Levi Stubbs was a singer and a gentleman.
The Four Tops with Levi Stubbs at far right (Wikimedia Commons / Arnie Lee)
Though he was the lead singer of The Four Tops, his name isn’t as well known as those of others who have fronted Motown acts, like Smokey Robinson or Diana Ross. The reason is not that Stubbs was uncharismatic or unable to handle fame – it was that he chose not to overshadow his bandmates. Over the years, he declined to take top billing and turned down several offers at a lucrative solo career. The Four Tops began when four friends – Stubbs, Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton – got together to start a singing group. Stubbs wanted them to remain always a group of equals and friends.
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Levi Stubbs would have turned 76 today, and we’re celebrating with a few of our favorite Four Tops songs – plus one his rare performances without the rest of the band.
This wonderful 1966 version of "It’s the Same Old Song" shows that though Stubbs was clearly at the forefront of the band, singing lead and occasionally standing apart from the rest of the Four Tops, he also spent plenty of time dancing with the band – and having fun with them, too.
Stubbs didn’t set himself apart with flashy clothes, either. Just like his bandmates, he dressed in a tidy jacket and tie, in colors that harmonized with everybody else’s. The jackets in this 1967 performance of "Reach Out (I’ll Be There)" are an awful lot like the ones in the previous clip.
Stubbs wasn’t above gathering around the group microphone with the rest of the guys, as in this performance of "Baby I Need Your Loving."
When Stubbs did take the spotlight for himself, it wasn’t with a magnificent solo career or by stepping on the backs of his bandmates. No, he distinguished himself as the powerful, recognizable voice behind some great animated and animatronic villains… like Audrey II in the 1986 movie Little Shop of Horrors.
Whether giving voice to a man-eating plant or belting out "Bernadette," Levi Stubbs had star power, even if he preferred to stand a bit more in the shadows.
Written by Linnea Crowther