Levi Stubbs RIP

Example

The Four Tops

Example

Listen/Download – The Four Tops – Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over) – MP3

Greetings all.

Earlier today I read the very sad news that one of the greatest soul singers of all time, and the man I consider to be the greatest male singer in the Motown stable – Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops – passed away at the age of 72. Stubbs had been in ill health for the better part of a decade, and as far as I can tell last appeared with the Tops during an anniversary celebration (during which he looked extremely frail) back in 2004.

This is a repost (from just over two years ago) of my all time fave Four Tops song (and there are many to love) ‘Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)’. As I mention in the post, I feel that Levi Stubbs never really got the acclaim he deserved because he never really had the opportunity to establish himself as a solo artist. This takes nothing away from the undeniable greatness of the Tops, but I can’t help wondering where that mighty voice may have soared if applied to different kinds of material.

Levi Stubbs was a giant, and he will be missed.

Peace

Larry

Originally posted in July of 2006:

Today’s selection is another one from the “I Can’t Believe How Much I Took This Group For Granted, Honestly.” File. Certainly, of the artists that pop up in this space, few are as well known or successful as the Four Tops. If you follow my antics with any regularity, you will have noticed that periodically I return to a previously worn groove. I do this – at the risk of sounding repetitive (or embarrassing myself) because usually it has to do with a slightly “larger” concept.

As a music lover and record fiend, I often catch the collector psychosis, in which rarity brings not only an increase in monetary, but also artistic value (dubious to be sure) stepping in when I listen to music. This results in many fine records, which popularity and drastic levels of overplaying on oldies radio have rendered, how do you say “familiar” (with the most pejorative meaning possible) getting the brush-off when they come on the radio. Many of these records are Motown sides, that for better or worse have gotten the “Big Chill” treatment, and as a result have become – for me anyway – all but unlistenable.

I realize that this is not the artists (or the songs) fault, and that my beef is with the homogeneity of commercial radio. As I often explain to my wife (who’s a little younger than I am) the vast majority of what gets played on “Oldies” radio, is the stuff that was lodged firmly in the Top 10 of its day, and that you rarely get to hear anything else that resided between #10 and #40. These songs were in fact hits when they came out, but because the America’s pop-cultural “memory” has been so warped by the funhouse mirror of commercially driven “nostalgia” (and the reliance of “Oldies” radio on the Pop top 10), that many great records are known today only to the people old enough to have heard them first-hand or collector types (like myself) who spend most of their time rooting around in the dusty attics (literal and figurative) of the world.

Anyway, the aforementioned issue kept me from properly appreciating the sounds of the Motown organization for many years. That this was foolish on my part is, sadly, undeniable. I can however say that the last few years have seen me endeavor to remedy this situation. This isn’t to say that you’re going to find me blogging ‘Stop In The Name of Love’ – a song that I’ve decided I just don’t dig – but that you shouldn’t be surprised if you see me singing the praises of groups like the Four Tops or the Miracles alongside people you’ve never heard of before.

That said, despite songs like ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ getting overplayed into oblivion, the Four Tops discography is filled to the brim with records that are so potent that they transcend their abuse at the hands of radio programmers, advertising executives and wedding DJs. One of the prime beneficiaries of the Holland/Dozier/Holland troika, the Four Tops – led by one of the great soul voices of the 60’s, Levi Stubbs – racked up a remarkable series of hits between 1964 and 1967*. Some of these, like ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, ‘Standing In the Shadows of Love’ and ‘Bernadette’ (one of my wife’s favorite records) are among the greatest soul records ever produced, taking Motown (and all of soul and pop for that matter) in new directions.

I first heard ‘Shake Me Wake Me (When It’s Over)’ not on the radio, but on a scratchy, flea-market copy of the Four Tops greatest hits that I scored as a teenager. It struck me the first time I played it as one of those “where has this been all my life” records.

Starting with the piano and bass drum in tandem, then the tambourine and Stubbs vocal, ‘Shake Me…’ busts open with a drum roll that takes the cry of anguish into a solid, danceable tempo. There’s a real “cry” in Stubbs’ vocal, and the backing of the Tops (and I think the Andantes) in the background is perfect. The melody is one of HDH’s best, and the arrangement, pushed along by strings and ringing vibes is brilliant (the key change in the second half of the song is beautiful), but the real standout here is the voice of Levi Stubbs.

I think that because Stubbs never recorded as a solo artist, he doesn’t get the respect he deserves. I suppose some of problem is that Motown is looked at as a kind of “hit factory” where the composers, producers, arrangers and band are often seen as equal contributors to the success of a given record (the same thing could fairly be said of many great Stax sides), and the singers end up looking like just another vehicle for delivery of the product. But I mean, really…give this track a couple of close listens and then honestly tell me that anyone besides Levi Stubbs could have delivered such a masterful, passionate performance (it is possible to make such a statement without denying the genius of the song itself, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive). I think you’ll agree**.

*I’m talking about the records that I consider remarkable. They obviously kept having hits after 1967…

** This said of course, noting that on the LP (this track is recorded from the jukebox EP seen above) ‘On Top’ almost the entire b-side is devoted to awful attempts at middle-of-the-road-ness like a version of ‘Matchmaker’ from Fiddler on the Roof. Despite the fact that the Four Tops did record jazz and standards before they signed with Motown, this unfortunate detour can be wholly attributed to the Motown organization, who pushed the same, ill-advised supper club dross on many of their hitmakers.

Buy – The Four Tops Millenium Collection – on Amazon.com

About these ads

8 Responses to “Levi Stubbs RIP”

  1. Myriem Says:

    Thanks for this post. I just saw the news on NYT.com and it put me immediately in the mood to hear his voice again.

  2. Nick Rossi Says:

    Sad news. I have to admit Larry, Levi has dwelled in my own “taken for granted” category for a long, long time – despite the fact that “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” is one of my favorite Motown recordings. Rest in Peace.

  3. Groovin' Dan Says:

    Well put as always, Larry. Great points about Levi’s relative underratedness, and the spoiling effect that The Big Chill and Oldies Radio had on so many Motown songs.

    (Not to mention how, for a time there in the 1980s, EVERY 1960s soul song or singer was automatically considered “Motown” by yer average American bloke/blokette on the street. “Otis Redding, he’s Motown, right?”‘ “Oh, I love Motown; that “Good Lovin’” song is so much fun!,” etc. But I digress.)

    Anyway, Levi was unquestionably one of the greats; I would also assert that the Tops made some pretty amazing records after 1967, but you can read that argument over at my place…

    RIP, indeed.

  4. W Says:

    A true classic. He will be missed.

  5. Ray Says:

    Yeah, sad. I’m a big fan of the Tops.
    Give a listen to “You Keep Running Away”.
    I forgot about that song, but I heard it a couple of years ago at a picnic.
    Decided then and there I had to expand my Tops collection.
    Goodbye Levi.

  6. RIBS TPTD: Levi Stubbs (Four Tops), R.I.P. | RIBS: Rhythms In Black Satin Says:

    [...] Funky16Corners: Levi Stubbs RIP [...]

  7. Levi Stubbs RIP « Nuclear Rays From My Halogen Haze Says:

    [...] 21, 2008 by prodigalsonnybono The singer of the Four Tops died Friday at the age of [...]

  8. RPM Says:

    While I agree that Levi Stubbs is not a household name, in the manner of say, Otis Redding, or Marvin Gaye, or James Brown, my guess is that the 4 Tops’ music may very well be the most widely known of all four.

    Turning to this song, which I had never heard before, the question I have to ask is, how did they cram so much music into 2:43?

    When I first discovered Stax, I went through a long period where I thought Motown – because everyone liked it – was just bubblegum music. Happily, I’ve outgrown my rough and ready/punk rock purity phase and recognized that, as much as I still love Stax, the best Motown is – melodically, harmonically, topically, and productionally – as good as it gets. Stax never recorded a piano like this, or strings, or a bass, and Holland Dozier and Holland can take Hayes, Porter and Redding to school.

    I never thought the Corners would teach me a song I loved more than “Get Out and Let Me Cry” by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes but my lord this song is relentless “…as the tears stream down my face, I can’t believe I’ve been replaced…” Thank you.

Comments are closed.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers

%d bloggers like this: