stubbs' talent, the gamut of building tension toward unbridled, all-encompassing resolution, will forever be best conveyed by one word in one song.


The song was released in 1967, and it defies the wear and tear of time. It was tailored for Stubbs by Edward Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland, a Motown songwriting and production team. It never gets old. It never sounds old.

"Bernadette," contains The Moment -- Stubbs' utterance of three syllables that make up one of the most impassioned and almost operatically dramatic moments in soul music.

To these ears, it's the quintessential definition of soul.

It comes exactly 2 minutes, 44 seconds into the song. It lasts one second. The band, the Funk Brothers, has already built a repetitive groove -- part loping bass line, part stabbing instrumentation. Stubbs' has delivered a litany of considered emotional proclamations and philosophical summations -- declarations that border on obsession -- to Bernadette, the object of his devotion.

"In your arms, I find the kind of peace of mind the world is searching for," Stubbs sings. "But you, you give me the joy this heart of mine has always been longing for."

Stubbs speaks for all men in love, and he does so with a fearless vulnerability and raw passion that far too many men would never allow their loved one to see.

"Bernadette, I want you because I need you to live."

That phrase, early in the second verse, is when a standard love song hints at desperation, and in turn, brings an added twist of suspense.

The song progresses to The Moment, the band slowly building in intensity, the arrangement becoming almost unnoticeably more complex. Stubbs in turn starts to pepper his expressions of love with an undercurrent of desperation, even fear that borders on paranoia -- equal parts pleading and bravado.

"Some other men, they long to control you. But how can they control you, Bernadette, when they cannot control themselves, Bernadette, from wanting you, needing you?"

"But darling, you belong to me

The music suddenly stops, not a climax, but intensity teetering on the brink. Silence. Stubbs is running at emotional overload. Then it floods out -- his obsessive love, his insecurity, his seductive logic, his paranoia, his tears -- in one desperate shout: "BERNADETTE."

It makes the soul spin.

In one word, Stubbs reaches into heart and soul and loosens, with the sort of honesty that almost makes you squirm, an explosion of fervent passion, pride, gratitude -- and fear.

It still sends shivers down my spine and takes my breath away.

In this song, Levi Stubb's tears will forever fall, a salty blue river of deep soul and love, never to be forgotten, never to be equaled.

If all Stubbs ever wanted was to be loved, well, he got his wish.

Truthfully, the name, Levi Stubbs, held little emotional weight for me, until now. After going back to the record, it’s painfully clear just how much Mr. Stubbs was the Four Tops. It’s his voice booming out of every track, crooning a new romance or lamenting lost love.

Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is the new favorite. It’s a Motown masterpiece, a driving devotional —and Mr. Stubbs is transcendent. His voice supplies the soul in immaculate four-way harmonies, and his flourishes—invocations to a little tenderness—seem at once utterly spontaneous but perfectly timed. I listened to both sides of the album and tried hard to remember what the Four Tops looked like on stage, because I had learned from the obituary we were among the last lucky few to see Mr. Stubbs on stage. Illness kept him from performing after 2000.

Abdul Fakir is the only surviving original member of the group, which has sold more than 50 million records.

The Detroit band became one of Motown Records' biggest successe.

Founding members Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson died in 1997 and 2005 respectively.

Audley Smith, of the Motown Historical Museum, said that Levi Stubbs had a voice as unique as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson or Stevie Wonder.

"[He] fits right up there with all the icons of Motown," he said.

Levi Stubbs was born in 1936 in Detroit and met Abdul "Duke" Fakir at High School.

The Four Tops were one of Motown's biggest successes

They met Payton and Benson while singing at a mutual friend's birthday party.

In 1953, they formed a group called The Four Aims and signed a deal with Chess Records.

Later they changed their names to the Four Tops to avoid being confused with the Ames Brothers.

The group signed with Motown Records in 1963 and produced 20 Top-40 hits over the following 10 years, making music history with other acts in Berry Gordy's Motown stable.

They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Motown has a way of popping up in the most memorable places. I remember Sam Cooke because mom used to play his CD while she cooked; The Temptations because they played during a car-ride to a hospital where a friend nearly died; Marvin Gaye because another friend always starts singing “Sexual Healing” at parties.

Regrettably, Cooke and Gaye— and Otis Redding and James Brown—and now Mr. Stubbs, too, have all passed away. In the truest sense, though, their music still means something, still brings people together and evokes powerful pathos. For them, it’s like that line Mr. Stubbs first sang in 1965: “It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you’ve been gone.

Stubbs is survived by his wife Clineice, five children and 11 grandchildren.

More than a sense of grief, Mr. Stubbs’ death reminded me of how important it is for us to celebrate and preserve the rich, eclectic and incredibly creative history of black American music.

Every time one of our musical greats of yesteryear goes on to glory, we lose a corporeal link to our artistic past. Fortunately, their recordings live on and the music that touched us back in the day is just waiting to groove present and future generations. Great music remains great – relevant, exciting, provocative and fun -- no matter how many decades or trends come and go. I defy anyone, of any age, to listen to Levi Stubbs’ soaring voice on Four Tops classics like “Just Ask the Lonely,” “Baby I Need Your Loving” or “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” and not feel a charge down in your soul.

So, if you aren’t doing so already, pull out your old records, tapes and CDs and play them around the house and in the car for your kids. Make sure their iPods have plenty of music from Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Chess, Philly International, Solar, Blue Note and the other legendary labels. You’ll be educating the youngsters and keeping the legacy alive. And don’t be surprised if you find yourselves dancing around the living room!

Levi said:
Live it down;
There’s a lot of us been pushed around;
Red, yellow, black, white and brown;
With a tear of their own;
Can’t you see while you’re pickin’ on society;
That the leaves on your family tree;
Are calling you to come home .
You’re the keeper of the Castle.
So be a father to your children.
The provider of all their daily needs.
Like a sovereign lord protector.
Be their destiny’s director.
And they’ll do well to follow where you lead.
Keeper of the Castle”--The Four Tops



Blogger ichbinalj said...

Smokey Robinson said: "He will always be here."
Thus Smokey Robinson paid tribute to Levi Stubbs at a funeral service for the Four Tops singer in Detroit. "You're going to turn on the radio and hear him tomorrow. He made his mark on the world. . . . you'll be able to hear Levi Stubbs forever."

6:39 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

The Reverend Jesse said: "You just do not find an Aretha Franklin," Jackson said. "You don't find a Marvin Gaye. You don't find a Smokey Robinson. You don't find a Levi Stubbs. They don't come in bunches like grapes. They are rare pearls."

6:41 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

Levi said: Live it down;
There’s a lot of us been pushed around;
Red, yellow, black, white and brown;
With a tear of their own;
Can’t you see while you’re pickin’ on society;
That the leaves on your family tree;
Are calling you to come home . You’re the keeper of the Castle.
So be a father to your children. The provider of all their daily needs.
Like a sovereign lord protector. Be their destiny’s director.
And they’ll do well to follow where you lead.
“Keeper of the Castle”--The Four Tops

6:44 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

Aretha Franklin is the greatest singer in Rock n' Roll era, acccording to a new Rolling Stone magazine poll.

She's already the Queen of Soul, but now Aretha Franklin has been named the greatest singer of the rock era in a poll conducted by Rolling Stone magazine.

Franklin, 66, came in ahead of Ray Charles at No. 2, Elvis Presley at No. 3, Sam Cooke at No. 4 and John Lennon at No. 5, according to the magazine's survey of 179 musicians, producers, Rolling Stone editors, and other music-industry insiders.

The 100-strong list will be published on Friday 14 November 2008, when Rolling Stone hits the newsstands with four different covers. (11/11/2008 Reuters)

1:04 PM  

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