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Remembering the Death of a Motown Legend

It’s been a stressful couple of weeks for that part of your brain where Motown memories still reside poignantly and powerfully.

The most-publicized blow to the mind was Jermaine Jackson’s misbegotten announcement of a Jackson 5 reunion — replete with PDA embarrassment Janet — which was quickly scotched by Michael.

But the less-ballyhooed, vastly more significant setback was the death of the Four Tops’ lead singer Levi Stubbs, who passed away Oct. 17 at the age of 72. It’s not a shock that Stubbs wasn’t especially celebrated in death; even in the mid-’60s at the height of his, and Motown’s, success, he loomed in the shadows, and the Tops were viewed more as an entity — the guys in the suits who emotionalized the musical stage plays directed by songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland (i.e., composer/producers Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland and lyricist/vocal arranger Eddie Holland).

But no singer on the label’s roster, or in the history of pop music, for that matter, was more titanically roiling or intimately heartening than Stubbs. You trusted him on “Reach Out I’ll Be There” when he said he’d shelter and comfort and care for you, because the deep grain of his voice, whether he was crooning or on the verge of screaming, bore the unmistakable brand of struggle. You knew he’d experienced the lyrics’ “illusion” and “confusion” and more.

Gospel music at its best is so transformative because it makes you genuinely feel that there is no real joy without pain. And while Motown’s glossy production (the soupy strings, the jaunty finger snaps and tambourines) sometimes implied that the cost of joy was the price of a 45, Stubbs never let you forget.

Even on Four Tops wedding-band standards like “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “Baby I Need Your Loving,” his voice spoke to the vulnerability, desperation, and battered hope of that gospel journey — from south to north, from sinking sand to terra firma, from dark to light, from sin to salvation, from hell on earth to heaven beyond. While Berry Gordy only wanted a trace of that in the Motown sound, Stubbs’ sophisticated roar always pulsed with it.

Ultimately, though, what you felt was Stubbs’ overwhelming conviction. He was no martyr. Here was a man who had put up with too much bullshit not to make it through the night.

It took me years to get past my own bullshit to hear all this, though. As Craig Werner writes in A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America: “By the mid-’80s, the entertainment industry had shrunk Motown to video size, turned Levi Stubbs’ agony into a condiment for yuppie angst.” Primarily via the endlessly editorialized-upon 1983 baby-boomer pud-yank The Big Chill and its omnipresent soundtrack, it was difficult to hear Motown in the ’80s as anything more than a nostalgic, collegiate backdrop for monied, thirtysomething lame-asses to mourn how their “generation” stopped the war and changed the world by smoking pot and romanticizing SDS.

For me, the Four Tops eye-opening came, I’m only partially ashamed to say, with Billy Bragg’s 1986 single “Levi Stubbs’ Tears.” Over the trebly splash of his trademark green, toy-like Burns Steer guitar, Bragg told the story of a lonely young woman who ran away from home, married an arshehole who skipped out, and now sits alone at night in the mobile home she bought with money from her “accident.” Sung in Bragg’s thick Cockney accent, it’s a decidedly sub-working class narrative, and involves the sort of character who rarely turns up in a pop song.

The chorus, “When the world falls apart some things stay in place / Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face,” isn’t exactly reassuring, and even when the song’s bridge bursts into a heartfelt tribute to Motown’s songwriting superstars — “Norrman Whitfield and Barrett Strong / Are here to make everything right that’s wrong / Holland and Holland and Dozier too / Are here to make it all okay with you” — you feel a rush of exuberance, but it’s not okay. The woman’s husband comes home and attacks her, putting “a hole in her body where no hole should be,” and leaves again.

The song ends when she takes out the Four Tops tape and puts it back in the case (Note: I always thought this was the most vital detail — it’s a cassette, not a vinyl record, since cassettes were cheaper, and as many of us know, when you could pay $6.99 for a tape instead of $9.99 for a record, you did it, even though you knew it was never gonna last and probably end up cracked in the floorboard of somebody’s car). She put the tape back. The Four Tops were everything, but they weren’t enough. She had to make it on her own.

Levi Stubbs understood.

WATCH! The Four Tops and Stubbs letting it rip with a ferocious, sweaty strut that leaves the Belgian ladies screaming uncontrollably. BTW, when the camera cuts to the dance steps, check the gators — dig?

The sleek, made-for-TV version….