Levi Stubbs, dynamic soul singer supreme, died today. You may not recognize the name, but I guarantee you'll recognize the voice.
There’s never been a time I can remember when The Four Tops were not a part of my life. My older sisters loved Motown and they played and danced (quite poorly) to “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” for just about their entire adolescence. I can still see that blue Motown map label spinning on that 45 – back when 2:42 was my entire attention span. I guess not much has changed.
The Four Tops (Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton) remained together for over 40 years without a lineup change. They were the greatest of all Motown groups, and Levi Stubbs Motown’s most powerful singer. And I got to sing with him. Fortunately no audio exists to document the momentous occasion, but I’ll never forget it.
It was April 1981 and The Four Tops were well past their commercial mid-60’s peak but still a tremendous live act. This was before the repackaging of oldies acts as nostalgia bon-bons and many of these genre-shaping bands were playing small nightclubs because… well, because that’s what they did. The Tops that night were at Ripley’s, a South Street fixture that hosted hundreds of 80’s rock shows, and this night’s crowd was a curious mix of hipster rock scuzzballs in jeans and sneakers (who you looking at?) and stylish 30-40-something African American couples dressed to impress.
The Four Tops were a human jukebox, singing and dancing (oh yeah, their moves were still breathtaking) for an incendiary 70 minute performance that seems to have elevated to almost mythic “Bigfoot”, Ming-Ling-ish status in the intervening years. Were they really that good? And late in the set, during “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”, Levi Stubbs crouched down, put his arm around me, and we belted the “I’ll Be There” refrain together. A moment frozen in time that still provides goose bumps.
But tonight, let’s toast Levi Stubbs, and let's remember that voice.
The Four Tops - I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)
The Four Tops - Reach Out (I'll Be There)
David Johansen Group - Reach Out (I'll Be There)
David Johansen - Frenchette
Billy Bragg - Levi Stubb's Tears