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

ASK THE LONELY 01/1965 -3
I CAN’T HELP MYSELF 05/1965 – 1
IT’S THE SAME OLD SONG 07/1965 – 4
SHAKE ME. WAKE ME 02/1966 – 22
BERNADETTE 02/1967 – 4
WALK AWAY RENEE 01/1968 – 10
IF I WERE A CARPENTER 05/1968 – 18
IT’S ALL IN THE GAME 04/1970 – 7
STILL WATER 08/1970 – 4

Susan Whitall’s Remembrance.
Bob Berry’s Interview with Scott Regen on Sunny105.

Oct 18th, 2008 | Posted in Keener
  1. wscottw3
    Oct 18th, 2008 at 10:42 | #1

    From Kevin Wrynn, a KeenerFan in Florida.

    I just heard today of Levi Stubbs passing. His passing has truly saddened me but also brought smile and joy to my heart. The joy and smile is because the Four Tops “Ask The Lonely” and Keener are one in the same and this has lived in my memory since that cold, clear Friday evening in January, 1965.

    I started to listen to Keener in March of 1964. I lived on the east side of Detroit, the Grosse Pointe area to be exact, so listening to them was a challenge. The AM signal during the day was o.k. at best and non existent at night. I was fortunate that my father was a big FM listener so we were able to listen to Keener clearly on the FM day or night. FM in cars were coming on the market at this time and they were rare, so it was a chore to listen to Keener while riding in a friends car, especially at night. I loved listening to Keener on the AM side because I felt the total station sound-jingles, music, jocks and news were presented with that magical clear, compression, reverberated image that was part of the magic. To the ear the FM did not have the modulated balance of the AM, so I always felt I was being left out of the stations magic listening listening on the FM side.

    In last weekend in January of 1965, our family was planning a trip to Sharon,PA. Sharon is about a 4 to 5 hour trip from Detroit. My father was an executive for the Ford Motor Company, so we had the use of a company car for the excursion. The car was unique in the it was a 1965 Ford Galaxie LTD with a rare AM/FM radio, 4-speakers and a even company supplied reverberator. I always got excited about traveling to the Dearborn, West/ South side areas of Detroit, because I could listen to Keener on the AM with crystal clear FM type clarity but with that great compression reverberated sound that Keener was meant to be listen to. Thank you Bob Green and WQAM!! Also, the Keener DJ that to me really defined the Keener sound, The Keener Format and that unique Keener hard charging take no prisoner pace that was so unique and different in the Detroit radio market in 60’s, was going to be on the radio as we travel through the Dearborn and south Detroit down river areas—-GARY STEVENS!!

    We left our home at 6:00 PM on this clear,cold Friday evening. We got on the Ford Expressway and drove west. Our itinerary in those days was to drive west on I-94 to Telegraph road, go south to West Road, Take West Road to I-75 and get on the interstate right by the Woodhaven stamping plant. As we traveled through Detroit, I had the radio on 1310. At this time of the year Keener had already switched over to their night time pattern, so that meant the signal anywhere east of Woodward Avenue was non existent. But I left the radio on so I could wait for the signal to get stronger. My father got irritated with me because the only thing you could hear was the 4-speakers and the reverberator transmitting annoying static. I told my Father to be patient the station will appear soon. As we traveled past Woodward Avenue, Keener started coming in weakly. As we passed Grand River, Keener popped strongly, it was almost like magic. Gary Stevens, high anxiety voice and that unique presence of command he always had at Keener was on full display. Gary was doing the top 30 count down, he just finished with the Jolly Green Giant song and went right into doing a Keener world exclusive-The new Junior Walker and the All-Stars song “Shot Gun”. WOW, what a hot set for eager ears to hear. My heart I remember was pounding. By now we were passing Michigan Avenue, entering the Dearborn area, Gary was running on all 8-cylinders that evening. He and Keener sounded great. I always loved Keener’s jazzy segue ways, upbeat jingles, segue way teasers, contact news intros and the Let’s Go exits of the 1964 through 1965 period. I always felt Gary Stevens personality and the stations total formated sound were in perfect harmony. The 65 Ford’s 4- speakers and reverberator were also in perfect harmony with the sound, pace and Magic of Keener and Gary Stevens that day.

    As we came up on Oakwood Boulevard the snow covered ground withe trees bare of their leaves added to the mystic glow of the evening. The winter sun was setting leaving its golden red signature to announce its departure. But my eyes were glued out the front windshield looking for the magical looking blinking red navigation lights of Keener radio towers. In the winter they always took on a magic with the 6 towers blinking away with their strong presence. As we rounded the bend and came up to the Southfield Expressway Gary Stevens got to Keener hit #9 The Four Tops “Ask The Lonely”. The song with its haunting melody, beautiful interpretation from Levi Stubbs and female background singers with their high acapella tenor voices just exploded through the speakers of the car. WOW this song started to send the heartbeat up big time. The Keener SOUND highlighted every emotion from Levi Stubbs voice and transmitted it to your mind and soul. While the song was playing we reach Keeners 6 radio towers. They never look better. I remember looking out toward the towers and I could see the transmitter house. You could see the engineers on duty park automobile. Also, Keener had a billboard facing the east bound traffic proudly announcing the station that knows Detroit is #1. The billboard also had the Keener Contact news sign which always lit up whenever the Contact news was on. What was so cool, when Keener would switch to their night time pattern, all 5000 watts of power was concentrated north-so the Four Tops song got louder, louder and louder. It got so loud it almost blasted out the speakers and reverberator from extreme wattage surge–to a 15 year old this was totally cool. The Tops haunting song continued on as we goto off I-94 and onto Telegraph Road. As you round the bend you can the Keener towers with their flashing 6 towers of red lights powerfully rise over the local home and through the winter bare trees. My mind was almost giddy from the adrenaline high I was experiencing. What can I say it was perfect.

    As we traveled down river, Gary Stevens kept the Keener pace, Keener music and Keener magic flowing. As we got near Monroe we started to lose Keener. I still hung in there though until the station disappeared south of Monroe. I always hated that part of the trip. It was almost like my best friend was leaving me and I didn’t want him to go. A big emptiness , a sadness came over me. I reluctantly kicked the radio over to Keener FM and was able to listen to Keener until Toledo and the Bob Green Show. We got to Sharon, Pa. around 11PM. While my parents and family were unpacking in our relatives home I went back out the car to collect my thoughts. I remember I recanted the entire magical sequence of that evening—-The Four Top’s ” Ask The Lonely”, Gary Stevens and Keener. This night really hook me on Keener and I never left the station until 1971.

    Final note. While sitting in the car that night I turned the ignition on was listening to the surrounding Pennsylvania radio stations. I thought to myself. I wonder if I can pick up Keener. So I punched in the 1310 button on the radio and I couldn’t believe it. There was Bill Phillips and the Keener sound coming through strong, commanding and reverberating 325 mile away. That was indeed magic. My friend didn’t leave me. He was still there, solid as a rock. That gave me great comfort that evening.

    Levi Stubb’s, God Bless You and may you rest in peace. I will be forever grateful for you, the Four Tops and your song ” Ask the Lonely” for totally committing me to the best TOP 40 radio station in the nation—WKNR. And providing me with a memory I will treasure until the day I die.

    Thank you Mr. Westerman for your wonderful site and chance to relate a Keener memory to you. I will write again. I will tell you how I found your Keener 13.com site. It was as magical as the story I just told and as magical as the radio station that became to be major part of my teenage life.

    Thank You Again!

    Kevin Wrynn
    Winter Haven, Florida

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