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Issue 1084

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Feature

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 doesnât 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 wasnât 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. Weâd 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 Topsâ performance at Londonâs Royal Albert Hall. It was during their second British tour, promoted by The Beatlesâ manager Brian Epstein, that they took London by storm. On Saturday, 28 January 1967, I met up with Phil Symes (who then ran Jimmy Ruffinâs fan club); Lynne and Jackie (founders of The Temptationsâ fan club) and others, to attend the concert of a lifetime. Madeline Bell was one of the support acts, and the groupâs âStanding In The Shadows Of Loveâ 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 couldnât, 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 â 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 âBaby I Need Your Lovingâ on the Motown label. They werenât 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 â âWe knew each other when we were growing up and became close friends during high school daysâ¦a girl at the party wanted to hear someone sing, so we did and thought it sounded pretty good. So we thought weâd 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.â

Two years after the party, they recorded their first single âIf Only I Had Knownâ 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 â âBreaking Throughâ and âHello Broadwayâ â 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 âBaby I Need Your Loving,â the magical music went on and on - âWithout The One You Love (Lifeâs Not Worthwhile) ,â âAsk The Lonely.â Then the beat was upped and at ya, as The Motown Sound spread the word â âI Canât Help Myselfâ, âItâs The Same Old Songâ right through to the monstrous sound of âReach Out! Iâll Be There,â the international chart-topper that changed the face of Motownâs music. But, it was the voice, Leviâs 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 kingsâ¦â¦â¦â¦.. And of a man eating plant named Audrey 11 (in the 1986 musical film âLittle Shop Of Horrorsâ) and the evil Mother Brain on the Nintendo-based NBC Saturday morning cartoon âCaptain N: The Game Master.â Levi once said - âI donât really have a style. It comes naturally. When I learn a song, I try to live it as best I can.â

âStanding In The Shadows Of Love,â âBernadette,â â7-Rooms Of Gloom,â - 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 âStill Waters Run Deepâ and âChanging Timesâ projects in 1970, and âNature Planned Itâ two years later. In between times, though, they teamed up on stage and record with the ânewâ 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. âKeeper Of The Castleâ was their first top ten hit since âBernadetteâ in 1967. âAinât No Woman (Like The One Iâve Got)â and âAre You Man Enoughâ followed as hits, with other minor titles like âSweet Understanding Loveâ and âOne Chain Donât Make No Prison.â Sadly, by 1976 and the release of âCatfish,â 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 âWhen She Was My Girl.â

By 1983 the Four Tops had rejoined Motown and were a highlight (one of many of course) on the spectacular âMotown 25: Yesterday-Today-Foreverâ when they engaged in a âpretendâ 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 âBack Where I Belongâ from which âI Just Canât Walk Awayâ was lifted for single release. A further pair of albums were issued, 1985âs âMagicâ and âHot Nightsâ a year later, when once again the Four Tops left Motown. This time for Arista Records and the mighty âIndestructibleâ project and âLoco In Acapulcoâ 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 groupâs 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 wasnât 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 groupâs 50th anniversary in music with an all-star salute staged at the much-loved Roostertail Club, Detroit. Titled âItâs All The Way Live With Levi â 50 Years And Still Goingâ and hosted by Claudette Robinson, guests played and sang in tribute including the Queen of Soul, The Marvelettes, The Spinners, former Temptationsâ 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 Topsâ 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 Lawrenceâs 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. Heâs survived by five children, and several grandchildren. Itâs ironic isnât it, that some time ago Iâd been in contact with Deborah, one of Leviâs 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 â âHe was the greatest interpreter of songs Iâve ever heard. He was lead singer of the greatest and most loving groupâ¦I remember when we heard ..âBaby I Need Your Lovingâ Leviâs voice exploded in the room and went straight for our heartsâ¦.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 â to his wife, his group, his friendsâ¦.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.â

Thereâs not much more I can add to Berry Gordyâs emotional words, except to say that on behalf of us all at Blues & Soul, our most sincere and profound condolences and love go to Leviâs family and friends. And, yes, he will be missed, more than heâll ever know. But, weâve got our memories, weâve got the music. And I still have my love affair.
Words SHARON DAVIS

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