Four Tops Frontman Levi Stubbs Dies

Farai Chideya pays tribute to Four Tops frontman Levi Stubbs, who died Friday at his Detroit home. He was 72 years old.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Levi Stubbs, the front man for The Four Tops, died Friday at his Detroit home. He was 72 years old. His musical journey began with The Four Aims. They changed their name to The Four Tops and built a following on the lounge circuit. They perform with the likes of Della Reese, Count Basie, Richard Pryor and also with Stubbs' cousin, the great Jackie Wilson. In 1963 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Barry Gordy signed the group to Motown Records. The times were turbulent but their sound was silky smooth. Once they signed with Gordy, they sang hit after hit. "Baby I Need Your Loving" in 1964, "I Can't Help Myself" also known as "Sugarpie Honeybunch," a number one hit in 1965 and in 1966, the chart-topping "Reach Out."

Plenty of people know that as "I'll Be There." With two more hits in 1967, The Four Tops were one of the successful groups of the 1960s hoping to find the Motown sound. Their work are more than top billing in the charts. In 1990, the quartet was inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame. The Four Tops performed together for over four decades without a single change in personnel. Until the end, Stubbs was loyal to the group. He rejected solo offers and even turned down the role of Lewis McKay opposite Dianna Ross as Billie Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues." Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer in 1995 and suffered a stroke five years later. But his pleading, raspy voice and a catalog of instantly recognizable hit songs contribute to a soulful musical legacy. As Levi Stubbs told the Los Angeles Times in 1994, When I learn a song, I try to live it as best as I can.

(Soundbite of song "I'll Be There")

THE FOUR TOPS: (Singing) I'll be there to love and comfort you...

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today, thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our website, nprnewsandnotes.org. News & Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, we take a closer look at both parties White House transition plans.

(Soundbite of song "I'll Be There")

THE FOUR TOPS: (Singing) You're alone now. You'll never get on. But darling, reach out. Come on, girl. Reach out for me. Reach out. Just look over your shoulder. I'll be there...

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya, this is News & Notes.

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Levi Stubbs, Four Tops Lead Singer, Dies

The Four Tops' Hits

Baby, I Need Your Loving (Watch The Four Tops sing on YouTube.)

I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)

Bernadette

Reach Out (I'll Be There)

It's the Same Old Song(Watch The Four Tops sing on YouTube.)

Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)

The Four Tops

The Four Tops, one of Motown's most successful groups, in 1966. Levi Stubbs is at lower right. Harold Clements/Hulton Archive / Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Harold Clements/Hulton Archive / Getty Images

When I was in high school, back in the '60s, one of the songs that would invariably make high school girls swoon and high school boys' eyes glint with perceived opportunity was the Four Tops' "Baby, I Need Your Loving."

If you were lucky, when the intro started, some cute boy from the football team would snake out an arm, capture your wrist and pull you into his orbit. You'd be clasped against a well-muscled chest as you breathed in his after shave and Levi Stubbs pleaded his case:

"Some say it's a sign of weakness / for a man to beg. / But weak I'd rather be, / If it means having you to keep! / Baby, I need your loving / Got to have all your loving."

Levi's baritone—like a velvet scarf pulled over gravel—was the linchpin for the Four Tops' seamless harmonies. They performed together for over 40 years. The bulk of their hits came during Motown's heyday. Working with the legendary song writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland, they released songs that were instant hits then, and remain classics now.

The Four Tops were not only national stars; they were international sensations when they toured abroad. In an era when broken-down bell bottoms, scruffy hair and Army-Navy surplus coats were de rigueur, the Tops were always elegant onstage, whether they were in tuxedos or silk Nehru jackets and medallions.

At Motown's 25th-anniversary celebration, the Four Tops went head to head with the Temptations. The audience screamed with delight. Each group finished the other's lyrics to their signature hits, and the "rivalry" reinvigorated both groups' careers. They often performed together in subsequent years, before crowds of baby boomers and their children. (Many of the hits have been used in commercials, so a new generation has become familiar with them that way.) A New Yorker critic, after a 1993 concert, said it wasn't so much a homage to the oldies as it was "a master class in the golden age of Motor City Soul."

Four decades, 36 albums and countless hits later, the original group finally changed when Lawrence Payton died in 1997. Levi Stubbs stopped performing in 2000 after a series of strokes. He died at home in Detroit the morning of Oct. 17, with his wife, Clineice, at his side. They'd been married since 1960.

A few years before Stubbs died, Aretha Franklin arranged to have him brought onstage when she played in their hometown, Detroit. They sang a duet "I Believe In You And Me." (Whitney Houston introduced it in the 1996 movie The Preacher's Wife.) The stroke's effects were obvious—Stubbs could only use one hand. He was emotional and halting at first, but in the end, the notes came out softly, but faultlessly.

Watching it on YouTube, I could only think of one of the Four Tops' classic hits:

"It's the same old song, but with a different feeling since you've been gone."

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