Levi Stubbs – Tops at Motown
By Scott Westerman – Curator – Keener13.com
When you think of the great Motown male voices, Levi Stubbs stood alone. Few could emulate the plaintive wail of Edwin Starr, and while both David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks had solo careers, they are forever linked with the Temptations. Stubbs literally defined the Four Tops sound, so much so, that when he voiced the carnivorous venus fly trap in the film version of “Little Shop of Horrors”, the faithful instantly recognized him.
I saw the Tops twice, once under the stars in concert with the Jacksonville, Florida Symphony Orchestra and once up close and personal when they headlined an intimate event at a cable TV convention. On both occasions, they could sustain a nearly two hour program of sing-a-long classics that inevitably had us all dancing along. Lawrence, Duke and Obie each contributed to the Tops magic, from choreography to harmony, but it was Levi who’s unlikely baritone stamped the auditory brand on the Four Tops.
Keener personality Scott Regen had a special relationship with Motown and was a frequent visitor to the studios where the magic was made. When we were last together, he remembered running into Levi at the close of a particularly strenuous session. Stubbs was distraught. “I’ve just recorded the biggest flop of my career,” he said. He was dissatisfied with the near scream he was asked to do near the end of the song. That turned out to be a million seller called “Bernadette”.
Like the Temptations, the Tops were beneficiaries of the Berry Gordy formula, provided with quality material penned by the best of the Motown songwriters, backed by the inimitable Funk Brothers, and packaged on stage with a flash and elegance with roots in the likes of the Nicholas Brothers. But it was Levi’s lead vocal that drove the Tops neck and neck with the Temps, the Beatles, the Four Seasons and the Rolling Stones. Even after they left Motown, the class could be heard in tunes like “Are You Man Enough”, and even second tier recordings like “I Just Can’t Get You Out of My Life” had a special energy that found their way into a number personal Top-Ten lists.
Levi had health problems the last few years, curtailing his incessant tour schedule after a series of strokes sapped his strength. But all we have to do is queue up any of their 18 WKNR Music Guide hits and we’ll again find him at the the top of his game.
The Four Tops on WKNR
TITLE – MONTH/YEAR – PEAKED AT..
WITHOUT THE ONE YOU LOVE LIFE’S NOT WORTH WHILE 11/1964 – 15
BABY I NEED YOUR LOVIN 08/64 – 4
ASK THE LONELY 01/1965 -3
I CAN’T HELP MYSELF 05/1965 – 1
IT’S THE SAME OLD SONG 07/1965 – 4
SOMETHING ABOUT YOU 11/1965 – 9
SHAKE ME. WAKE ME 02/1966 – 22
REACH OUT I’LL BE THERE 08/1966 – 1
STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF LOVE 12/1966 – 4
BERNADETTE 02/1967 – 4
SEVEN ROOMS OF GLOOM 05/1967 – 14
YOU KEEP RUNNING AWAY 09/1967 – 17
WALK AWAY RENEE 01/1968 – 10
IF I WERE A CARPENTER 05/1968 – 18
YESTERDAY’S DREAMS 07/1968 – 20
DON’T LET HIM TAKE YOUR LOVE FROM ME 11/1969 – 24
IT’S ALL IN THE GAME 04/1970 – 7
STILL WATER 08/1970 – 4