Levi Stubbs – the man who sang “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Standing In The Shadows Of Love”, “Ask The Lonely” and “Ain’t No Woman Like The One I Got” – died last week. All of those records were credited to the Four Tops, of course, as were “Seven Rooms Of Gloom” and “I Can’t Help Myself” and several more pop-soul classics. But, really, first and foremost, those hits were vehicles for the muscular, beseeching, indomitable shout of Levi Stubbs. They were Levi Stubbs records.
I mean by this no disrespect to the man’s longtime friends and collaborators, his Top-mates Renaldo “Obie” Benson, Lawrence Payton, and Abdul “Duke” Fakir. I do mean to say that the Four Tops were a different sort of group. The Tops’ onetime Motown labelmates, Gladys Knight & the Pips, made records that were very nearly as defined by the Pips’ ever-present responses as they were by the aggrieved calls of their star-powered lead singer – and this fundamental division of labor was only slighty less pronounced in the work of Diana Ross & the Supremes, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. Likewise, the Temptations were always unmistakably a group, with dueling and distinctive lead singers and with a harmony blend like no one else’s.
The backing vocal arrangements on Four Tops records were more about augmenting an appropriate mood than in amen-ing or talking back to the lead, let alone sharing its spotlight. The Tops’ backing was less of the “You can’t run, you can’t hide” sort, less “Dreams don’t always come true, uh-uh, no, uh-uh,” and much more likely to be along the lines of “ahhh, ah, ahhh” or “woo-ooh-ooh.” What’s more, the producers and songwriters behind the Tops’ greatest hits, that genius team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, further distinguished the Tops’ sound by sweetening their harmonies with ethereal-voiced female trio the Andantes and, then, by pushing this celestial-sounding choir much further back in the mix than they typically did with the of the Supremes, or than Norman Whitfield did with the Temps.
The effect of this strategy was that the focus was more intensely upon the ragged, raging declarations of Levi Stubbs. Or, another way of putting it, the Four Tops’ sonic aesthetic reinforced the group’s overarching emotional concerns: a man in love but somehow still alone. And in the Stubbs lexicon, a man alone is a man left incomplete, a mere half a man. This is a blues aesthetic, really, rather than a gospel-soul one, and indeed, so many of the hits that Holland-Dozier-Holland provided for Stubbs worry anxiously over what it means to be a man: “Some say it’s a sign of weakness for a man to beg,” or “I’m weaker than a man should be,” and so on. This theme persisted throughout the Four Tops’ career, even after they left Motown, on hits such as “Are You Man Enough”, “Keeper Of The Castle”, and “Aint’ No Woman Like The One I Got”, the Tops’ last major hit and as beautiful and troubling a testament of love as you’ll ever be privileged to hear. “I will kiss the ground she walks on because it’s my word she’ll obey,” Stubbs declares on that record. If someone tells you that, do you smile in gratitude or run screaming? Stubbs sings as if he’s not sure himself.
Of course, it was at Motown where Stubbs put down his finest performances. In the best of that work, on for example both “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Standing In The Shadows Of Love”, Stubbs alternately confesses his most desperate hope and debilitating fear. These are flip sides of the same coin, precondition and consequence both: When you find yourself reaching out with no one to hold, it is easy for that “you can always depend on me” in “Reach Out I’ll Be There” to translate into the “you’ve taken away all my reasons for livin’” of “Standing In The Shadows”. And that’s where “Bernadette” comes in. Or, rather, it’s where she walks out.
We all have our musical touchstones, those performances that embody the standards by which we measure everything else. “Bernadette” just might sit at the very top of my short list. It is a masterpiece (I mean that in a strict Anton Chekhov, F.W. Murnau, Dorothea Lange sense of the term), and it is a Levi Stubbs record.
“They pretend – to be my friend – but all the time – they long to – persuade you – from my side,” Stubbs barks to his love in vicious staccato, a kind of talk-shout that very nearly recalls a country-style recitation, except that he is shouting it at the top of his heaving lungs. Those lines anticipate, of course, the suspicions that drive later hits such as the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces” and the O’Jays’ Backstabbers”. But the sheer paranoid terror in Stubbs’ cry here has found its desperate equal only, maybe, in the recordings of Roy Orbison.
Certainly no record has so captured the cruel way that an anxious desire to hold on to love is bound to send love fleeing. Stubbs, his chest puffed in threatening overcompensation for his growing dread, delivers each of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s lines in a manner guaranteed to produce an effect in Bernadette that’s precisely the opposite of what he craves:
“I want you because I need you to live.”
“You mean more to me than a woman was ever meant to be.”
“You belong to me.”
Stubbs, or more truthfully, the character he is playing, is insatiable here, a little sick. James Jamerson’s bass paces menacingly around the singer’s skull, and the inexorable mania of the Funk Brothers’ beat stokes his anxiety further still. “So whatever you do, keep on loving me,” Stubbs pleads of Bernadette, his voice an explosion of desperation. “Keep on needing me,” he begs, his voice a strangled knot. Then the rhythm section stops instantly in its tracks. The Tops and Andantes elongate one more terrifying cry and, when it dies away, all that’s left is crushing, dark, humiliating silence. I have been listening to this record for years, however, and I swear that if you listen closely enough, long enough, you can hear Bernadette’s echoing footsteps as she hurries away. Stubbs gulps and yells, again, “Bernadette!” But she’s already gone.
In the singer’s real life, the story ended quite differently. Levi Stubbs, the man, was married to the same woman for 48 years. Now, I know nothing of their particular hardship and joy. But I do know this much, and I learned it from Levi Stubbs’ records long before I ever learned it firsthand: The acceptance of loss as a real, even likely, possibility, and one which is all but entirely beyond our control, is ever the requisite for love.