Levi Stubbs, the powerful baritone for The Four Tops, passed on Friday at the age of 72. Although a cause has yet to be determined, Stubbs had suffered a stroke and a bout with cancer in the past.
Levi Stubbs was born in Detroit on June 6, 1936. While still in high school, in 1954, Stubbs and his friends Abdul "Duke" Fakir, Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Lawrence Payton were invited to sing at a birthday party in 1953. The four then decided to stay together as a singing group, naming themselves The Four Aims. By 1956 they would be signed to Chess Records, at which time The Four Aims became The Four Tops. Unfortunately, they met with little success. Over the next several years they switched labels several times, having contracts with Red Top, Riverside Records and Columbia Records. Despite producing no hits, The Four Tops toured incessantly. Eventually their touring paid off and The Four Tops appeared on The Jack Paar Tonight Show in 1962, singing their rendition of "In the Still of the Night." Berry Gordy Jr. caught their performance and persuaded them to sign to Motown Records.
Initially, The Four Tops performed classic jazz songs for the label's Workshop imprint and provided back up for The Supremes and other Motown artists. It was in 1964 that the legendary song writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote "Baby, I Need Your Loving" specifically for The Four Tops. The song proved to be a hit, going to #11 on Billboard's pop charts. With a hit pop record under their belt, The Four Tops stopped singing jazz standards and starting singing pop songs. While their next single, "Without the One You Love (Life's Not Worth While)" did not chart and "Ask the Lonely" only made the Top 30 on Billboard's pop chart, The Four Tops would soon find themselves one of Motown's biggest vocal groups. In 1965 the group released "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)." The song became a number one hist on the Billboard Hot 100, perhaps largely because of Levi Stubbs' powerful lead vocals.
Over the next several years The Four Tops would produce a string of hit records, in the end producing more than 40 hits on the Billboard pop charts. Among their most successful songs were "Reach Out I'll Be There (which went to #1 on the Billboard charts in 1966)," "Standing in the Shadows of Love (which went to #6 in the same year)," "Bernadette (which went to #4 in 1967)," "Keeper of the Castle," "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)," and "When She Was My Girl." In all they released over thirty albums in a recording career that lasted into the Eighties. Unlike other Motown groups, the membership of The Four Tops remained largely consistent over the years. The first change of membership came as a result of Lawrence Payton's death from liver cancer in 1997.
The Four Tops would change labels over the years. With newer acts beginning to overshadow the original Motown line up in the early Seventies, the group signed with ABC-Dunhill. Sadly, their success would fade with the rise of disco in the late Seventies and for a short time The Four Tops produced no hits. Fortunately, in 1980 they signed with Casablanca Records, which give them their first hit in some time, "When She Was My Girl," in 1981. Ultimately, The Four Tops would record only two albums for Casablanca before returning to Motown in 1983, where they recorded their last few albums. Although they ceased recording regularly in 1988, The Four Tops would appear on many TV specials over the years, many of them on PBS. Among the highlights of their television career was the special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, in which they engaged in a vocal duel with The Temptations (personally, I think The Four Tops won...). The group's songs would appear in many movies over the years, including Shaft in Africa, John Carpenter's version of The Thing, Blood Simple, Alien Nation, Forrest Gump, and Auto Focus. The group themselves appeared in the film Grease 2.
Levi Stubbs' strong baritone provided the voice of Audrey II in the musical film version of Little Shop of Horrors. He was also the voice of archvillain Mother Brain on the Saturday morning cartoon Captain N: The Game Master.
It was in 1995 that Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer. He later suffered a stroke. By 2000 his health had failed to the point where he had to cease touring with The Four Tops, although he joined them briefly on stage for their 50th anniversary concert in 2004, which was shown on PBS.
There can be no argument that Levi Stubbs was among the greatest pop and rock vocalists of all time. Even though most of their songs were written for tenor lead vocals, the range and power of Stubbs' voice would lend them an urgency rarely heard in rock or rhythm 'n' blues records before or since. With a natural talent for singing, Stubbs could give emotion to the songs he sang more powerful than the vast majority of performers. There can be no better example of this than in The Four Tops' greatest hits, such as as "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" and "Bernadette." Arguably the most powerful voice to emerge out of Motown, Levi Stubbs will never be forgotten.