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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The lead singer of the Four Tops has died. Levi Stubbs led the group for almost 45 years. The Four Tops was one of the most successful vocal groups in popular music. It helped to define the Motown sound of the 1960s. Stubbs died this morning at his home in Detroit at age 72. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

(Soundbite of music)

FOUR TOPS: (Singing) Ooh, ooh...

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Levi Stubbs raspy baritone provided the soundtrack for millions of baby boomers coming of age.

(Soundbite of the song Baby, I Need Your Lovin by Four Tops)

Baby, I need your lovin. I really need ya. Baby, I need your lovin. I really need ya. Although you're never near, I really need ya. Your voice I often hear.

BATES: Songs like, Baby I Need Your Lovin, Reach Out, I'll Be There, and Bernadette became huge hits in large part because of the smooth vocal fusion of stubs and his three partners. Ronaldo Obie Benson, Abdul Duke Fakir and Lawrence Payton.

(Soundbite of the song Baby, I Need Your Lovin by Four Tops)

Baby, I need your lovin. Got to have all your lovin. Baby, I need your lovin. Got to have all your lovin.

BATES: The four singers became a group out of a birthday party in the early 1950s in their Detroit hometown. Soon the Four Aims, as they were known then, were in demand for weddings and parties and by the mid 1950s they changed their name to the Four Tops. Stubbs was always the lead singer, their seamless harmonies and smooth choreography eventually attracted Barry Gordy, who signed them to Motown in 1963. Music journalist Steven Ivory says, Stubbs voice was the perfect counterpart to the other three tops.

Mr. STEVEN IVORY (Music Journalist): It was just robust and authoritative, and it had a soulful sort of sophistication to it. They just worked so well against those modern harmonies.

(Soundbite of the song Reach out, I'll be there by Four Tops)

I'll be there to love and comfort you. And I'll be there to cherish and care for you.

BATES: Stubbs voice was beautifully showcased by the legendary song writing team Holden Dogde Halen which wrote a string of hits for the Four Tops.

(Soundbite of the song Reach out, I'll be there by Four Tops)

I can tell the way you hang your head (hang your head). You're not in love now, now your afraid (you're afraid). And through the tears you look around (look around). But there's no piece of mind to be found (no piece of mind to be found). I know what you're thinking.

BATES: The Four Tops became international stars. And Stubbs was approached several times to launch a solo career but he always refused. Loyalty was a consistent thread throughout his professional and personal life. The original Four Tops stayed together until Lawrence Payton died in 1997 and Stubbs suffered a series of strokes three years later. Levi Stubbs stayed married to his wife Clineice for 48 years. Stubbs reached a new generation when he provided the voice for Audrey, the man-eating plant in the film version of Little Shop of Horrors. Music journalist Steven Ivory recalls interviewing Stubbs in Los Angeles in the 1990s.

Mr. IVORY: He answered the door on a smoking jacket and some of these matching loafers with emblems on them.

BATES: Still the soul of sophistication, but he wasn't jaded. Stubbs played a cut from a new record the Four Tops were releasing. Ivory listened and watched in fascination.

Mr. IVORY: He was just sitting there just quietly and just enjoying it. Not in an egocentric fashion but just in someone who was able to step outside of themselves and say, wow, that guy sounds good.

BATES: Did he ever. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(Soundbite of the song It's The Same Old Song by Four Tops)

Now it's the same old song but with a different meaning since you've been gone. It's the same old song but with a different meaning since you been gone.

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