Saturday Singles Nos. 97, 98 & 99

Originally posted October 18, 2008

In the Sixties, you had to choose.

Just like those in Chicago have to choose, for life, to support the Cubs or the White Sox in their pursuit of baseball’s fortunes, so in the Sixties did kids who liked music have to make a choice. They had to declare themselves fans of either the Temptations or the Four Tops.

Both groups were worthy: marvelous vocalists singing great songs from the Motown catalog, both backed more than ably by the group of studio musicians known as the Funk Brothers. The Temptations were a little smoother, maybe a little more subtle. The Four Tops came straight at you with a few rough edges, a little more insistence that you listen to what it was they had to say.

The key voice in that insistent sound is gone. Levi Stubbs, the Four Tops’ lead singer, died Friday, October 17, at his home in Detroit.

As I’ve noted before, I paid little attention to most of the world of Top 40 music during the 1960s, but like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, the Temptations and probably a few other performers, even a non-listener knew about the Four Tops. Their hits came rolling out of the radio that was always present when kids gathered so that even the uphip kid who preferred trumpet music knew about Levi Stubbs and his parters, knew about their great trio of 1966-67, when they released “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” followed by “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” which was in turn followed by the sublime “Bernadette.” All three of those made the Top Ten (as did four other Four Tops singles between the years 1964 and 1988), with “Reach Out” spending two weeks at No. 1, while “Standing” went to No. 6 and “Bernadette” going to No. 4.

No one asked me “Tempts or Tops?” back then, when I was barely a teenager and still holding onto my Al Hirt records, but had they, they might have been surprised at the rapidity and surety of my answer. The Four Tops, without a doubt. I liked what I heard from the Temptations; they sang to my heart.

But the Four Tops went for my soul. At thirteen, I couldn’t really know, but I could imagine what it might be like in those shadows of love (I would find out soon enough). I understood the need to be needed hidden in the offer when Levi and the others sang “Reach out! I’ll be there!” And if I didn’t know a Bernadette – never did, as a matter of fact – then I knew other girls on whom I thought my existence depended.

And the gorgeous strong voices telling those tales, led by Stubbs’ baritone, all laid onto a background that was pulsing and inventive – check out the woodwinds at the start of “Reach Out I’ll Be There” as just one small example – those strong voices made the stories told in those songs real, true and pertinent to the lives of kids all across America.

I tend to rely on “Bernadette” as my ultimate Four Tops single; writer Dave Marsh leans on “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Or at least, that was the highest-ranked Four Tops single when Marsh dissected the history of singles up through 1989 in The Heart of Rock & Soul. He placed “Reach Out I’ll Be There” in the fourth spot on that list, the highest-ranked of eight Four Tops record he placed among the 1,001 greatest singles.

After noting the record’s strengths – many of which can only be appreciated, Marsh says, by listening to the 45 instead of the LP or CD versions – Marsh writes, “Even Stubbs fans understand why his style can be too declamatory, but here, he’s undeniable, a man lost in a welter of misery, his shouts emerging from an abyss. The music is dizzying, the drums collide against every phrase he sings, but Levi soldiers on, riding out a maelstrom.”

And Levi soldiered on with the three other guys he’d met when they were all in high school: through a total of twenty-four Top 40 hits, seven of them in the Top Ten; through nearly thirty albums; and all the way to membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Age began to catch up on them. In 2005, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, the Tops’ bass singer died. And yesterday, Levi Stubbs crossed over. I imagine he’s singing to Bernadette again:

In you I have what other men long for.
All men need someone to worship and adore,
That’s why I treasure you and place you high above,
For the only joy in life is to be loved.
So whatever you do, Bernadette, keep on loving me,
Bernadette, keep on needing me,
Bernadette!

I’ve never been sure who needs whom more in that song, a quandary not unknown in life. Levi Stubbs helped millions know what it was like to feel that way.

Here are those three Four Tops songs, today’s Saturday Singles:

“Reach Out I’ll Be There” [1966]

“Standing In the Shadows Of Love” [1966]

“Bernadette” [1967]

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