Saturday, October 18, 2008
6063: Levi Stubbs, 1936-2008.
From The New York Times…
Levi Stubbs, 72, Powerful Voice for Four Tops, Dies
By Micheline Maynard
DETROIT — Levi Stubbs, the gravelly-voiced, imploring lead singer of the Motown group the Four Tops, who stood out in 1960s pop classics like “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” and “Bernadette,” died on Friday at his home here. He was 72.
His death was confirmed by the office of the Wayne County Medical Examiner. No cause was given. Mr. Stubbs had had a series of illnesses, including a stroke and cancer, that forced him to stop performing in 2000, although he briefly participated in the Four Tops’ 50th-anniversary concert in 2004, which was broadcast on public television.
Formed while its original members were in high school, the Four Tops were one of the most successful groups of the 20th century. They had more than 40 hits on the Billboard pop charts, including their first No. 1 single, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” in 1965.
Hugely popular abroad as well as in the United States, the group became a linchpin of Motown Records, the Detroit label started by Berry Gordy Jr., and was second only to the Temptations, with whom it was often compared, in popularity among its male artists. In 1990 the Four Tops were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Unlike the Temptations, whose members regularly changed, the Tops exhibited extraordinary loyalty, with the original four remaining together for more than 40 years. In fact, they began their singing career almost a decade before joining Motown in 1963.
In 1953 Mr. Stubbs, a student at Pershing High School in Detroit, and his friend Abdul Fakir, known as Duke, attended a birthday party at which they met two other founding members of the group, Renaldo Benson, known as Obie and Lawrence Payton, who were students at Northern High School.
(Mr. Fakir, who continues to perform with the Tops’ current lineup, is now the last surviving member.)
Originally calling themselves the Four Aims, they were rechristened the Four Tops in 1954 and signed with Chess Records, the Chicago rhythm and blues label, in 1956.
It was clear from the beginning that Mr. Stubbs, with his booming, rough-edged baritone, would be the lead singer, Mr. Fakir said in a 2004 interview. Yet many of his songs were written in a tenor range that pushed his voice higher and made it sound urgent and pleading.
Mr. Stubbs and the group did not plan a pop career, but began as jazz singers. Leaving Detroit in the mid-1950s, they headed for New York, bouncing around the nightclub circuit.
The four singers shared a studio apartment and rotated three daytime suits among them; whoever had the more important appointment got first pick, Mr. Fakir recalled.
The Tops added choreography to their act, but were advised to drop it when they toured with the jazz balladeer Billy Eckstine, who told them to master their singing. In 1963 Mr. Stubbs and the other Tops appeared on the “Tonight” show, then hosted by Jack Paar, singing a jazz arrangement of “In the Still of the Night.”
Mr. Gordy, who saw their performance, told his staff to sign them up, and assigned the songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland to shape their sound and deliver them a hit song.
It took a year before the group recorded “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” followed by their first No. 1 hits, “I Can’t Help Myself” in 1965 and “Reach Out” in 1966.
“We didn’t know what bag to put them in,” Mr. Dozier said in 2004. The three songwriters concluded that Mr. Stubbs’s booming voice should be most prominent, backed by the Tops’ harmonies; layered with vocals by a female group, the Andantes; and supported by the Motown studio band known as the Funk Brothers.
The combination worked.
“Stubbs’s bold, dramatic readings of some of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s choicest material set a high standard for contemporary soul in the mid-’60s,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said when the Tops were inducted.
Snappily dressed, even offstage, the Tops toured extensively throughout the United States and around the world, recording more hits like “It’s the Same Old Song” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love.”
In 1971 the group joined the Supremes to record a cover version of the Ike and Tina Turner song “River Deep — Mountain High.” But by then, relations with Motown were strained, and the group left the label after Mr. Berry moved it to Los Angeles.
The Tops continued to record during the 1970s and ’80s, often touring with the Temptations. Their biggest post-Motown hit was “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got,” in 1973.
Levi Stubbles was born in Detroit on June 6, 1936, a cousin of the soul singer Jackie Wilson. His younger brother, Joe, sang with the Falcons and the Contours, two rhythm and blues groups.
Mr. Stubbs is survived by his wife of 48 years, Clineice; five children, Deborah, Beverly, Raymond, Kelly and Levi Jr.; and 11 grandchildren.
Mr. Stubbs took on a side project to become the voice of a man-eating plant, Audrey II, in the 1986 musical film “Little Shop of Horrors,” and also was the voice of Mother Brain, an evil character on the cartoon show “Captain N: The Game Master,” from 1989 to 1991.
By 1995, Mr. Stubbs’s health had begun to fail, forcing him to curtail his performances. Mr. Payton died in 1997, and Mr. Benson in 2005. Mr. Fakir has continued singing with Mr. Payton’s son Roquel; a former Temptation, Theo Peoples; and Ronnie McNair, a veteran Motown singer.
Before his death, Mr. Benson said in an interview that he was saddened by performing without Mr. Stubbs and Mr. Payton.
“It’s like having one body with two limbs missing,” he said.