"If you were lucky, when the intro started, some cute boy from the football team would snake out an arm, capture your wrist and pull you into his orbit. You'd be clasped against a well-muscled chest as you breathed in his after shave and Levi Stubbs pleaded his case.
--Barry Gordy, founder of Motown
Levi left us, but what he represents remain
by Mac Walton, aka, MacDaddy
Today, the daddy is still feeling the death of Levi Stubbs. Yes, he is feeling the sadness about his death. But he is feeling something else: what Levi Stubbs life says about us as parents, as African-Americans, as Americans.
Levi is gone. He died at the age of 72 from cancer and a host of illnesses. But in another way, he is still with us. Don't believe me? Tell you what: when you go to your parent's house this thanksgiving, check out their record collection. I bet you'll see an album or CD of the Four Tops.
Don't want to wait that long? Then check out the R&B section of the nearest record shop. You'll see a number of Four Top CDs displayed prominently.
Too lazy to get out of the house? Check You Tube. They're there. You'll no doubt see them perform hits like "Baby, I need your loving," "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch," or "Just ask the lonely," the daddy's favorite. But there's another way that Levi and the Four Tops are still with us.
Levi and The Four Tops represent a legacy of political and personal struggles of African Americans to beat the odds, to succeed as individuals and as a people in the face of American oppression. Levi didn't come from a privileged family like, say, Sen. John McCain. Levi and his three buddies came from inner-city black communities during the fifties and early sixties, a time when crime wasn't so bad, when kids hung out under street lights near the houses or in their front yards.
In their front yards, girls danced to Martha and the Vandellas and James Brown blaring out of a living-room window. Under street lights, boys sang doo wop, honing their harmonizing skills and practicing steps for the next singing contest. Levi and the Four Tops represent a time and a place in America when making music was not more or less a modeling contest of privileged whites or middle class black rappers seeking fame by bragging about violence and calling women names to get some kind of rep in a phony thug culture.
Making music, above all, was an expression or outcome of the values that were inculcated in black kids by their parents and their community: Hard work, cooperation, excellence, and resilience. Put another way, Levi and the Four Tops, as well as the singers, producers, choreographers and studio musicians at Motown, the label under which they sang, were as American as sweet potato pie.
And, despite the emotive utterances, teenage angst and phony hip hop that passes for talent on commercial radio these days, the true talent in R&B, hip hop, jazz, gospel and blues is still there in black communities; and it's still there, because black parents are still bearing and rearing Smokey Robinsons, Pervis Jacksons (leader of the group called The Spinners), Diana Ross's, Mary Wells, Marthas,
Isaac Hayes, James Browns, Otis Reddings and Levi Stubbs. More importantly, despite increasing violence, decreasing paychecks, and dwindling home equity, those black parents are still inculcating those same core values their children will need to be successful: work hard, cooperation, excellence, resilience, and dignity.
Because of crime and other factors, you won't see them under street lights or even in the front yard at night. Most likely, the boys are in a basement, their makeshift studio, the girls in their bedroom, their impromptu stage and dance floor.
Can you hear them singing? Can you hear them stepping like soldiers drilling upstairs in your home? Can you see hear Diana Ross Ella Fitzgerald? Can you still remember that muscled guy taking your hand at the high school dance? Can you still hear Levi Stubbs making his case, saying "Baby, I need your loving?"
Can you see the American in them... in you?