Friday 28 July 2017

Soul survivor... the veteran who gave Motown its voice

Pioneers: Levi Stubbs, second from left, with The Four Tops in January 1990
Pioneers: Levi Stubbs, second from left, with The Four Tops in January 1990

SLevi Stubbs, who has died aged 72, was one of the most distinguished soul singers of his generation and, as lead singer with the Four Tops, a pioneer of the Motown sound that dominated the pop charts in the 1960s.

Between 1964 and 1968, the Tops enjoyed 12 Top 20 American hits, including I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honeybunch), It's The Same Old Song and Bernadette.

But perhaps the group's -- and Stubbs's -- finest moment was Reach Out, I'll Be There, a number one record in 1966 which characterised the Motown sound at its most sublime, with its galloping rhythm and symphonic orchestrations, and Stubbs's soulful, beseeching baritone pitched somewhere between a cry for help and a prayer against the silken harmonies of the other Tops.

Like most of the group's greatest hits, that song was written and produced by the team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland (H-D-H), the most consistently inventive and successful partnership at the Motown "factory".

For the Four Tops, they produced songs that were perfectly measured to Stubbs's declamatory, pleading style -- love songs tinted with desperation and melodrama in which Stubbs was usually cast as a wounded lover, begging for release or redemption.

"He would feel that type of thing, and he'd be able to sell it because he's basically a dynamic singer anyway," Eddie Holland once recalled.

The English songwriter, Billy Bragg would pay tribute to the emotional force of Stubbs's voice in his 1986 song Levi Stubbs' Tears: "She takes off the Four Tops tape and puts it back in its case / When the world falls apart some things stay in place / Levi Stubbs' tears ... '

Levi Stubbs was born in Detroit on June 6, 1936 into a family with a strong musical tradition. The soul singer Jackie Wilson was a cousin, and his brother Joe Stubbs sang with the Detroit R'n'B group the Falcons.

His singing career began in 1954, when he started performing with three other high-school students, Lawrence Payton, Abdul "Duke" Fakir and Renaldo "Obie" Benson, as the Four Aims.

Two years later, the group changed their name to the Four Tops, supposedly to avoid confusion with another popular vocal group, the Ames Brothers.

The Tops performed in supper clubs and lounges, and made records for Red Top, Riverside and Columbia, with no great success. In 1961, they were approached by a young entrepreneur, Berry Gordy. An erstwhile boxer, Ford production-line worker and songwriter, Gordy had recently founded the record label, Motown, gathering around him a crop of fresh young local talent that included Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells and the Temptations.

The Four Tops were seasoned veterans, but Gordy was determined to bring them to the label. "Smooth, classy and polished, they were big stuff," Gordy remembered. "I wanted them bad."

The Tops were initially sceptical, particularly when they learned of Gordy's policy of not allowing his putative signings to take contracts away from the office to study at their leisure. They persuaded him to make an exception in their case.

It was two years before they came back, explaining that while the contract was satisfactory they had doubts that a small, black-owned label like Motown could survive.

Their first Motown recording, a vocal jazz album, Breakin' Through disappeared without trace. For a while they marked time providing backing vocals for other Motown acts, including the Supremes.

Their first H-D-H production, Baby I Need Your Loving, in 1964, reached number 11 in the US charts, and they enjoyed their first number one, I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honeybunch), the following year.

The group would become popular in Britain, where, for a while, they enjoyed the distinction of being Motown's biggest-selling act.

Like Eddie Kendricks with the Temptations, and Diana Ross with the Supremes, Stubbs might easily have left the group to pursue a solo career.

But he remained loyal to his friends, arguing that the group could never break up -- "We'd be lost, baby lost without each other turning up for a game of cards or a sing-through."

The group would retain the same personnel until 1990, and the death of Lawrence Payton.

In 1967, H-D-H fell out with Gordy over profit-sharing and royalties, leading to their departure from the company.

The Four Tops' fortunes suffered, and in 1972 they too left Motown following a contractual dispute. Over the following years, recording for ABC and Casablanca, they enjoyed hits with Keeper Of The Castle, Ain't No Woman (Like The One I've Got) and When She Was My Girl, all of which displayed the group's customary polish without ever reaching the heights of their Motown work.

A glowing exception was the duet which Stubbs recorded with Aretha Franklin, I Want To Make It Up To You, in 1982 for her album Jump To It -- a smouldering call and res-ponse.

In 1983, the Four Tops returned to Motown.

But the homecoming was shortlived, and they moved on to Arista, for which they recorded the grating novelty song Loco In Acapulco, which gave the group their last British Top 10 hit, in 1988.

Their recording career effectively over, the Four Tops continued to tour and perform. Ill health finally led to Stubbs retiring from the group in 2000.

Levi Stubbs is survived by his wife, Clineice, and five children.

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