scholars and rogues

Just walk away, Levi…

By now I’m sure most of you have heard that Levi Stubbs, lead singer of The Four Tops, died last week. Bob Lefsetz has a nice remembrance of him.

And I have one, too.

Like Lefsetz, I was not into the Motown thing at first. I tolerated The Supremes, but I wasn’t into The Temptations. I wanted boys with guitars and dreams I felt connected to, not guys in tuxes doing silly/funky dance moves.

But it was hard to resist The Four Tops.

Those early tunes that Holland-Dozier-Holland penned like “I Can’t Help Myself” (who could resist that paradoxically powerful “sugarpie, honeybunch” opening line?), “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “It’s the Same Old Song,” and especially “Bernadette” had a raw energy and power that Motown stuff usually didn’t have, sanitized as it was to appeal to white audiences.

Most of that came from Stubbs, a baritone lead singer in an age of tenors. Unlike Smokey or Marvin, both wonderful singers, Stubbs’ hoarse R&B shouting style hearkened more to the blues side of the music. (Only Wilson Pickett, to my mind, matches Stubbs for machismo.)

As the Motown machine expanded its list of artists. the Tops seemed to get the shorted when it came to material. After only a couple of years the Tops were scrambling to cover material by contemporaries. It’s those covers that I want to say something about.

“If I Were a Carpenter” was a Tim Hardin song. Hardin is another of those brilliant lost folkie singer songwriters like Tim Buckley or Nick Drake who is better known for songs that others covered to great acclaim (Bobby Darin(!) had the big hit with “Carpenter,” reaching #8 on the charts with it in 1966. It’s a fine song, and The Tops throw themselves into it with their usual vigor, but it doesn’t quite work somehow – one never believes Levi as a plaintive, long suffering lover.

The other cover they do, though, is a gem. The Left Banke’s brilliantly brittle “Walk Away, Renee” is about as odd a choice for a Four Tops cover as “If I Were a Carpenter,” but instead of being a “not quite” like the former, it works beautifully. The lyric, with all its aching heartbreak, works because it allows Stubbs to bewail his plight with the power he’s accustomed to – “Walk Away, Renee” is much more like “Bernadette” in that it’s a man’s plea to a woman – not a boy’s plea to his girl as the original equally powerful, is….

Great song. Great singer.

Thanks, Levi.

Categories: scholars and rogues

1 reply »

  1. I’m not old enough to remember Motown as a contemporary, but i can see how the Motown image wouldn’t make it popular with many. But The Funk Brothers who backed just about every one of those records were, in the words of Duck Dunn, a band that could turn goat piss into gasoline…even if they were a somewhat fluid collection of studio musicians rather than a band with a set roster.

    When one considers that they were laying down those tracks in a single take, no overdubs or anything else, their stature grows. And when funk – the genre – started to take hold and those guys were let loose…look out.

    It would have been something to haunt the clubs of Detroit back then and see all those artists playing for themselves rather than the charts. Still, when i listen to Motown it’s for what’s underneath, particularly the rhythm section. Though i’ll admit to being biased, that sound is a symbol of my hometown. It’s always meant something deep to me when i’d be on a bus or whatnot half a world a way and a Motown song comes on the radio…watching feet start to tap, heads start to sway, and smiles cross people’s faces.

    The documentary The Funk Brothers is well worth a watch.