Monday, 27 October 2008

Levi Stubbs (1936 - 2008)

And so another one departs this life. Levi Stubbs, lead singer with Motown evergreens, The Four Tops, died this week. Once upon a time, popular music stars only died young because they were young whereas now many of them die naturally of old age and you begin to realise that time has caught up with us all.

My personal musical memory starts around about 1963 and it was then that Berry Gordy’s Motown enterprise was gathering speed. Even here in the UK, the ‘voice of young America’ was on our radios and on our TV screens fighting for airtime with the Beatles and the Stones. Holland, Dozier and Holland were churning out great pop hits and Levi was very much a part of that revolution. ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ and ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ were touchstones to my youth which fuelled my burgeoning interest in popular culture. But the acceptance of black American music into my largely middleclass white society is an interesting case

I look back with much amusement to my schooldays around the early 1970s when there was a war raging between my peers as to which was better; ‘Soul’ or ‘Prog’. There were two main protagonists in this divide and the one rarely saw eye to eye with the other so quite how the great LP swap experiment ever got off the ground is a minor miracle. Nevertheless, it was agreed that each would choose a representative album for the other to borrow. In the red corner, weighing not very much and sporting a finger-in-the-electric-socket hairstyle was the prog devotee. His choice was ‘Close to the Edge’ by Yes. In the blue corner, having a considerable height advantage and floppy blonde hair was our soul expert, whose considered choice was ‘Cloud 9’ by the Temptations. Albums were duly exchanged on the Friday and the multitude waited in hushed expectation on the Monday morning for the verdict.

In books, each would agree that the other’s choice was tip-top and they would tousle each others’ hair and depart for tea and buns, firm friends. But real life has a habit of getting in the way and after a nervous few minutes when neither would admit to anything concrete, the insults started to fly and only the end-of-break bell headed off what could have escalated into a nasty incident. Frankly, I doubt either got past track 1 so the whole experiment should’ve been declared null and void. Kids eh?

But the fact that this discussion arose at all shows that Motown held its own in exalted company and the likes of the Temptation, Supremes and Four Tops were recognised as international acts of stature. It is a rare achievement and one which Levi should justifiably be remembered.

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