Remembering Levi Stubbs

The Four Tops may have been one of Motown’s biggest groups in the ’60s, but they seemed to exist in a world beyond Motown. Unlike many of the label’s own hand-groomed and manufactured bands, the quartet was around long before Motown started, and its original lineup continued decades after most Motown bands had become tribute acts filled with ringers. Mostly, though, the band differed from other Motown acts thanks to the sheer drama of frontman Levi Stubbs’ voice. His baritone had a particular pleading, crying quality that marked hits both upbeat ("I Can’t Help Myself," embedded above, "Shake Me Wake Me,") and grim and frightening ("Bernadette," "Standing in the Shadows of Love"). Not for nothing did Billy Bragg title his hit song "Levi Stubbs’ Tears."

The group’s best songs combined both approaches, as on their masterpiece "Reach Out I’ll Be There," where each verse ends with an unbearable buildup of tension, a nail-biting pause, and finally a triumphant resolution. Stubbs sang that song, as he did so many others, like a man drowning in fear and anxiously awaiting rescue.

Not that desperation was the only color available to him. HIs vocal performance as the man-eating plant in 1986′s Little Shop of Horrors revealed a Stubbs who could be seductive, lascivious, and menacing, and he also found a latter-day sideline doing voices for videogames.

The original Tops lineup stayed together for 43 years, until Lawrence Payton died in 1997, followed by Renaldo "Obie" Benson in 2005. Stubbs’ death today at age 72 leaves Abdul "Duke" Fakir the last surviving Top. We encourage you to watch the Four Tops in these clips (including some after the jump) and to share your memories of the band below.

"It’s the Same Old Song"

"Baby, I Need Your Lovin’"

Comments (38 total) Add your comment
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  • Kristen

    My mom and I were just talking today about how Levi Stubbs’ voice is what made The Four Tops a group to be reckoned with. I was saddened to come home and read of his passing. RIP Levi.

  • MsDaisy

    A truly magical voice is singing with the angels tonight.

  • cruzilla

    One of my favorite bands ever, and Levi Stubbs was true to his band. Very class act and great voice. RIP

  • Sally in Chicago

    Thank God for youtube and the internet. They will live on forever.

  • Samantha

    RIP Levi. He was an incredible talent.
    Gary you left off “Something About You.”One of the Four Tops best, if underrated songs. How disappointing!
    Here’s the vid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfZgyxaspF8&feature=related

  • mehere

    Unforgettable, timeless, beautiful Levi Stubbs vocals, superb harmonies , great Holland-Dozier- Holland songs and impeccable arrangements made the Four Tops the greatest. Levi sang with such committment and passion. And his vocal asides were golden. “Just look over your shoulder!” “Huh!”
    Oddly enough, the first clip you chose here is almost the antithesis of what made him so great. For the real deal check out “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” from Little Shop of Horrors. (NSFW)
    Checked out youtube this aft and found the Aretha tribute to him from a few years back. very touching…I couldn’t watch the whole thing.
    Thank you, Levi Stubbs. Your voice made my life better and thank you for leaving so much soul with us in your recordings. Rest in peace.

  • Jakeem

    We almost lost him 20 years ago when the Four Tops were booked on the fateful Pan Am flight that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland due to terrorism. Fortunately for them, they missed the flight while taping a TV special in London.

  • Mr. Reynolds

    I’ll always remember the final moments of the 1975 movie “Cooley High” for two reasons. First, Emmy winner Glynn Turman’s affecting performance as a Chicago high school student saying farewell to a fallen comrade.
    Second, Levi Stubbs’ powerhouse vocals on the song that plays out the movie — “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”.

  • Gerard Cleary

    playing Baby i need your loving brings so many memories of the 60s, and the great Levi’s voice brings tears to my eye’s
    god bless you

  • Kay Barker

    I am devastated to hear of the death of Levi my all time favourite singer. I met him in the UK in 1973 after a concert.How many fans get to meet their idol? What a lovely man! What an icon! His music & legacy will live on. RIP Levi, I will always remember you.

  • DebbieJ

    Great tribute EW. One of my favorite songs is not that well known “It’s the way nature planned it” Just listen to the words, it will melt your heart. RIP Mr. Stubbs, your music will always live in my heart.

  • Scarlet

    Growing up in Detroit in the 60s, I was inundated with the Motown sound, but the Four Tops were my favorite group. I was lucky enough to see them perform in the 80s with The Temptations. Many of my friends wondered why I wanted to attend an oldies concert, but I’m so glad I did.

  • Chance

    Probably one of the highest compliments I ever received was an insult the the integrity of the performing company I was a part of. I provided the voice of Audrey II in a production of “Little Shop of Horrors” and our director was repeatedly questioned about how he merged the stage performers voices with the “plant’s voice from the movie”. Lol. Levi Stubbs had an amazing voice, and I look forward to hearing him lead a few solos in heaven’s choir.

  • Motown Mama

    If my life were a movie, the soundtrack would be full of Motown, but especially of The Four Tops. Having been privileged enough to see them intact in concert four times, the thought of not having Levi Stubbs living and breathing here on earth is devastating. However, I’ll always remember being in the front row one time and Levi handed my husband the mic to sing along with him. Even though I was the one who knew all the dance moves and was singing like a fool, Levi picked George. It’s still a bone of contention at our house and we only have Levi to thank. It’s a shame someone doesn’t start a Motown Fest (like they do with BeatleFest) so we can all “stand in the shadow of Motown” each year and celebrate the joyful yet bittersweet memories of when CKLW played Motown and the world seemed a smaller place. Rest in Peace, dear Levi. You owe me the mic next time.

  • Jasper

    One of my favorite male vocalists ever!! He will truly be missed=(

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