At the height of the Swinging London era one song so overpowered the UK music scene that 1966 was deemed the year of "Reach Out I'll Be There". The American group that unleashed the hit was the Four Tops and the singer who powered the song was Levi Stubbs, whose voice has been described by Smokey Robinson as "one of the greatest of all time."
While the world's attention was focused on the upstart Beatles and Rolling Stones, it was the mature vocal R&B group from Detroit that showed how pop lyrics could be transformed into works of depth and meaning, when performed with true soul. As a result Stubbs and his compatriots Renaldo Benson, Lawrence Peyton and Abdul Fakir were fêted as heroes when they came to London under the auspices of The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein in 1966.
The Four Tops historic UK début appearance at Epstein's Saville Theatre, in November that year, was deemed one of the most significant live music events of the era and represented a "coming of age" for pop music. Fans roared their approval and Stubbs and the rest of the group were lionised at a party afterwards, when John Lennon, George Harrison, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards paid homage to their honoured guests.
The commanding sound of the group that so excited their British fans was born out of years of experience and a fruitful partnership with the songwriting and production team Holland-Dozier-Holland. But it was Levi Stubbs' lead vocals that instilled such drama and intensity into their work which rewarded them with a string of hits over three decades.
As stars of Berry Gordy's Tamla Motown label, the Four Tops reigned supreme throughout the Sixties, starting their career with "Baby I Need Your Loving" in 1964 and swiftly topping the US charts with "I Can't Help Myself" in 1965. More Top 20 hits followed including "It's The Same Old Song" (1965). Then came "Reach Out I'll Be There", a number one hit in the US and the UK in 1966. The unusual arrangement with its use of flutes and minor chords launched Stubbs' anguished vocals into a surging, romantic performance that would define the Tops' sound and ensure their career flourished well beyond the Sixties.
Stubbs was born Levi Stubbles in 1936. Raised in Detroit, he was a cousin of the singer Jackie Wilson. He attended Pershing High School, where he first began singing with Abdul "Duke" Fakir. In 1953 they met Lawrence Payton and Renaldo "Obie" Benson, while singing at a friend's birthday party and decided to form a group. Calling themselves the Aims they sang in harmony, inspired by the Inkspots. After performing at school dances they became professional artists, working on the Fifties jazz and R&B scene with Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Betty Carter, Della Reese, Brook Benton and Jackie Wilson.
Fakir described how the group got together when I met him in London in 1966. "We've known each other practically all our lives. At school we were in groups together. The Four Tops all started when we were at a school birthday party and the girls wanted someone to sing. We started to sing and we thought it sounded great and that we should form a regular group. We started doing cabaret dates in the neighbourhood. At that time when we were coming up there were so many groups in Detroit. All the cats were 'oohing and aahing' on street corners."
When the group eventually signed to Chess Records, Levi changed his surname to Stubbs and the group adopted the new name the Four Tops, chosen to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers. They released their début Chess single, "Kiss Me Baby", in 1956. Further singles failed to chart but their fortunes changed when they signed to Berry Gordy's newly established Tamla Motown label in 1963. Gordy's in-house writing team Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier provided the Four Tops with just the kind of challenging material they needed to exploit their vocal power.
Their first Tamla single, Holland, Dozier and Holland's "Baby I Need Your Loving' leapt to number 11 in the US Billboard chart. Gordy later said: "When we first heard 'Baby I Need Your Loving' Levi's voice exploded in the room and went straight for our hearts. We all knew it was a hit, hands down."
As the sophistication of the Tops' material increased, reaching its apogee with the minor chords used on "Reach Out", so Stubbs' voice began to emerge as a special ingredient. While not as rough or tough as some of his fellow R&B singers, it seemed to touch an inner sensitivity and his vocal delivery reflected the kind of preaching style of gospel and church choirs.
Fakir told how he and Stubbs would spend hours in the studio working up their hit records. "We used the same musicians all the time, like Earl Van Dyke on conga drums. The work on our records was shared between the group, the composers and producers. That's the way Tamla set the trends. We did some writing ourselves but never have a chance with Holland-Dozier-Holland writing all the time."
The group followed "Reach Out" with "Standing in the Shadows of Love' (1966) and another Holland, Dozier and Holland song, "Bernadette" (1967). When their writers left Motown in 1967, the Four Tops began diversifying, using material that would include Tim Hardin's "If I Were A Carpenter" (1967), The Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee" (1968) and Jim Webb's "MacArthur Park" (1971).
More hits followed including "It's All in the Game" (1970) and a surprise duet with the Supremes on Ike and Tina Turner's hit "River Deep, Mountain High" (1971). When Motown relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles the Four Tops left the label along with several other acts. However, the group remained a tight unit without any personnel changes, and Stubbs avoided the temptation of becoming a solo artist, preferring to stay loyal to his colleagues.
The Four Tops carried on working on the US cabaret scene for many years. They had two more hits in the Eighties, "When She Was My Girl" in 1981, and, in the UK, "Loco in Acapulco", from the film Buster starring Phil Collins. In 1986, Stubbs provided the voice for Audrey II, the man-eating plant, in the musical film Little Shop of Horrors.
Changing musical fashions meant the Four Tops never quite recaptured the success they had enjoyed in the Sixties. Yet they sold millions of records and continued performing for more than four decades. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999.
However, the years had begun to take their toll. Lawrence Payton died of liver cancer in 1997. At first the group refused to replace him, performing as a trio, re-named simply the Tops, but the following year they added an extra singer, Theo Peoples from the Temptations. In 2000 Stubbs suffered a stroke and was unable to perform again. Then in 2005 his old friend Obie Benson died of lung cancer.
The singer Gladys Knight, the Four Tops' Tamla stable-mate, described Levi Stubbs as an immensely talented and kind man. "His voice was so emotional, crisp with energy and an edge. So many artists don't like to share but he was very unassuming and so very humble."
Levi Stubbles (Levi Stubbs), singer: born Detroit, Michigan 6 June 1936; married 1960 Clineice Townsend (three sons, two daughters); died Detroit 17 October 2008.