The singer of the Four Tops died Friday at the age of 72.
I think for years, I eshewed the music of the Four Tops because of this man’s voice. I preferred the refreshing sweetness of Curtis Mayfield in the Impressions, and the horny bleating of Smokey Robinson with the Miracles, to Stubbs’s rough, manly shouting (not to mention Holland-Dozier-Holland’s plinky choral building blocks that the songs were composed of). It somehow all seemed trite and bullying.
Only now that I’m older do I realize that the Four Tops did a rare feat, combining the classy (okay, sometimes simply chintzy) sophistication of Motown with the raw, more greasy R&B that they had been a part of for a decade before joining the Motown ranks. And Levi Stubbs was a big part of that, lending a voice of pain but also one of connection to the slick sounds that threatened to wash over him in each song, but which he always beat back. It’s a really original sound, and it is elegant. And though never delicate, it now feels strong and sophisticated to my aural palate.
Of course, you can hardly blame a punk rocker from the sticks (me!) for missing the greatness of a band consistently overplayed on oldies radio his entire life. So let me send off Stubbs with a song you may not have heard played this weekend on K-Earth: