Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Farewell to the Captain: The Four Tops' Levi Stubbs Passes Away at Age 72

"When the world falls apart, some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs' tears roll down his face."
- From Levi Stubbs' Tears," by BILLY BRAGG (1986)

Motown has lost another of its legendary voices as Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops for over four decades, died last week in Detroit at the age of 72.

Levi Stubbs had that huge, smoldering voice that, when you having him sing in a higher octave, projected a vulnerability that rang loud and clear. You sensed that in such songs as "Ask the Lonely," "Baby, I Need Your Loving," "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over), and "Reach Out, I'll Be There, a song famed producer Phil Spector dubbed "black Dylan."

But then, everything about Motown evolved around what went on inside the recording studio. You had producer/writers like Holland/Doizer/Holland, Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, Mickey Stevenson & Ivy Hunter, and Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson who had the chemistry to work with particular artists and came up with a lot of timeless hits.

Granted, there were a great deal of tracks that could have been hits, but were held back by Motown's notoriously neo-fascistic "Quality Control" division. In fact, two of the Marvelettes' latter-career hits ("Don't Mess With Bill," "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game") would have not seen the light of day on the pop charts had it not been for Smokey Robinson fighting for their releases. Many of the Motown singers may not have been the most gifted, the most versatile or even the most flexible, but they had writer/producers who knew how to showcase them properly, and that is why it was as prolific as it was.

Levi had one of the best voices ever: smoldering, powerful, yet capable of projecting a melancholic vulnerabilty to great effect. There were many transcendent moments too numerous to mention, and we have lost one of the great ones.

Rest in peace, Captain. You will be truly missed.

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