Saturday, October 18, 2008

Legendary Artist Levi Stubbs, Leader of the Four Tops, Makes His Transition

Saturday, October 18, 2008

At Motown, Levi Stubbs' voice was Tops

Singer led 'smooth, classy' Four Tops through years of classic hits

Susan Whitall / The Detroit News

Levi Stubbs, whose gritty, impassioned baritone was one of the most iconic voices to come out of Motown Records, died early Friday morning, peacefully, in his sleep, at his Detroit home. The singer whom Motown founder Berry Gordy called "the greatest interpreter of songs I ever heard" was 72.

It wasn't common for a baritone to front a group, but on Motown hits like "Baby, I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," "Bernadette," and "Ask the Lonely," Stubbs' deep voice was a rare instrument, capable of sheer, soaring joy, but also the most abject, broken-hearted sorrow.

"Levi Stubbs was one of the great voices of all times," Motown colleague Smokey Robinson said Friday. "He was very near and dear to my heart. He was my friend and my brother, I miss him. God bless his family and comfort them."

Stubbs suffered a series of strokes that forced him to retire from touring with the Tops in 2000. The original group -- which also included Detroiters Abdul "Duke" Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo "Obie" Benson -- got together during their high school days in the early 1950s. Stubbs went to Pershing, where he met Fakir. The two sang together, then formed a group with two friends from Northern High, Payton and Benson.

At first called the Four Aims, then the Four Tops, they were seasoned performers on the posh nightclub circuit. Fakir is now the only survivor of the original group; Payton died in 1997 and Benson in 2005.

"Smooth, classy and polished, they were big stuff," Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. wrote in his 1994 memoir "To Be Loved." "I wanted them bad. I could see how loyal they were to each other, and I knew they would be the same way to me and Motown."

It wasn't until 1964, when the company was racking up hit singles in earnest, that Gordy was able to convince the Tops that Motown wasn't just a fly-by-night local record company.

The minute the Motown president heard the Four Tops' first record, "Baby, I Need Your Loving," he was pleased. "Levi's voice exploded in the room and went straight for our hearts," Gordy said in a statement Friday. "We all knew it was a hit, hands down."

Gordy went so far as to compliment one of Stubbs' non-Motown songs. "His rendition of "I Believe in You and Me" was incredible. I've heard no one better."

Duke Fakir said the group was supposed to record a jazzy, Broadway album for Motown, more in line with their supper club roots, but that plan was scrapped and they were paired with Motown's top songwriting/producing team Holland-Dozier-Holland, who were also writing No. 1 hits for the Supremes.

Stubbs' expressive voice was made for H-D-H's soulful lyrics, although sometimes the singer had his doubts. After sessions for "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," Stubbs ran into WKNR disc jockey Scott Regen on the steps of Motown. Regen was signed to Jobete as a songwriter and went to Motown almost every day. He also emceed "Motown Mondays" at the Roostertail.

"Levi said they had him shouting on 'Reach Out' and he didn't like the way it sounded," Regen recalled Friday. "He wanted to re-do it. Then I heard the song and I thought he was incredible. I said, 'Levi, you're wrong, it's great. It's going to be a number one record.'"

Pushing Stubbs' voice to the outer limit gave it even more grit and emotion.

"I didn't think he was shouting, but he was at the top of his vocal range," Brian Holland remembered Friday. Holland couldn't name one Stubbs vocal as his favorite. "Whatever he did, was done well. I was very proud of Levi."

The Four Tops were in Nevada on Friday, preparing for a concert. Fakir was too broken up to comment on his boyhood friend's passing just yet.

Family man

Although Stubbs had been confined to a wheelchair for the past several years, he was surrounded by a particularly supportive family. His children visited often, especially son Levi III and daughter Kelly, who lived nearby and were over every day to help their mother Clineice.

"He was a wonderful father, the best in the world," daughter Kelly said at her parents' home as friends and family gathered on Friday.

Stubbs was the best known, but not the only singer in his family. His late brother Joe sang with the Falcons ("You're So Fine"), his nieces make appearances as "The Stubbs Girls," and Stubbs was proud of his teenaged granddaughter Kourtney and her budding singing career.

After he was confined to home by illness, sometimes when his sister Thelma visited, the two siblings could be heard singing together.

Stubbs' oldest daughter, Deborah, said, "He was like what people saw on stage. He was a family man...very soft-spoken, never had to raise his voice. But we knew he meant what he said.

"We had to take the garbage out, we had to do everything other kids did, he never made us feel like we were privileged," Deborah said.

It was brought home to Deborah that her laid-back dad was also a pop music idol one day in 1964 when he came to pick her up at Farwell Junior High School.

"This was right after 'Baby, I Need Your Loving' came out, and all my girlfriends jumped into his car, leaving me standing outside!" she exclaimed. Suddenly, the Stubbs family had to share their dad with the world.

Early mischief

Levi Stubbs was born in Detroit, the son of Levi and Daisy Stubbs. For a time the family lived at Six Mile and Dequindre, in a housing development built for auto workers during World War II dubbed "Cardboard Valley" because of the thin walls.

Stubbs became friends with a Cardboard Valley neighbor, Little Willie John, who also had singing aspirations and went on to be one of the first North End kids to hit it big, with "Fever." The two friends had fun, got into mild trouble (both had to attend a Detroit school for wayward boys, as Stubbs laughingly confirmed to The News a few years ago) and entered talent contests at the Warfield Theatre and the Paradise Theater.

Both Levi and Willie won often, which at the Paradise meant going home with a wristwatch. Stubbs ended up with a pile of wristwatches in his drawer.

On a visit just over a year ago to the Stubbs home, the late Willie John's sons Keith and Kevin drew smiles and laughter from Stubbs when they joked around and sang, much as their father Willie used to do. The singer particularly enjoyed it when they teasingly sang part of his own song, "Keeper of the Castle."

Despite his illness, Levi and longtime wife Clineice, a leggy Ziggy Johnson dancer he met in Detroit, would amuse visitors with their good-natured banter.

After a run of hits, the Four Tops left Motown for ABC Records in 1972, where they recorded several songs with memorable Stubbs lead vocals, including "Keeper of the Castle" and "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Love)." They returned to Motown after an explosive performance on "Motown 25" with the Temptations led to the "TNT" tour, then were signed to Arista for a time.

Stubbs is also known for voicing Audrey II, the evil plant in the 1986 film "Little Shop of Horrors."

Gordy revealed in "To Be Loved" that he wanted to cast Stubbs opposite Diana Ross in his 1972 Billie Holiday biopic "Lady Sings the Blues."

"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," said Gordy in a statement Friday. "His integrity and character were impeccable. I have never seen a more dedicated person -- to his wife, his group, his friends. He was my first choice for the romantic lead in 'Lady Sings the Blues.' Levi had the looks, the stature and the street smarts of a Louis MacKay ...but he refused the role because he thought it would interfere with the group's future success."

Inspiration to others

On Friday, tributes poured in from around the world from Stubbs' Motown colleagues, friends and fans.

Brian and Eddie Holland issued a statement together,
"Motown's most soulful voice was silenced today with the death of our brother Levi Stubbs. He was an inspiration to us as songwriters and producers. We enjoyed a lot of success and many good times with him in the studio and out. He will be greatly missed.""One of the great singers of this contemporary time is no longer with us, but his voice will be forever," said Lamont Dozier in a statement. "Levi Stubbs was one of the most emulated and respected vocalists of our time. Levi was a beautiful individual spiritually and helped a lot of people with his tremendous talent. I will miss him."

Pontiac-born music critic Dave Marsh, Rock & Rap Confidential editor: "They are the voice of adolescent angst and adult heartbreak, the pure, the absolute joy that humans can take in one another. Call them love songs -- I'd say it was more like lifelines -- but call them silly and you've branded yourself as a fool ...Levi and the Tops were among the graces of my own soul."

Stubbs is survived by his wife Clineice, three sisters, his children Deborah, Beverly, Raymond, Levi III and Kelly; 11 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. He was preceded in death by one sister and three brothers. Funeral arrangements are pending.

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or

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October 18, 2008

Stubbs leaves legacy of sound


You may not have known the name. But you certainly couldn't miss Levi Stubbs' voice.

That voice -- rough, raw, intense -- remains a fixture on the American music landscape, unmistakable on such evergreen Four Tops hits as "Reach Out I'll Be There," "Bernadette,"
"Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)."

Motown fans and alumni today are mourning the loss of Stubbs, who died Friday morning at home in Detroit. He was 72.

A cause of death has not been determined, but Stubbs had suffered for many years from a series of debilitating illnesses. Diagnosed with cancer in 1995, Stubbs quit touring with the Tops after a stroke in 2000. He was replaced by ex-Temptations singer Theo Peoples.

"You almost expected it -- you just didn't know when it was going to come," said Motown singer Freda Payne. "I'm heartbroken. But this was God being kind. You don't want to see close ones suffer."

Known informally as "the Captain," a fan of traditional balladeers such as Billy Eckstine and Frank Sinatra, Stubbs was recalled by friends and associates Friday as a deeply private and humble man.

Abdul (Duke) Fakir is now the Four Tops' only surviving founding member; Tenor Lawrence Payton died in 1997, followed by bass vocalist Obie Benson eight years later.

For many Detroiters, the last glimpse of Stubbs came in 2004, when he sang briefly from a wheelchair during the Four Tops' 50th anniversary celebration at Music Hall. It turned out to be his final onstage appearance with the group.

Stubbs' final full concert with the Tops had come in December 2000, when the group played a farewell concert at the White House for President Bill Clinton.

Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. paid homage in a statement: "Levi was the greatest interpreter of songs I've ever heard. ... I remember when we heard their first Motown release, 'Baby I Need Your Loving.' Levi's voice exploded in the room and went straight for our hearts. We all knew it was a hit, hands down."

Unlike Marvin Gaye, who used his voice to caress, or Smokey Robinson, whose silky croon sparkled, Stubbs headed straight for the guts of his notes, summoning a distinctive grit and fire. For most vocalists, the perky melody in the lines "sugar pie, honey bunch" was an invitation to go sunny and sweet. For Stubbs, it was a chance to insist -- to plead, cajole, declare, demand.

It was a trait that distinguished the group from many of their fellow acts at Motown, where Stubbs and the Tops -- already veterans of the music business -- were often regarded as older brothers.

Ronnie McNeir, a member of the Tops since 2000, recalled Stubbs' comment to a passing fan who called him a star: "He said, 'Ma'am, I ain't no star. I just love what I do.' He was truly a gentleman and a very humble guy."

Ann Arbor's Chris Rizik, who runs the popular music site and calls Stubbs his all-time favorite vocalist, said Friday's news prompted an outpouring of tributes and reminiscing from fans around the world.

"The larger population might not even know the name. But to anybody who's a soul music fan, this is like royalty dying," said Rizik. "People are going to be talking about this for a long time. In the deep soul community, this will resonate just as much as Marvin Gaye's death."

Stubbs' influence wasn't limited to R&B. As aspiring musicians in the 1960s, area rock singers such as Bob Seger and Scott Morgan studied the Tops' material, trying to incorporate the intensity of Stubbs' delivery into their own formative voices.

"The whole group was fantastic, but Levi was the star. I've heard so many people try to sound like Levi Stubbs, trying to copy that gruff voice, but you can't really do it," said Morgan. "It was natural for him. You can't fake it. That was his voice."

Born in 1936 in Detroit, Stubbs attended Pershing High School with Fakir. The two friends formed the Four Aims with fellow teens Benson and Payton, renaming themselves the Four Tops in 1956 as they embarked on a series of record deals that would eventually lead them to Gordy and Motown in 1963.

Stubbs is survived by his wife, Clineice Stubbs, three sons, two daughters, 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are not yet set, and will be handled by Swanson Funeral Home in Detroit.

Contact BRIAN McCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or

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