Levi Stubbs; Lead Singer Of Motown's Four Tops

Levi Stubbs, left, performs with fellow Four Tops singers Renaldo
Levi Stubbs, left, performs with fellow Four Tops singers Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Abdul "Duke" Fakir and Lawrence Payton. The group had 19 Top 40 singles from 1964 through the early 1980s. (Courtesy Of Nbc)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 2008

Levi Stubbs, the rough-but-soulful lead singer of the Four Tops, which became one of the harmonically dazzling Motown vocal groups of the 1960s with songs including "Baby I Need Your Loving," "Bernadette" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)," died Oct. 17 at his home in Detroit. He was 72 and had complications from a stroke.

Few singing groups maintained the quality, popularity and constancy in members of the Four Tops, which formed in 1953. They signed with Motown Records a decade later, sold tens of millions of records and generated 19 Top 40 singles from 1964 through the early 1980s.

The original members -- the baritone Mr. Stubbs, first tenor Abdul "Duke" Fakir, second tenor Lawrence Payton and baritone Renaldo "Obie" Benson -- continued to perform together until Payton's death in 1997. Afterward, the group sang as "The Tops."

As one of the most formidable groups after the Temptations, another Motown hit machine, the Four Tops were responsible for setting "a high standard for contemporary soul in the mid-Sixties," according to their 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

The citation singled out Mr. Stubbs for his "bold, dramatic readings" of some of the finest compositions by the Motown songwriting-production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.

Popular favorites including "It's the Same Old Song," "Reach Out, I'll Be There" and "Standing in the Shadows of Love" propelled the band into the front rank of American music for years. Afterward, they scored chart-topping hits with "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got)" and "When She Was My Girl."

Critics noted that their talent and appeal were undiminished over the years. They made hundreds of concert dates annually, often with the Temptations. A New Yorker reporter attending a Four Tops performance in 1993 wrote that it was "less of an oldies show than a master class in the golden age of Motor City soul."

Levi Stubbles II was born June 6, 1936, in Detroit, one of eight children of a foundry worker and a housewife. He later shortened his surname.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Stubbs and other high school students formed their group at a birthday party. Their path into the music business was smoothed by Mr. Stubbs's cousin, singer Jackie Wilson. Also, one of Mr. Stubbs's brothers, Joe, sang with the Contours and the Falcons.

In selecting a name, the new band shunned the bird-group trend -- Falcons, Orioles, Flamingos -- because, Mr. Stubbs told The Washington Post, "That sounds great at 14, 15, 16 years old, but at 35, somebody calls you the Cuckoos, it just doesn't work."

As the Four Tops, the group sang in nightclubs, cut several flop records and toured with a revue without any particular notice until Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. signed them to his subsidiary label Workshop in 1963 for a $400 advance.

By this point, the group's signature harmonies and synchronized dance steps were polished, but the missing ingredient was music and arrangements.

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