The Four Tops may have been one of Motown’s biggest groups in the ’60s, but they seemed to exist in a world beyond Motown. Unlike many of the label’s own hand-groomed and manufactured bands, the quartet was around long before Motown started, and its original lineup continued decades after most Motown bands had become tribute acts filled with ringers. Mostly, though, the band differed from other Motown acts thanks to the sheer drama of frontman Levi Stubbs’ voice. His baritone had a particular pleading, crying quality that marked hits both upbeat (“I Can’t Help Myself,” embedded above, “Shake Me Wake Me,”) and grim and frightening (“Bernadette,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love“). Not for nothing did Billy Bragg title his hit song “Levi Stubbs’ Tears.”
The group’s best songs combined both approaches, as on their masterpiece “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” where each verse ends with an unbearable buildup of tension, a nail-biting pause, and finally a triumphant resolution. Stubbs sang that song, as he did so many others, like a man drowning in fear and anxiously awaiting rescue.
Not that desperation was the only color available to him. HIs vocal performance as the man-eating plant in 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors revealed a Stubbs who could be seductive, lascivious, and menacing, and he also found a latter-day sideline doing voices for videogames.
The original Tops lineup stayed together for 43 years, until Lawrence Payton died in 1997, followed by Renaldo “Obie” Benson in 2005. Stubbs’ death today at age 72 leaves Abdul “Duke” Fakir the last surviving Top. We encourage you to watch the Four Tops in these clips (including some after the jump) and to share your memories of the band below.
“It’s the Same Old Song”
“Baby, I Need Your Lovin'”