Sunday, October 26, 2008

Classic Soul

Yesterday I came across Greg Kot’s compelling homage to Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, who died October 17 at age 72. (Pictured at left are the Four Tops at London’s Heathrow Airport in 1966. From left are Duke Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson.) For those who may not know his role in the group, Levi Stubbs was the distinctive, lead voice of the Four Tops, a group that had 24 hits in the Top 40. It’s impossible not to have heard the music of the Four Tops, the epitome of what’s known as “Soul music,” particularly their three greatest songs discussed below, all released through Motown.

I found Greg Kot’s analysis of the following three songs of the Four Tops so insightful that I was compelled to re-blog them here. His complete blog on Levi Stubbs, in the on-line version of The Chicago Tribune, can be found here; I have extracted below only his discussion of the individual songs. I hope you find his individual discussions as insightful as I have.

“Reach Out I’ll Be There,” released August 1966, No. 1 pop hit: Stubbs throws a lifeline to a friend dying of neglect. Realizing the situation is desperate, he sings as if someone’s life depends on it, and it just might; the lyrics hint that a suicide is imminent (“all of your hope is gone”). The three remaining Tops (Obie Benson, Duke Fakir and Lawrence Payton) usher in Stubbs with a wordless “Ha!” as if spurring on a stallion. The beat clip-clops into place, a flute telegraphs the melody, and then the peerless Motown rhythm section locks into gear. The drama elevates each time the band drops out, save for James Jamerson’s driving bass line and a rattling tambourine. Stubbs lands hard on the final syllable of key lines: “… the world has grown COLD … drifting out on your OWN … and you need a hand to HOLD.” Stubbs isn’t just offering help to a friend in a time of need. He is pleading for her deliverance. With each “reach out,” Benson, Fakir and Payton push Stubbs higher, until desperation cracks through the seams in his voice.

“Standing in the Shadows of Love,” released November 1966, No. 4 pop hit: The clippity-clop beat echoes “Reach Out.” The desperate empathy of the previous hit transforms into bitterness and accusation. Now the narrator is plunged into unfathomable heartache: “You’ve taken away all my reasons for living.” The narrator stumbles down a street, bereft, trying to understand something beyond his control. He’s been abandoned by the love of his life. “Hold on a minute,” he cries, as if trying to stop a bullet, and the song veers into a brief but ferocious conga-drum breakdown. The song is the saddest of all battles; the listeners know the outcome before the narrator does. When he finally grasps that there no stopping the inevitable, the effect is devastating. “It may come today, or it may come tomorrow/But it's for sure I've got nothing but sorrow.”

“Bernadette,” released February 1967, No. 4 pop hit: Paranoia runs deep and wide in this classic of lust and jealousy. Stubbs addresses the title character, a siren whose beauty seduces other men and then blithely discards them against the rocks. But the most lovesick of them all is the narrator himself. He is consumed by fear; everywhere he looks there are suitors begging for Bernadette’s affections, and he frets he will lose her forever. He tries to woo her back by falling to his knees and proclaiming the utter worthlessness of his life without her. The horns and backing voices drape a cape of melancholy around Stubbs’ sagging shoulders. “Keep on needin’ me,” he cries. The song fades, and finally falls silent. But Stubbs returns two seconds later for one final outburst: “Bernadette!” It’s one of the great moments in the Motown catalogue, and certainly the most chilling.

Critic Dave Marsh once characterized "Bernadette" as "scarifying," which I think is exactly spot on. While I greatly admire all of these songs, there is a certain something to "Bernadette" that makes it perhaps the best of the three. Most certainly all three are examples of classic soul.

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