A piece of my youth died today

Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops

3 minute read
The Four Tops: Smooth, pleading and full of gravel.
The Four Tops: Smooth, pleading and full of gravel.
I am and always will be a white Jewish kid from the New York suburbs. I can't change that and I probably wouldn't, even though there are times I would have liked to. I started singing folk songs at 16 about how hard life was in the cotton fields or what it was like to follow the drinking gourd to freedom. I wasn't the only one. Then we'd return to our nice homes and have cookies and milk and go upstairs and go to sleep and wake up the next day in a nice secure middle class world.

I can't blame myself for that life. Please, don't you. I was born into it.

Then there were protest songs written by others, and then a few really awful things I wrote about events that were reported in the Times but which I personally knew little about.

The music, for me, got drums and a beat somewhere along the way with The Dave Clark Five and The Stones and those four guys from Liverpool who were never as good as everyone thought and then turned out to be much better. There was WABC and WMCA and WINS and suddenly there were The Temptations and The Miracles and The Supremes and, for me, the Four Tops. The Four Tops: “Baby I Need Your Lovin'” and “Reach Out.” My God. My Gawd. It blew me away.

The single greatest silent pause

When I was a college freshman there was Bernadette with the single greatest pause of silence in a song I had ever heard in my life. It hung in the air the way a brick doesn't and then fell to earth with the explosive "Bernadette." Of course by then I had been in the music "business" on and off and here and there since high school.

The Four Tops.

My God.

In the later 1960s, about ’67 or so, I had my own promotion and production company in partnership with another Jewish kid. Only he was from Rosedale in Queens. He had played tambourine (honest) for Alvin Cash and The Registers. That’s what we did when we were worn out. What we did when we needed to elevate the senses was travel up to the Apollo Theater in Harlem and hear The Four Tops when they were in town. And to hear the Four Fops was to hear Levi Stubbs.

Levi Stubbs. A voice that was smooth and pleading and as full of gravel as a quarry all at the same time. I remember once thinking that the one record I would have liked to produce more than any other was Clapton's “Let It Rain,” with the guitar charts transposed to the saxophone and the vocals sung by Levi Stubbs without any governor on at all. I would arrange it in my head as I rode on the subway. To this day it’s still lodged in my cells. Imagine it if you can. That guitar lick ba ba bata ba ba ba on the sax and Levi's voice.

Four singers who needed each other

Levi Stubbs died today. Damn. I mean, he was sick from cancer and a stroke and he couldn't walk and he looked like hell, but he was a singular entity. He was the Four Tops. Yes he was. But they needed each other. You just had to have that tick-tock arm motion in back of “Can't Help Myself.”

I am blessed in that I heard him and the Tops three times. Blessed.

So in a few minutes I’ll do a Youtube search and find a performance and just drift away for a time to a hot sweaty badly air-conditioned night when two circumcised 19-year old-white kids sat in the balcony at the Apollo and lost their minds and their voices watching something damn close to perfection twirl and dance around the stage.

Reach Out, Babe.

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