Iâ€™ve had a crush on Levi Stubbs for just about as long as I can remember. Of course, when I first developed my crush, I was far too young to realize it was a crush. And well, at 6 or 7 or 8 years old, the idea that I might have a crush on anyone other than Mrs. Simon was so crushingly impossible that it would have been absurd to even consider it. But there it was, and there it grew. And there it still is, even though the man himself is now gone. Because thereâ€™s nothing more alive sounding, nothing more urgent, nothing as feral, nothing as sexy, nothing as primal and, quite frankly, necessary as the sound of Levi Stubbs shouting out to â€œreach on out for me!â€
My parents generally listened to oldies stations when I was growing up, and while I grew to love the music of the 50s and 60s while working in a pizza kitchen my senior year in high school, there was nothing I loved less when I was little than to suffer through a car-ride listening to moldies about cars and girls and surfing. But â€œReach Outâ€¦ Iâ€™ll Be Thereâ€ was one of the songs that cut through my crap. Sure, it probably had something to do with the supernaturally gorgeous music of the song, the haunted fairytale woodwinds, and a bass-line that sounded as much like distant tribal drums â€“ it was like something out of the Arabian Nights.
But more than anything it was that voice. He was telling me to reach out and heâ€™d be there, but by the sound of it, he needed me more. It was as if heâ€™d just been hit by a car, and using every last ounce of life and spirit left in him wanted â€“ needed, more than anything in the world, to reassure me that he would always be a rock in whatever storm might come my way. There have been plenty of storms for me to weather in the 30 years since I first heard his pledge: heâ€™s never failed me yet.
The irony is that a central part of that pledge – the way his voice came across to me on the radio – was, in fact, a calculated emotional manipulation. Song after song, the songwriting-producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland strategically miscast Stubbs in songs that took him to upper limits of his singing range and then dared him not to jump off. If it often sounds like Stubbs was in pain singing some of these songs, he may very well have been. If it sounds urgent, itâ€™s because so damn many of those notes were Hail Mary gambles for Stubbs. If it sounds like shouting, thatâ€™s because â€“ yâ€™know â€“ it is.Â Every time he opened his mouth on these songs, he was taking a risk.Â And maybe the risk was just losing his voice, or missing a note, but he made it sound like he was risking his life to get this song out.
Later on, of course, I would begin to connect the sound of Levi Stubbs with the image of the man, which, predictably, only heightened my crush. Stubbs had none of the diabolical ladies-man smoothness of guys like Smokey and Marvin. Barrel-chested, square-jawed and husky with a no-nonsense mustache, he physically resembled the men that my dad hung out with in the tavern after work in nearly every respect (race, of course, being the most obvious difference). He may have been a singer, but you get a sense that Stubbs considered himself a family man breadwinner more than a pop star.
His biography, including his nearly 50-year marriage to wife Clineice (how many pop stars of Stubbsâ€™ stature can claim as much?) also seems to speak to a pragmatic, working-man respect for commitment. Where the Temptations became something of a flagship corporate entity for Motown, with a line-up that changed (and continues to change) like the cast of a long-running TV drama series, the Four Tops, from the day they got together in 1954, remained the very same Four Tops for more than four decades, until the late 90s when the successive deaths of Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson, not to mention Stubbsâ€™ own gradually debilitating struggles with cancer and stroke, did the Tops part.
Stubbsâ€™ commitment to the songs he sang was no less intense, loving, or lasting. From the urgent pleas of â€œReach Out â€“ Iâ€™ll Be Thereâ€ to the way he baldly confounds the restraints of a time signature when he shouts out to â€œBernadetteâ€ at the climactic break of that song. There may be no happier sound in the world than the sound of Levi Stubbs singing â€œsugar pie, honey bunch, you know that I love youâ€, and thereâ€™s almost certainly nothing more emotionally devastating as when, in the song â€œAsk the Lonelyâ€, he urges us â€“ â€œAsk me!â€ â€“ winding the â€œaskâ€ around a half dozen quickly dispatched notes, but landing on a single, decisive, howl for the â€œmeâ€.
There may be something self-pitying about the moment, but then thereâ€™s also something grand, operatic, and selfless about it. When I think of the years after the American Motors plant my dad worked at shut down, and, as a teenager, watching as he was slowly stripped of every shred of his dignity â€“ the early morning repossessions, the foreclosure of the family home, the months spent squatting in a neighborâ€™s basement or living in a motel while trying to support of family of five kids, nothing feels like a more fitting soundtrack than the voice of Levi Stubbs on â€œAsk the Lonelyâ€.
My dad, of course, could never have said out loud what he must have been feeling in those awful years without coming across as, well, sort of a pussy. But there were, and are now, probably a lot of guys like my Dad who have felt or are feeling the same things and canâ€™t say so. Ask the folks in Janesville, Wisconsin who are set to lose their jobs two days before Christmas this year. In this context, â€œAsk the Lonelyâ€ sounds like a three-minute opera for the stoic working class. And Stubbsâ€™ performance of the song â€“ and virtually every song he sang â€“ was audacious in its emotional abandon, its sense that some feelings are too strong and too important to let vulgar pride or fragile dignity get in the way of voicing them.
As sad as I am to hear of Levi Stubbsâ€™ death, I also know that as long as Iâ€™ve got ears to hear, heâ€™ll be there. When my life is filled with much confusion until happiness is just an illusion and my world around is crumblinâ€™ down, heâ€™ll be there. This is more than a crush, really, isnâ€™t it?