Sunday, October 19, 2008


"I don't consider myself as being a heckuva singer," Levi Stubbs said, "I'm more of a stylist, if you will."

Think about it. What made the Four Tops lead singer stand out was not smooth warbling, but shouting, bellowing and exasperated talking!

The classic Four Tops tunes were unlike anything else on the radio because the lead singer did not really sing...not in the smooth way of The Supremes, The Temptations, or the anguished white guys out there like Del Shannon and Roy Orbison. Levi Stubbs didn't sing. He agonized.

He also had an "old voice." Everybody else you heard on Top 40 radio stations sounded under 30. They sang about teen problems...puppy love gone wrong. Not Levi Stubbs.

Born Levi Stubbles (June 6, 1936 – October 17, 2008) he was about 30 when he was putting together that string of hits. But he sounded 40. Who but an older guy would even have a woman he could call "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch?" That's Kingfish's wife, not a Top 40 teen singer.

And in his best songs, he simply bellowed his aggravation, his rage at living in "Seven Rooms of Gloom," or his grim rap in "Shadows of Love," where his shout out is: "Gave you all the love I had, now didn't I? And when you needed me I was always there, now wasn't I?" How about "Reach Out," where he doesn't sing out but call out, "Come on Girl, Reach out to ME!"

What also augmented the agonized style of Levi Stubbs, was that the charts were written high...and so Stubbs, a natural baritone, had to strain on most of those tunes. It's no surprise that most karaoke fans, who can't handle an Orbison tune, or an Elton John song (he, who referenced "those great old Four Tops songs") can at least stumble around Stubbs and chant "Standing in the Shadows of Love."

Often a Four Tops song was about snarls and spoken passages and yelps. Was he really singing "Can't Help Myself" or just crying it? Was he crooning "Seven Rooms of Gloom" or talking it through? Wasn't it usually his help-mates, the other Tops, who led him into the melodic chorus ("Reach Out, I'll Be There") after he spent most of his time barking out his frustrations? Was he singing "Bernadette" or shouting her name? Classic Four Tops songs portrayed a grown adult male driven to his knees by love or hate, being sung from one place: hell.

As writer David Hinckley said of Stubbs' voice, "It wasn't exactly a gospel voice, it wasn't exactly soul," and it wasn't exactly singing all the time. Hinckley also notes, the prime of The Four Tops "lasted three years, from "Baby I Need Your Loving" in 1964 to "Seven Rooms of Gloom" in 1967." That's 30 years (the original Four Tops began to need replacement in 1997) of playing the oldies circuit and having a minor hit now and then...which qualifies The Four Tops for being on the illfolks blog as an often underappreciated group.

Any of you have much Four Tops or Levi Stubbs music recorded from the 70's, 80's or 90's? Once in a while Stubbs and/or company made their way back into the charts. Stubbs voiced the man-eating plant in the film version of "Little Shop of Horrors" while the Four Tops performed 'Loco In Acapulco' for the soundtrack to 'Buster.' The biggest shot the group had for returning to form was 'Indestructible,' used on a 1988 Olympic Games soundtrack album.

Levi Stubbs had worked the oldies circuit long enough so that most fans knew his weird trademark of jet black hair and a gray-white beard. In 1997 the first of the original Four Tops died, Lawrence Payton, and three years later, Stubbs, already diagnosed with cancer, could no longer perform with the group. Theo Peoples has been the lead singer since 2000, with Ronnie McNeir replacing Payton.

Of course those old Four Tops songs are classic, and you can check out the "Little Shop of Horrors" movie anytime, so the choice for a tribute is the appropriately titled "Indestructible," a pretty good comeback tune with Stubbs and the gang still giving more of a shout-out than a sing-along.
Indestructible! sung by LEVI STUBBS Listen on line or download, porn-ad free.

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