Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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LEVI STUBBS _________________ June 6 1936 - October 17 2008

Levi Stubbs
Levi Stubbs The Four Tops Levi Stubbs The Four Tops The Four Tops The Four Tops Levi Stubbs The Four Tops The Four Tops

Thinking about it now at this very sad time, it doesn’t seem that long ago when I was stuffing newsletters into envelopes ensuring that members of the Four Tops fan club received all the news and more about their antics.

Sitting in the dining room of our Uckfield home, Mum stapled the pages together, I filled the envelopes. This certainly wasn’t the fun part of running a fan club, but seeing them in concert and listening to the music certainly was. I loved the Four Tops; from the opening bars of 'Baby I Need Your Loving' my knees went weak and I came out in a rash. My love affair had begun.

Whenever the Tops visited Brighton, along the Sussex coast, Mum and I would clutch our tickets tightly as if they were gold dust. We’d rave over their performance, then make our way backstage to meet Obie Benson, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton and of course, Levi Stubbs. We were treated like members of their family, the Motown family, and nothing was too much for these guys. They autographed photos for fans, they posed for photos and chatted for as long as their itinerary allowed. It was always Levi who warmly greeted us first, and it was him who escorted us out of the stage door. As I remember, he, above the others, made us feel sooo special! The fan club went on to become part of Motown Ad Astra, opened to include all acts, at the request of the record company. But I had them first!

And also so vivid in my mind is the Four Tops’ performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall. It was during their second British tour, promoted by The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, that they took London by storm. On Saturday, 28 January 1967, I met up with Phil Symes (who then ran Jimmy Ruffin’s fan club); Lynne and Jackie (founders of The Temptations’ fan club) and others, to attend the concert of a lifetime. Madeline Bell was one of the support acts, and the group’s ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Love’ was released to coincide with the tour. For the first time in music history a special sound system was fitted in the Royal Albert Hall in an endeavour to reproduce the Motown sound on stage. We had balcony seats, as I remember, and when the guys ran on stage, screams and cheers soared to the splendid roof and bounced back off the lights. Fans in the stalls surged to the stage, and those who couldn’t, stood, danced and clapped their hands above their heads. Someone in my party then thought it was a good idea to tear up a newspaper into tiny pieces and throw them into the air. Served no purpose whatsoever, of course – but it felt good. Nobody there could believe it; no-one was prepared for the uncontrollable show of love for these guys: it was simply just amazing. The group was indestructible!

In 1964, the Four Tops released their first single ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ on the Motown label. They weren’t newcomers to the business because, previously known as The Four Aims, the youngsters, all from the North End of Detroit, grew up together. Duke remembered that one of the first times they entertained was during a high school graduation party in 1954 – “We knew each other when we were growing up and became close friends during high school days…a girl at the party wanted to hear someone sing, so we did and thought it sounded pretty good. So we thought we’d group together and try to win the $25 being offered at a local amateur contest. And a few girls. We called ourselves the Four Aims.”

Two years after the party, they recorded their first single ‘If Only I Had Known’ for Grady Records as the Four Aims. Further singles were released via the Chess, Columbia and Riverside labels. They had known Berry Gordy for some time, and when he opened Motown were keen to join him. Now called the Four Tops because there was already a group known as The Ames Brothers, Gordy signed them to his Workshop Jazz outlet. Two poor selling albums were released – ‘Breaking Through’ and ‘Hello Broadway’ – but they needed hit records. So, Gordy teamed them with Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. And boy, did the fun begin! Starting with ‘Baby I Need Your Loving,’ the magical music went on and on - ‘Without The One You Love (Life’s Not Worthwhile) ,’ ‘Ask The Lonely.’ Then the beat was upped and at ya, as The Motown Sound spread the word – “I Can’t Help Myself”, “It’s The Same Old Song” right through to the monstrous sound of ‘Reach Out! I’ll Be There,’ the international chart-topper that changed the face of Motown’s music. But, it was the voice, Levi’s lead vocals, that crowned the records. The voice that ripped and tore through the lyrics; where he chewed up the words and spat them out; while the sheer power of his voice bulged the blood vessels in his neck. It was the voice of kings………….. And of a man eating plant named Audrey 11 (in the 1986 musical film ‘Little Shop Of Horrors’) and the evil Mother Brain on the Nintendo-based NBC Saturday morning cartoon ‘Captain N: The Game Master.’ Levi once said - “I don’t really have a style. It comes naturally. When I learn a song, I try to live it as best I can.”

‘Standing In The Shadows Of Love,’ ‘Bernadette,’ ‘7-Rooms Of Gloom,’ - the hits kept on coming until they were forced to change musical style when Holland, Dozier and Holland left Motown. So they slowed the pace with the highlights being the ‘Still Waters Run Deep’ and ‘Changing Times’ projects in 1970, and ‘Nature Planned It’ two years later. In between times, though, they teamed up on stage and record with the ‘new’ Supremes (in much the same way as Diana Ross and the Supremes had teamed up with The Temptations during the late sixties). Despite a change of musical direction, it became apparent that the group was floundering, and that their Motown bubble was deflating. They had little choice but to look elsewhere. The quartet switched to ABC Dunhill where they were assigned to composer/producers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter. ‘Keeper Of The Castle’ was their first top ten hit since ‘Bernadette’ in 1967. ‘Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)’ and ‘Are You Man Enough’ followed as hits, with other minor titles like ‘Sweet Understanding Love’ and ‘One Chain Don’t Make No Prison.’ Sadly, by 1976 and the release of ‘Catfish,’ the hits had dried up and little was heard from them until the early eighties when a deal was struck with Casablanca to release the runaway hit ‘When She Was My Girl.’

By 1983 the Four Tops had rejoined Motown and were a highlight (one of many of course) on the spectacular ‘Motown 25: Yesterday-Today-Forever’ when they engaged in a “pretend” battle-of-the groups with The Temptations. This successful musical interlude led to a lucrative tour of America, later Europe, and until recently the two groups continued to tour together but without the competitiveness! The first release under the new Motown deal was the aptly titled ‘Back Where I Belong’ from which ‘I Just Can’t Walk Away’ was lifted for single release. A further pair of albums were issued, 1985’s ‘Magic’ and ‘Hot Nights’ a year later, when once again the Four Tops left Motown. This time for Arista Records and the mighty ‘Indestructible’ project and ‘Loco In Acapulco’ which returned them to their rightful place in the top ten.

In the nineties the Four Tops were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. And they continued to hit the road, drawing in sell-out concerts, all over the world. Another thing, the group’s membership was totally unique because it never changed. That is until June 1997 when Lawrence died from liver cancer after singing as a Top for forty-four years. Then, at the turn of the century, fate played its evil hand once more when Levi was diagnosed with cancer, and if that wasn’t enough, also suffered a mild heart attack and stroke. He retired from the group. Theo Peoples and Ronnie McNeir replaced them for touring purposes. During 2004 Levi was honoured on the group’s 50th anniversary in music with an all-star salute staged at the much-loved Roostertail Club, Detroit. Titled ‘It’s All The Way Live With Levi – 50 Years And Still Going’ and hosted by Claudette Robinson, guests played and sang in tribute including the Queen of Soul, The Marvelettes, The Spinners, former Temptations’ Ollie Woodson and Dennis Edwards, Scherrie Payne, Jean Terrell and Cindy Birdsong. Proceeds from the event benefited the Gwendolyn B Gordy Fund to financially help Motown artists of the sixties and seventies with medical expenses.

Sadly, the Four Tops’ line-up was destined for further change when Obie Benson died suddenly in July 2005 from lung cancer, which was diagnosed after having his leg amputated due to circulation problems. Duke Fakir is now the only original Four Top in the touring line-up of Theo, Ronnie and Lawrence’s son Roquel Payton. Their beloved sound lives on - although the beat is mellower!

And last week, the awful news hit the airwaves that following years of suffering, 72 year old Levi died in his sleep on 17 October at his Detroit home which he shared with his wife of forty-eight years, Cliniece Townsend. He’s survived by five children, and several grandchildren. It’s ironic isn’t it, that some time ago I’d been in contact with Deborah, one of Levi’s daughters, in the hope her father would agree to us writing his autobiography. Life can be so cruel.

Levi Stubbs was the most recognisable soul singer of his generation, or as Berry Gordy wrote last week – “He was the greatest interpreter of songs I’ve ever heard. He was lead singer of the greatest and most loving group…I remember when we heard ..’Baby I Need Your Loving’ Levi’s voice exploded in the room and went straight for our hearts….He could easily have made it as a solo star, but his love and loyalty for Obie, Lawrence and Duke kept them together longer than any group I know. His integrity and character were impeccable. I have never seen a more dedicated person – to his wife, his group, his friends….I am deeply saddened (at) the passing of my friend. It is not only a tremendous personal loss for me, but for the Motown family, and people all over the world who were touched by his rare voice and remarkable spirit. ..I want to express my heartfelt sympathy to Clineice and children, to Duke and other family members and friends. He will be sadly missed.”

There’s not much more I can add to Berry Gordy’s emotional words, except to say that on behalf of us all at Blues & Soul, our most sincere and profound condolences and love go to Levi’s family and friends. And, yes, he will be missed, more than he’ll ever know. But, we’ve got our memories, we’ve got the music. And I still have my love affair.

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