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Levi Stubbs' voice and the power of music

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When the world falls apart some things stay in place/ Levi Stubbs' tears run down his face. -- "Levi Stubbs' Tears" by Billy Bragg.

When I heard last month that the great singer Levi Stubbs had died, NPR was on, and "Baby I Need Your Loving" was playing softly in the background of the report. Suddenly, I found myself on a school bus 40-plus years ago, talking to Sara Bonner. Not literally, of course, but the feeling was strong enough that it almost seemed real, in that odd way memory has of flaring up out of nowhere.

Sara was a cute, red-haired 8th grader who rode my bus when I was a high school freshman, and for a while I had a wicked crush on her. She was friendly enough and flirted a little, but didn't really care about me one way or the other. Being an adolescent male, I was simultaneously smitten and utterly clueless about her lack of interest. So I pined, helped along in my love-struck teenaged moping by a song that was then in heavy radio rotation: "Baby I Need Your Loving" by a new group called the Four Tops, led by Levi Stubbs. I'd joke and talk with Sara on the bus, ask her to go to a movie or such, and feel confused when she'd change the subject; so I'd go home and do homework while listening to the radio. Inevitably, "Baby I Need Your Loving" would come on, and I'd turn away from the geometry or Latin, and imagine myself as the lonely, lovesick man in the song who tells his love, in Stubbs' goose bump-inducing way, "lately I've been losing sleep" (although that was never a problem for me), and I'd feel the man's ache when he sang, "Sometimes I wonder/ Will I ever be the same." OK, I felt a 15-year-old boy's naïve, awkward version of that guy's pain, but hey, to me, Levi Stubbs' anguish was palpable and it was calling my name.

It's funny, the things that trigger memory. It can be a flavor, like writer Marcel Proust's famed madeleine cookie dipped in tea, which took him back to a full, detailed remembrance of his childhood. It can be a scent, a glance, a name, a turn of phrase, and suddenly you're somewhere else and in another time. For me, it's often sounds, usually songs, that activate the time machine.

This is all a way of saying that no matter what happens to us, we can all be grateful for the power of music to affect our lives, to inspire us, nudge us to action, or, as British playwright William Congreve put it, to "soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." Or, more simply, as another Brit, the normally highly political singer Billy Bragg, told an interviewer, "Whatever your problem is, all you have to do ... is go home, make yourself a nice cup of tea, sit down, put on a record by the Four Tops -- everything is going to be alright."

During the 1980s, Bragg recorded a song about the healing power of music in people's lives and memories. Tellingly, it's called "Levi Stubbs' Tears," evoking the emotion in that tremendous singer's voice. The song tells the story of a young woman whose life is coming apart in awful ways. She's strong, but when things get too overwhelming, she turns to music -- and who better to represent the power of music than Stubbs?

Levi sang professionally from the age of 17, and became the frontman for the Four Tops for four decades, during which time the band never changed personnel. The group signed with Motown in 1963, teamed with legendary songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, and it was on. Driven by Stubbs' energetic, emotive baritone and muscular phrasing, the Tops soon became one of Motown's most revered groups, selling millions of records, touring the world, and deservedly winding up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The group's biggest hit was probably "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," which, unfortunately -- and this is one of my pet peeves -- seems to be the only song by the Four Tops oldies radio stations ever play. It's a pity, because Stubbs & Co. recorded a wide collection of great songs, including "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," "Standing In The Shadows of Love," "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever," "Bernadette," "It's the Same Old Song," "Shake Me, Wake Me," and others including "Ask The Lonely," a neglected classic in which Stubbs' full, deep, emotive range was offered up for the benefit of all listeners anywhere who might need to lean on the radio for comfort now and then.

Smokey Robinson said it best last month: "Levi Stubbs was simply one of the great voices of all times." And that great voice lives on as a forceful reminder of the power of music in our lives.

Fade out to Billy Bragg: "She takes off the Four Tops tape and puts it back in its case. When the world falls apart, some things stay in place."

ON THE WEB

See the Four Tops perform "Baby I Need Your Loving" and Billy Bragg sing "Levi Stubbs' Tears" on our video blog CL-TV at www.qccltv.com.

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