Arguably the most powerful voice in Motown’s storied history has been silenced. Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs, Jr., died today (Oct. 17) at his home in Detroit after a long series of illnesses — including cancer and a stroke — that forced him to stop performing in 2000. He was 72.
Funeral arrangements are pending for Stubbs, who is survived by Clineice, his wife of 48 years, and five children.
“He had one of the most prolific and identifiably voices in American history,” the Motown Alumni Association’s Billy J. Wilson tells Billboard.com. “It’s a deep loss, to the entire Motown family and to the world.”
Stubbs’ death leaves Abdul “Duke” Fakir as the Tops’ only living member from the original quartet, which formed in 1954 as the Four Aims and signed with Motown nine years later. Laurence Payton passed away in 1997, and Renaldo “Obie” Benson died in 2005.
Fakir continues to lead a version of the Tops that includes Payton’s son Roquel, former Temptations member Theo Peoples and Motown veteran Ronnie McNeir.
Stubbs — born Levi Stubbles in Detroit — gave voice to enduring hits such as “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Bernadette” and others. The Tops have sold more than 50 million records and racked up 45 chart hits for the Motown, ABC Dunhill, Arista and Casablanca labels, and the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Stubbs also provided the voice of Audrey II, the man-eating plant in the film version of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors” in 1986, and of Mother Brain in the 1989 animated TV series “Captain N: The Game Master.”
Stubbs’ last public appearance with the group came at the group’s 50th Anniversary Concert on July 28, 2004 at Detroit’s Opera House.
Reaction to Stubbs’ death has been pouring forth as the word spread. The Temptations’ Otis Williams told Billboard.com that the wheelchair-bound Stubbs came to see his group perform with the current Four Tops a couple of times this year, in Toledo and in the Detroit area. “We had him in the dressing room and sang ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ … He would try to sing along with us, and as he was singing you could see tears well up in his eyes. He just longed to be on stage and do what he was known to do.”
Williams called Stubbs “our black Frank Sinatra. Frank not only had the voice but what made Sinatra unique was the way he’d phrase the song. Levi had that same kind of talent; whatever he was singing he would phrase it so uniquely that you would just stand there in awe.”
War’s Lonnie Jordan told Billboard.com he was “blessed” to meet Stubbs once during his career and felt that “his voice was so good he was just, like, from another planet. That’s what I told him.”
In a statement, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., called Stubbs “the greatest interpreter of songs I’ve ever heard.” Gordy also revealed that Stubbs was his first choice for the romantic lead in the Diana Ross film vehicle “Lady Sings the Blues” but that he turned down the role “because he thought it would interfere with the group’s future success.”
Brian and Eddie Holland, who co-wrote many of the Tops’ hits with partner Lamont Dozier, said in a statement that “Working with Levi was one of the most inspirational aspects of the time we spent at Motown. Just listening to the way he was able to deliver the HDH songs brought more beauty to them than we could have imagined … He was an inspiration to us as songwriters and producers.”
Smokey Robinson commented that Stubbs “was one of the great voices of all times. He was very near and dear to my heart,” while Daryl Hall said that “not only was Levi a nice guy, but he had one of the most distinctive voices of all of the Motown artists. He created a style so unique that it actually was never really imitated. And, the songs that he sang, like all great songs, will remain timeless.”
Funeral services for Stubbs will take place at 11 a.m. Monday at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple. Public viewings will take place Friday and Saturday at the city’s Swanson Funeral Home.