Saturday, October 18, 2008

Motownobit: Levi Stubbs

After a long period of ill-health, Levi Stubbs passed on Friday at his home in Detroit.

The son a foundary worker, Stubbs was born in June 1936. His real name was the subtly but importantly different Levi Stubbles. It was in Detroit, while at Pershing High School, that Levi formed a band with Abdul "Duke" Fakir; in 1954 they hooked up at a party with Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Lawrence Payton and The Four Tops was born. Almost. For a while, they were The Four Aims, which was changed to The Four Tops to avoid confusion with another local band, The Ames Brothers. While the name might have changed, the line-up was pretty solid and lasted for 44 years, until the death of Payton enforced a change of personnel.

In a lucky break, Roquel "Billy" Davis - Payton's cousin who was sometimes drafted in as an extra voice for the group - was a gifted songwriter; Chess records was keen to sign him up to write for the their artists and this gave him the chance to push the Four Tops onto the label. The cut one single for Chess, Kiss Me Baby, which was to be the start of a seven year slog through a number of labels and a large pile of unsold records.

It wasn't until arriving at Berry Gordy's Workshop Jazz label that the band's success playing live started to find a successful shape on disc - Breaking Through wasn't exactly a major smash, but it was enough to persuade Gordy to try moving the band towards soul, shifting them to his more mainstream Motown imprint and, crucially, pairing the group up with Holland-Dozier-Holland. Baby I Need Your Loving reached number 11, and kick-started an eight year stretch of some of the most sublime music ever to grace the US charts.

The depature of Holland-Dozier-Holland from Motown in 1967 started a period of mild decline for the band's fortunes: they still had hits, but 1968 saw them treading water releasing cover versions. Fair enough, one of those covers was Walk Away Renee, but it was a cover nevertheless.

In 1972, unwilling to follow Motown out of Detroit to the new LA base, the band moved to ABC/Dunhill where they had a mini resurgence before fading again. Casablanca Records would be their next home in 1981, delivering their final significant hit, When She Was My Girl. By 1983, they were back at Motown but adjusting to a position as a heritage act.

Stubbs had two acting roles under his belt - one major, one somewhat more obscure. He was the voice of the plant in Little Shop Of Horrors and of Mother Brain in the Captain N Super Mario Brothers spin-off franchise.

He quit touring in 2000 when his health deteriorated. Levi Stubbs was 72; he is survived by five children, 11 grandchildren, and Clineice. At 48 years, their marriage was as durable as the band which made him famous.