The world of R&B and Soul has again lost another unforgettable voice, but in the case of Motown giant Berry Gordy “the greatest interpreter of songs”, when Levi Stubbs died in his sleep at his Detroit home early Friday morning at the age of 72. Stubbs is best known as the lead singer of The Four Tops with his baritone, deep voice.
“Levi Stubbs was one of the great voices of all times” Motown colleague Smokey Robinson stated Friday. “He was very near and dear to my heart. He was my friend and my brother. I miss him. God bless his family and comfort them.”
Born and raised in the Motor City in 1936, Stubbs was one of seven children of parents Levi and Daisy. He grew in Detroit’s North End, where it was a launching pad for future Motown icons like Smokey Robinson and future Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. After graduating from Pershing High, he hooked up with fellow classmate Abdul “Duke” Fakir and Northern High friends Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton to become a singing group, originally named the Four Aims, and then went on to rechristen themselves as the Four Tops. They began making a name for themselves in the nightclub circuits — singing with popular arts like Billy Eckstine — before signing with Motown in 1964.
With Stubbs, the Four Tops racked a number of hits throughout the 60s with Motown that included the #1 hits “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, “Baby I Need Your Loving”, and “Walk Away Renee”. They left Motown and signed with ABC Records in 1972, where they continued to enjoyed success on the Pop and R&B charts with songs such as “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)”.
The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Fakir is now the only surviving original member of the Tops. Payton died from cancer in June 1997; Benson was the next to pass away in 2005 due to lung cancer and several illnesses.
“They are the voice of adolescent angst and adult heartbreak, the pure, the absolute joy that humans can take in one another” said Pontiac-born music critic and Rock & Rap Confidential Editor Dave Marsh. “Call them love songs – I’d say it was more like lifelines – but call them silly and you’ve branded yourself as a fool … Levi and the Tops were among the graces of my own soul.”
Stubbs was also the voice of Audrey II in the 1986 big-screen version of Little Shop of Horrors starring Rick Moranis. In his 1994 book To Be Loved, Gordy revealed that Stubbs was his original pick as the male lead opposite fellow Motown legend Diana Ross for the 1972 Billie Holiday bio pic Lady Sings The Blues — which then went to Billy Dee Williams.
“He could easily have made it as a solo star”, Gordy said in his statement on Friday, “but his love and loyalty for Obie, Lawrence and Duke kept them together longer than any group I know. His integrity and character were impeccable. I have never seen a more dedicated person – to his wife, his group, his friends. … Levi had the looks, the stature and the street smarts of a Louis McKay …but he refused the role because he though it would interfere with the group’s future success.”
Stubbs is survived by wife Clineice; three sisters; children Beverly, Raymond, Levi III and Kelly; 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are being made at the moment.