Op-Ed: Sad news for music lovers. Motown giant Levi Stubbs dead, 72

Posted Oct 17, 2008 by Paul Wallis
The musical mountain of the Four Tops will perhaps always be a yardstick for male vocalists, even by Motown standards. Levi Stubbs was the top of the Tops in the public mind, the front man. They had no less than 40 hits, all classics.
The Four Tops & Levi Stubbs
The Four Tops: Levi Stubbs, second right, led the famous group through hits like Baby I Need Your Loving and Reach Out (I'll Be There).
File photo (1997)
The New York Times has the sad story, but I want to concentrate on how important the Four Tops were to modern music. When Motown started really firing, it was a place with a terrific songwriting base, in Smokey Robinson, Holland Dozier Holland, and later Stevie Wonder.
Pop music, and most modern vocal arrangements, grew up with Motown as the standard. The lyrics became fluent, not note-driven like in old songwriting styles. That was an innovation with started with Cole Porter, but took 40 years to really make its point in popular music. It's as important to music as instruments, freeing up vocalists from nitpicking scores.
To work with great songs, you need great singers, and the Four Tops were beyond dispute incredible singers, soul power incarnate.
They were powerful in another way, too. I finally got to see some of their Ed Sullivan performances, decades later, on DVD. The first thing I noticed was that their singing was so strong that they even overloaded live analog microphones. The mikes could barely handle what they were carrying.
If you’ve ever been close to a brass section when it’s playing, they sounded like that. That’s real singing, and real harmony. Their synchronization was perfect. The Four Tops were a true class act, technically, musically, professionally and in the true meaning of the word “class” in performances.
It’s no cliché to say that the Four Tops music will live forever, because it’s that much of a challenge to singers. It’s like Beethoven with voices. You have to be more than good to sing like that. For vocal groups, they’re Everest, all due respect to the other Motown and Atlantic acts.
The group was together for 40 years with the same members. There’s only one Four Top left now, but believe me, nobody will ever be able to take a single inch away from the height of this astonishing, dazzling musical mountain.
Music never dies. It just gets better.