Possessing one of the most powerful and distinctive voices of any of the great singers associated with the Motown sound, Stubbs and the rest of the Tops--Lawrence Payton, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, and Abdul "Duke" Fakir--had a career that began back when they teenagers in the early 1950s, well before anyone even used the term "soul music." But soulful they were, and fairly jazzy too, pretty much from the moment they made their debut recording for Chess Records in 1956 under the name the Four Aims.
By 1963, they'd long changed their name to the Four Tops, and had gone through tenures at a variety of labels (among them Riverside and Columbia) without much commercial success. That year, though, longtime fan Berry Gordy Jr. signed the Tops to Motown, and a year later, after failing to win them listeners through his short-lived Jazz Workshop label, he gave them a chance to record "Baby I Need Your Lovin'," a song by then high-flying songwriters/producers Eddie & Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. It became a major hit, and once listeners discovered the warm, pleading voice of Levi Stubbs and the rich collective sound of the Four Tops, the hits simply piled up: Beginning with that song, the Tops went on to register no less than 45 chart pop hits (52 on the R&B charts), with the last two coming in 1988. That's right: 1988.
Along the way were such evergreens as the chart-toppers "I Can't Help Myself" and "Reach Out I'll Be There," the latter being the 1966 classic that featured Stubbs, under the direction of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, stretching out the syllables of his words a la Bob Dylan to give the song a suitably folk-rock-soul urgency. ("And your life's filled with much con-fyoo-jun, until happiness is just an ill-loo-jun.") Levi Stubbs was probably the only singer who could have pulled that off--the same way that he pulled off the voice of Audrey II, the gleefully carnivorous monster plant in 1986's movie musical version of Little Shop Of Horrors.
Stubbs' passing follows those of fellow groupmates Lawrence Payton (1970) and "Obie" Benson (2005). Only Fakir remains of this Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame quartet. But for any of us who can remember the goosebumps they got the first time they heard "Just Ask The Lonely," "Bernadette," or "Standing In The Shadows Of Love," or so many other of their memorable classics, the Four Tops--all of them--will always be with us.
- Levi Stubbs