Saturday, October 18, 2008

Levi Stubbs-The World Loses one of Motown's Soul Masters

Levi Stubbs had a deadly accurate voice, which always found your heart no matter how hard you tried to hide it. What made him unique were the verbal weapons that no one else could master the way he did. Those tiny words that slammed into you with such force, you had to start singing whether you wanted to or not. Words like the staccato “HA!” that appeared in the middle of the musical bridge just before he repeated the chorus of his vocal masterpiece, “I’ll be there.” Another one only he could master was the piercing “GOT” that stabbed in to your soul between the line, “Baby I need your lovin’,” GOT “to have all your lovin’.”

On the other hand Levi owned one of the few voices that could express a broken heart and still remain absolutely masculine. Manly men in the middle of the night with sopping wet eyes closed tightly and headphones clamped to their ears would weep as they mimed his vocal expressions in the dark. Holding anything cylindrical that felt like a microphone, they’d let his voice take over theirs and plead a desperate, “Noooooooo!” in “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” that could only be followed by the confession, “I can’t help myself!”

Stubbs was the 1960s god of all teenaged kids regardless of race, who’d been thrown over by their first unrequited crush. Boys would let only Levi’s voice express their heartbreak, usually in the shower, while pretending three of Motown’s best backup singer/dancers agreed with them because the heartless “Bernadette” left them all alone with their pain, or had condemned them to live in an empty house containing “Seven Rooms of Gloom.” I learned to dance to “It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you’ve been gone.”

Just as easily they could brag convincingly that there, “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I Got.”

Grown men were prone to buy two copies of his vinal ‘45 singles, because they knew they’d wear the first one out playing it over and over and over again. Levi assured them that there was a male strength associated with loving a woman, or mourning her loss to another man.

So it was with great personal loss, that I discovered that Levi Stubbs died Friday October 17, 2008 in his Detroit home at the age of 72. He’d been fighting cancer and the aftereffects of a stroke in 2000 that finally compelled him to stop performing.

The Four Tops began their long career as “The Four Aims,” a cabaret act that played mostly jazz lounges. In 1963 Motown took a gamble in signing them, which paid off immensely for both the group and the record label. The quartet composed of four best friends named Levi Stubbs, Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton hit chart-topping pay dirt after they were put into the capable writing hands of Motown’s “holy trinity” of writers-Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland.

With success and acclaim, Levi was never tempted to follow the vain actions of other lead singers of famous Motown groups like the Supremes or the Miracles, who insisted that their name be plastered in front of his companions, or to callously dump them altogether and go solo. He humbly maintained that whenever he heard their music, he could only imagine it with his three band mates behind him, and that they were as important to his fame as he was.

Stubbs insisted on several occasions that his voice wasn’t very remarkable, nor all that good, being neither Gospel nor Pop. Other wiser men would go on to describe that instantly recognizable baritone with such words as passionate, classy, sophisticated and raw.

The Four Tops were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 in recognition for having racked up over 50 million in record sales, of which 45 were certifiable chart hits for Motown and it’s later incarnations. "Keeper of the Castle" is one of my favorites of their post-Motown hits.

A few years ago I as invited over to a friend’s who was showing the 1986 version of “Little Shop of Horrors.” I spent the rest of the night trying to figure out why the voice of Audrey II-the human eating plant sounded so familiar… It was Levi!

We may have lost you Levi, but we’ll always have your outstanding music.

Brian Williams of NBC News put it perfectly, “You may not know his name right away, but if I said “Sugar pie, honey bunch,” you’d know him…” to watch the 60-second tribute click here
WARNING: Reproduction of this article is forbidden without the author's permission
© 2008 by Jet Gardner

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