DETROIT — Four Tops frontman Levi Stubbs, whose dynamic and emotive voice drove such Motown classics as “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” and “Baby I Need Your Loving,” died Friday at 72.
He had been ill recently and died in his sleep at the Detroit house he shared with his wife of 48 years, said Dana Meah, the wife of a grandson. The Wayne County medical examiner’s office also confirmed the death.
With Stubbs in the lead, the Four Tops sold millions of records and performed for more than four decades without a change in personnel.
“Levi Stubbs was one of the great voices of all times,” former Motown labelmate Smokey Robinson said. “He was very near and dear to my heart. He was my friend and my brother, I miss him. God bless his family and comfort them.”
The Four Tops began singing together in 1953 under the name the Four Aims and signed a deal with Chess Records. They later changed their names to the Four Tops to avoid being confused with the Ames Brothers.
They also recorded for Red Top, Riverside and Columbia Records and toured supper clubs.
The Four Tops signed with Motown Records in 1963 and produced 20 Top-40 hits over the next 10 years, making music history with the other acts in Berry Gordy’s Motown stable.
“It is not only a tremendous personal loss for me, but for the Motown family, and people all over the world who were touched by his rare voice and remarkable spirit,” Gordy said Friday. “Levi was the greatest interpreter of songs I’ve ever heard.”
When he and others at Motown first heard “Baby I Need Your Loving,” Gordy remembered: “Levi’s voice exploded in the room and went straight for our hearts. We all knew it was a hit, hands down.”
Their biggest hits were recorded between 1964 and 1967 with the in-house songwriting and production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Both 1965’s “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and 1966’s “Reach Out” went to No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart.
Other hits included “Shake Me, Wake Me” (1966), “Bernadette” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (both 1967).
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‘He was a tremendous artist’
The acclaimed documentary film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which took its name from the Four Tops song, was released in 2002 and focused on the Funk Brothers, the talented but unheralded musicians who played backup on many Motown recordings.
While Stubbs didn’t play a direct role in the film’s production, director Paul Justman spoke Friday of the singer’s immense talent.
“He was a tremendous artist,” Justman said.
Stubbs “fits right up there with all the icons of Motown,” said Audley Smith, chief operating officer of the Motown Historical Museum. “His voice was as unique as Marvin’s or as Smokey’s or as Stevie’s.”
Gladys Knight remembered Stubbs as an immensely talented and kind man whom she had known since the 1950s. “We were family,” she said. “Have you ever heard a voice that sounded like his? It was emotional. It was crisp, with energy and an edge.”
She said he was as good a person as he was a performer. “He was amazing, very unassuming,” Knight said. “Very humble. So many artists don’t like to share. He would hand you the mike in a minute.”
The Four Tops toured for decades after their heyday and reached the charts as late as 1988 with “Indestructible” on Arista Records. In 1986, Stubbs provided the voice for Audrey II the man-eating plant in the film “Little Shop of Horrors.”
The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Stubbs’ death leaves one surviving member of the original group: Abdul “Duke” Fakir. Original Top Lawrence Payton died of liver cancer in 1997. Renaldo “Obie” Benson died of lung cancer in 2005.
Stubbs hadn’t done much performing in recent years because of his declining health, but was known to step up on stage from time to time when a Motown touring production came through Detroit.
He was born in 1936 and attended Detroit’s Pershing High School, where he sang with Fakir. They met fellow Payton and Benson while singing at a mutual friend’s birthday party, then decided to form a group.
Stubbs is survived by his wife Clineice, five children and 11 grandchildren.
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