Thursday, July 29, 2010

FOUR TOPS sans Levi Stubbs live show July 5, 2010

What would The Four Tops sound like without Levi Stubbs?

You'll find the answer in the download below. When The Four Tops take the stage, either at oldies shows, headlining, or co-billed with whatever's left of The Temptations, the announcer usually tells the crowd that the show is dedicated to Levi Stubbs (and mentions a few of the other dead Tops as well).

Which puts The Four Tops into the odd position of simultaneously being the stars of the show and a tribute band. They are billed as THE Four Tops. But without distinctive lead singer Stubbs, it's just a bunch of guys covering the well-loved Motown songs. Since they tend to play in good-time places like theme parks, or to older audiences who are just celebrating being alive, the ethics don't matter much. It's just a little funny when the new lead singer nostalgically describes how the band proved they could handle more than Motown soul when they covered "Walk Away Renee…" even though he wasn't in the band when that happened.

But if you were expecting that familiar, magical sound of Levi Stubbs, who was the lead singer and soul of the band, no, that's gone. In fact, it's best preserved on those old 45's, because the secret of The Four Tops' success as an AM-radio super group, was in over-peaking his vocals and letting the VU meter arrow go raw into red, and also to write the charts a few notes out of his natural range, forcing him to strain and shout the lyrics.

For what it's worth, and it really isn't anything, the Illfolks blog considers The Four Tops to be the best of the Motown groups, with songs such as 'Bernadette," "Seven Rooms of Gloom" and "It's The Same Old Song" far more important and gut-wrenching than the sweet stuff their contemporaries were singing, and that goes for "Tears of a Clown," "Just My Imagination," "Baby Love" and "My Cherie Amour." Not to mention the Jackson Five, please.

Even though a lot of The Four Tops songs did sound alike, they were all good. They managed to vary their sound enough to score hits in the 70's ("MacArthur Park") and 80's ("When She Was My Girl," big on the R&B chart if not the actual Top 100). The band did seem to be "Indestructible," to give you the title of the 1988 song that was really the last time the Four Tops sounded anything like The Four Tops, and seemed immortal.

Still, there's something a bit creepy about not letting an historic group die. Why is it that this generation can't accept death the way past generations did? Past generations let The Andrews Sisters die. They let Spike Jones and his City Slickers die. They let Louis Jordan and his Timpany Five die, and Red Ingle and his Natural Seven.

So why is it that wimps keep resurrecting The Kingston Trio, hauling out bogus versions of The Marcels or The Platters, and running tours of Jay and the Americans without Jay, or Herman's Hermits without Herman, or The Animals with whatever monkeys want to bicker over the name?

"The Four Tops" is an attention-getting name to use. They have one original band member left, which is often enough to pretend "truth in advertising." But when you see Queen, Vanilla Fudge or The Four Tops without the famous lead singer/voice, what, as Marvin Gaye might ask, is goin' on? "Official Four Tops Tribute Band" might be less commercial but more ethical, since the band does not sound anything it did when fronted by Levi Stubbs!

There's a song in "My Fair Lady" that assures us that there will be Spring every year WITHOUT YOU. Last July 4th weekend, a hot and happy crowd seemed to enjoy a nostalgic set of Motown WITHOUT STUBBS. Too bad that the announcer didn't specifically say, "The Four Tops' sound was mainly the work of its lead singer Levi Stubbs. He is very, very dead, but his spirit lives on. The song never dies, just the singer. I give you…an acceptable tribute band that is officially allowed to be called The Four Tops…"

Cut to the download for a frisky non-Stubbs half hour of: Loving You (Is Sweeter Than Ever), Bernadette, The Same Old Song, Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over), Walk Away Renee, Something About You Baby, A Simple Game, When She Was My Girl, Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got), Reach Out (I'll Be There), Can't Help Myself.


Anonymous said...

Around Christmas and New Year last year, I spotted posters advertising gigs by "The American Four Tops." Judging by the fact this Four Tops in the download were able to play the 02 arena whilst the "American" model were playing tiny dives, it is fair to guess the "American Four Tops" are a fake cover band with nobody connected to the band nor Motown within it.

Agreed - why not just let it be and retire these legendary band names gracefully instead of dragging them on for an eternity? Last time I saw a picture of a band claiming to be The Drifters I swear there was nobody over the age of 35 in it. Heaven knows how many "Drifters" there are touring the world!

Levis Stubbs gave The Four Tops their identity and urgency. They were the best Motown band hands down - their choreography was superb as well. The Temptations seem to get more plaudits thanks to Hollywood movies using their music but they just lack the dramatics that the greatest Four Tops moments boasted.

Ill Folks said...

This is just the kind of insanity fans hate to see!

I hadn't heard of "The American Four Tops," but sure enough, this is some kind of "Tribute Band" that seems to specialize in scoring dates internationally.

William Hicks is the leader of this group. He formed The Soul Satisfaction in 1990, and on his website ( you see he's got his own versions of both The Four Tops ("The American Four Tops" Tribute Band) and "Supreme Divas of Motown," his fake version of The Supremes.

He's surely playing the weasel-word game, and competing with the group that officially calls itself The Four Tops and has their own website:

At least "The Four Tops" (as heard here on the blog) has one original member from the group, Duke Fakir. The others are Roquel Payton, Theo Peoples and Ronnie McNeir.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link. Usual dubious nonsense with Hick's sole "qualification" being he once shared a bill with the original Four Tops! Great... I was once sat on the same bus as Whistling Jack Smith so I think I'll call myself Whistler Jack Smith and get mopping up!

Anonymous said...

You're right - it really doesn't mean much...if you knew who the Tops were, you'd know that not only do they have the only surviving original member, Duke Fakir in their line up today, but Roquel Payton is original member Lawrence Payton's son. The lead singer is not the one speaking about "Walk Away Renee," Duke is the only one doing the reminiscing (at least get the members' voices straight before taking a dig at them). The Tops are something special - no member has ever quit, been fired, or gone off to do their own solo act. They are truly brothers in the music business - a rare occurrence.

Anonymous said...

Has a family member of the great Levi Stubbs,I'm glad Duke is still carrying on, and keeping the dream alive