Levi Stubbs, the rough-sounding, soulful lead singer of the Four Tops – one of the harmonically dazzling Motown vocal groups of the 1960s with songs such as “Bernadette,” “I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and “Baby I Need Your Loving” – died Friday at his home in Detroit. He was 72 and had complications from a stroke in 2000.
Few singing groups maintained the quality, popularity and consistency in personnel of the Four Tops, formed in 1953. The group signed with Motown Records a decade later, sold tens of millions of records and generated 19 Top 40 singles from 1964 through the early '80s.
The original members – the baritone Stubbs, first tenor Abdul “Duke” Fakir, second tenor Lawrence Payton and baritone Renaldo “Obie” Benson – continued to perform together until Payton's death in 1997. Afterward, they sang as the Tops.
The Four Tops were responsible for setting “a high standard for contemporary soul in the mid-Sixties,” according to their 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The citation singled out Stubbs for his “bold, dramatic readings” of some of the finest compositions by the Motown songwriting-production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.
Popular favorites such as “It's the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out, I'll Be There,” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love” propelled the band into the front rank of American music for years. Afterward, they scored chart-topping hits with “Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got)” and “When She Was My Girl.”
In the early 1950s, Stubbs and other local high school students formed their group at a birthday party. Their path into the music business was smoothed by Stubbs' cousin, singer Jackie Wilson. As the Four Tops, the group sang in nightclubs, cut several flop records and toured with a revue without any particular notice until Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. signed them to his subsidiary label Workshop in 1963 for a $400 advance.
The group's signature harmonies and synchronized dance steps were polished, but the missing ingredient was music and arrangements.
The Holland-Dozier-Holland team felt “Baby I Need Your Loving” would be the breakthrough. Recording in 1964, the song reached No. 11 on the pop charts.
The Four Tops achieved their first No. 1 hit the next year with “I Can't Help Myself,” after which Gordy sent them on a European concert tour.