Levi Stubbs, whose distinctive, rough-hewn voice and pleading vocal style elevated the Four Tops’ soul classics to masterpieces, died today at his Detroit home. He was 72.
The Michigan native had been in ill health since being diagnosed with cancer in 1995. A stroke and other health problems led him to stop touring in 2000.
Stubbs did venture into acting and commercial work. In addition to TV commercials and voice work, he provided the voice of the carnivorous plant Audrey II in the 1986 movie version of Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors. The role didn’t cause conflict with the Tops. “The guys are all glad for me,” Stubbs once said. “If you’ve been together for 33 years, what could you possibly do that would cause friction?”
Throughout the Tops’ heyday, Stubbs rejected offers to embark on a solo career. When Gordy offered Stubbs the role of Louis McKay opposite Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, Stubbs turned it down out of loyalty to his bandmates. “He could have easily gone off on his own when the Four Tops were at their peak,” Fakir told USA TODAY in 1997. “And I’m sure he could have gone and done great things for himself. It says a lot about the man because not too many guys would have withstood the pressures and stuck around to split it four ways.”
Stubbs and the other Tops set records for longevity without personnel changes, until Payton died in 1997. Benson died in 2005.
The group left Motown in 1972 only to return briefly in the 1980s but stayed on the charts with “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got” and “Are You Man Enough.” Though the hits were fewer and farther between in through the 80s, the Tops kept their fans happy through live shows, sometimes touring with their friendly rivals The Temptations.
“Well, I’m rather loud and raw,” Stubbs told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “I don’t really even have a style; I just come by the way I sing naturally. When I learn a song, I try to live it as best I can.”
“They also had one lead singer, which gave them more of a distinguishable identity. Levi Stubbs was the first church-based soul shouter and pure singer. James Brown could shout, but Levi was a singer as well. He could invoke so much passion and longing in a voice; he is incredibly expressive.”
… Howard Kramer, curatorial director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted the group in 1990, said the Tops were a polished group by the time Motown came calling. “The Four Tops were seasoned; they had a better world view than kids right out of high school,” he told The Detroit News in 2004.
via USA Today: The Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs dies at 72