When the world falls apart some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face – Billy Bragg
So now what are we supposed to do? The world is falling apart, and Levi Stubbs is gone. One of the few things we could count on is lost forever, and the tears are running down our faces.
Levi never went solo. Who knows why. He certainly could have easily had a great solo career just like Smokey Robinson did after he left the Miracles, or like Jerry Butler did after the Impressions, or Ben E. King after the Drifters. But Levi stayed with the Tops, and if I had to guess, I’d guess that it was because for him, some things were more important than fame and fortune. Things like friendship and commitment. I wonder how many people realize that the Four Tops, who formed in 1953, performed for more than four decades with the same lineup. It makes bands who whine about “artistic differences,” and break up after a couple of years, look silly, doesn’t it?
The sad fact is that now there is only one original member of the Four Tops left. Abdul “Duke” Fakir is the survivor. Lawrence Payton died of liver cancer in 1997, Ronaldo “Obie” Benson was taken by lung cancer in 2005, and now Levi Stubbs is gone. Duke Fakir had this to say about his longtime partner: “It seemed like the world really loved him. He had one of the best voices, ever. He could take any kind of song and take you with him. He had that kind of power and love for the lyrics.” Duke is still out there on the road with the current Four Tops, and as long as they’re out there singing those great songs every night, the Tops and their music will never be forgotten.
I guess I shouldn’t neglect to mention the hits. It’s just that they’re as familiar to me, hell to all of us, as the backs of our hands. In the ten year period beginning in 1963, the Tops had 20 top-40 hits. Most of those came in Motown’s golden era of 1964-1967, and were produced by the legendary Motown hitmaking team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. To name just a few: “Ask the Lonely,” “Can’t Help Myself,” “Bernadette,” “Seven Rooms of Gloom,” “Reach Out,” “Shake Me, Wake Me,” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love.”
It’s funny, as much as I love those Motown hits, and they were my very lifeblood growing up, my favorite Levi Stubbs vocal came in 1982, when the Tops were well past the peak of their fame. It’s a gentle ballad called “I Believe In You and Me,” which is billed as a Four Tops record, but other than some backgrounds in the bridge of the song, the only voice on the record is that of Levi Stubbs. When he hits that falsetto, see if the tears don’t run down your face.
So now I’ll put my Four Tops tape back in its case. The whole world is falling apart and Levi Stubbs is gone. God help us.