It is with sad news and trepidation that I have to inform you guys on the death of Motown music legend Levi Stubbs, who for 47 years served as the long-running lead singer of one of Motown’s most accomplished musical acts of the sixties, the Four Tops. His death at the age of 72 from cancer today ends a life that was filled with more joy than the pain he suffered after a massive stroke ended his legendary career eight years ago.
Born Levi Stubbles, Jr. in Detroit on June 6, 1936, he shortened it to “Stubbs” before becoming professional. In his teens, he formed a group with his cousin Jackie Wilson during the rise of rock ‘n’ roll music and its subgenres rockabilly and doo-wop. In 1954, Wilson left to join Billy Ward and the Dominoes and Stubbs, upon his graduation from high school, formed a group with friends Lawrence Payton, Abdul “Duke” Fakir and Renaldo “Obie” Benson called the Four Aims. Two years later, that name would be changed to the Four Tops to avoid controversy over being referred to after the Ames Brothers.
From 1956 to 1963, the group recorded for Chess, Red Top, Riverside and Columbia Records to little or no success. In 1963, Motown Records signed the now-polished group to its jazz imprint. After the imprint folded, the group changed its sound to sophisticated R&B/soul and worked alongside Holland-Dozier-Holland. In 1964, HDH and the Four Tops connected with “Baby I Need Your Loving”, a symphonic pop ballad that set the group apart from contemporaries like the Southern-soul styled Temptations and the elegant Supremes. With Levi’s operatic baritone and the group’s trademark harmonies alongside session girl group The Andantes made the group’s recordings essential to “The Motown Sound”.
Other Four Tops hits included “I Can’t Help Myself”, “It’s The Same Old Song”, “Standing in the Shadows of Love”, “Bernadette”, “7 Rooms of Gloom” and their biggest hit “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. By the end of the sixties, the Four Tops were accomplished the world over having scored several number-one singles in England becoming a major attraction there and in the UK the group was the male answer to the Supremes in terms of appeal.
In 1970, three years after HDH departed from Motown, The Four Tops scored their biggest hits in years with “Still Waters (Love)” and “All in the Game of Love”. After a top forty hit and three albums with The Supremes (post-Diana Ross era) and another album, “That’s the Way Nature Planned It”, the group decided to leave Motown upon the label’s move to Los Angeles in 1972 signing with ABC-Dunhill Records. The group still scored several hits including “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got” and “Are You Man Enough”. After 1974, the group struggled to record a hit single though they remained a big concert draw. The group regained some success in 1981 with the top twenty hit, “When She Was My Girl”. Their last big hit was 1988’s “Indestructible”.
In 1990, the Four Tops were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder and also got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Stubbs’ death definitely ends an era. For 43 years, the original lineup of Levi Stubbs, Obie Benson, Duke Fakir and Lawrence Payton stayed together through every high and low that preceded the group. That bond was crushed when Payton died of cancer in 1997. Three years later, Stubbs was forced to retire after receiving a massive stroke in 2000, thus ending his long successful career, which also included success as a voice actor in films like “Little Shop of Horrors” where he played Audrey II, an evil eating plant.
Stubbs made his final appearance with the remaining surviving members of the Four Tops in 2004. A year later, Obie Benson died of lung cancer at 69. Thanks to Stubbs’ death at the age of 72 today, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, 73, remains the only original Four Top in the group that now includes Theo Peoples, Ronnie McNeir and Roquel Payton in the group.
Stubbs is survived by several of his siblings, a wife Cliniece and five children. He’ll be forever missed.