“She takes off the Four Tops tape and puts it back in its case/When the world falls apart some things stay in place/Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face.”
—Billy Bragg, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”
Bragg’s 1986 homage was just one small measure of how the lead voice of the Four Tops impacted several generations of listeners.
Stubbs, who died Friday at age 72, was not the prototypical Motown singer of the ‘60s.
Though the Four Tops scored 24 top 40 hits, Stubbs ran counter to the suave soul stylings of the Detroit label. Whereas other Motown singers such as Smokey Robinson, the young Marvin Gaye and the Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks were lauded for their agile suppleness, their insinuating smoothness, Stubbs was all about raw emotion.
Whereas Robinson, Gaye and the rest served the song, Stubbs sounded as if he was caught up in something that no mere pop arrangement could contain.
He was never better than on a trilogy of songs released within a six-month span in 1966-67. All were written and produced by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr., Motown’s elite production team. Each remains a monument of classic soul, with Stubbs’ peerless voice at the forefront:
“Reach Out I’ll Be There”
Released August 1966, No. 1 pop hit
Stubbs throws a lifeline to a friend dying of neglect. Realizing the situation is desperate, he sings as if someone’s life depends on it, and it just might; the lyrics hint that a suicide is imminent (“all of your hope is gone”). The three remaining Tops (Obie Benson, Duke Fakir and Lawrence Payton) usher in Stubbs with a wordless “Ha!” as if spurring on a stallion. The beat clip-clops into place, a flute telegraphs the melody, and then the peerless Motown rhythm section locks into gear. The drama elevates each time the band drops out, save for James Jamerson’s driving bass guitar line and a rattling tambourine. Stubbs lands hard on the final syllable of key lines: “... the world has grown cold ... drifting out on your own
... and you need a hand to hold.” Stubbs isn’t just offering help to a friend in a time of need. He is pleading for her deliverance.
With each “reach out,” Benson, Fakir and Payton push Stubbs higher, until desperation cracks through the seams in his voice.
“Standing in the Shadows of Love”
Released November 1966, No. 4 pop hit
The clippity-clop beat echoes “Reach Out.” The desperate empathy of the previous hit transforms into bitterness and accusation. Now the narrator is plunged into unfathomable heartache: “You’ve taken away all my reasons for living.” The narrator stumbles down a street, bereft, trying to understand something beyond his control.
He’s been abandoned by the love of his life.
“Hold on a minute,” he cries, as if trying to stop a bullet, and the song veers into a brief but ferocious conga-drum breakdown. The song is the saddest of all battles; the listeners know the outcome before the narrator does. When he finally grasps that there no stopping the inevitable, the effect is devastating. “It may come today, or it may come tomorrow/But it’s for sure I’ve got nothing but sorrow.”
Released February 1967, No. 4 pop hit
Paranoia runs deep and wide in this classic of lust and jealousy. Stubbs addresses the title character, a siren whose beauty seduces other men and then blithely discards them against the rocks. But the most lovesick of them all is the narrator himself. He is consumed by fear; everywhere he looks there are suitors begging for Bernadette’s affections, and he frets he will lose her forever. He tries to woo her back by falling to his knees and proclaiming the utter worthlessness of his life without her. The horns and backing voices drape a cape of melancholy around Stubbs’ sagging shoulders. “Keep on needin’ me,” he cries. The song fades, and finally falls silent. But Stubbs returns two seconds later for one final outburst: “Bernadette!” It’s one of the great moments in the Motown catalog, and certainly the most chilling. Sometimes even Levi Stubbs’ tears were not enough.