Levi Stubbs never left. While Diana Ross split from the Supremes, Smokey Robinson migrated from his Miracles, and David Ruffin took off from the Temptations (ok, technically he was fired, but only after clearly demonstrating by his actions that he wanted out), Levi Stubbs never went solo. The offers must have been extensive, the opportunities endless. Still, Levi stayed. It could only have been out of love for his fellow Four Tops, at least I would like to think so. It was nearly 50 years before he left the group, and then only because his health was failing him. It’s one of the greatest stories in rock and roll.
Stubbs, together with friends Lawrence Payton, Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, and Ronaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, formed a group called the Four Aims in 1954. They signed with Chess Records in 1956, and changed their name to the Four Tops. It was in 1963 that they signed with Motown Records, where they recorded numerous hits over the course of the decade. Stubbs was a natural baritone, but the Tops songs were written for a tenor in order to provide the lead vocals with the intensity that characterized the group’s sound.
One of the earliest Four Tops hits for Motown was “Ask the Lonely”. Although it didn’t achieve the chart position of their first single, “Baby I Need Your Loving,” It was a vast improvement over the reception for their second single, “Without the One You Love (Life’s Not Worth While),” which failed to chart. “Ask the Lonely” was a respectable hit, reaching #24 on the Top 100 chart, and #9 on the r&b chart. It was the Tops next single, “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” that made them immortal.
The Four Tops continued touring throughout the ensuing decades until Lawrence Payton died of cancer in 1997. Facing the band’s first lineup change in over 40 years, the surviving Tops toured as a trio for a short time before recruiting former Temptation Theo Peoples to replace Payton. When Levi Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer, the group added Ronnie McNair, and Peoples moved up to the lead vocalist spot. Obie Benson died in 2005, and Roquel Payton (son of Lawrence) took over the bass role.
The Four Tops were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999. They were honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at the 51st Grammy Awards in 2009.
Levi Stubbs died in his sleep on October 17, 2008, at his home in Southfield, MI, just outside of Detroit. As long as people love Motown music, he will be remembered as one of the greatest soul singers ever, and a man who stuck by his friends.
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