Saturday, June 22, 2024

Same Old Song has a Different Meaning now that Levi’s Gone…

October 21, 2008 by  
Filed under Entertainment, Music, News

( In 1965, my “big” brother Gerald returned to Oklahoma City from his freshman year at Southern University in Baton Rouge. One of the first things he pulled out of his suitcase was a collection of blurry Kodak images he’d snapped during a campus concert of the Four Tops.

I’d heard of them. By ’65 the Motown vocal group, featuring singer Levi Stubbs, had found its groove with the Holland/Dozier/Holland-produced “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” the #1 follow up to their first hit, “Baby I need Your Loving,” a year earlier.

Nevertheless, at ten years old, I was only interested in the pictures of the Tops because my brother was excited about showing them. They weren’t the Beatles, and in 1965 the only thing that mattered to me–more than cartoons or whatever Mattel or Marx put out that year, more than Daddy’s cheating–was the music of the Beatles.

However, it didn’t take long for Motown to make its way into my bloodstream. Like the radio-ready music of other Motown acts, Four Tops songs such as “It’s The Same Old Song,” “Reach Out,” “Standing In The Shadows of Love ” and “Bernadette” provided the sound of the times. Their songs offered some comfort during America’s torturous civil rights movement and supplied a melodic respite (and occasionally a voice against) the bitterly contested Viet Nam war.

Still, it wasn’t until the Tops left Motown in 1972 for the ABC-Dunhill label and began recording with songwriters/producers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter that I came to truly understand just what a monster Stubbs was.

During songs like “Keeper of The Castle,” “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got),” “Are You Man Enough” and “One Chain Don’t Make No Prison,” I rediscovered a masterful stylist whose vocal authority and exuberance brought a soulful sophistication to any material he sang. In Stubbs’ artful hands, a brand new song felt like an old, cozy sweater.

I interviewed Stubbs once. It was 1983, and the Tops had just re-signed with Motown. The freshly groomed singer answered the door of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite in a white terry cloth robe and black slippers adorned with a coat of arms. Looking every bit the star of another era, Stubbs could not have been more affable and down to earth.

Here was a guy who had talked about himself for more than two decades-enough to never want to discuss himself ever again–yet he was engaged and curious.

At the end of our talk, Stubbs put a tape in his ghetto blaster on the coffee table and proudly previewed for me, “I Just Can’t Walk Away,” which the group had just recorded with the reunited Holland, Dozier and Holland.

While the big ballad played, Stubbs sat listening thoughtfully, as if hearing the song for the very first time–as if that wasn’t him on the tape. While stealing concentrated glances, I had the surreal thought: I’m sitting here with the man I’d seen in my brother’s photographs almost 20 years earlier, when I was ten years old.

Levi Stubbs had contributed mightily to my personal soundtrack; indeed, meeting him was one of those events. And here I was, listening to a song that, if only because Stubbs himself was playing it for me, was going to become yet another sonic snapshot of my life.

And that cosmic connection is why Stubbs’ October 17th passing at age 72, not to mention the recent departure of such black pop icons as Isaac Hayes and Norman Whitfield, create such a melancholy hole in my spirit. Every time we lose one of these magnificent artists, I feel like I’m losing a part of me.

I know. These people can’t live forever. But with each loss, I am reminded that time is no longer marching on. It’s not even running; it’s flying. I’ll be damned if I don’t see a trend here. And I don’t like it.

Written By Steven Ivory

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