As Sound of the City’s movie correspondent, the first thing I thought of when singer Levi Stubbs died on Friday at 72 was Feed me, Seymour! In his sole film role, in Frank Oz’s 1986 screen adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors, Stubbs was the larger-than-life voice of the giant carnivorous plant, Audrey II. His baritone—one part Sunday sermon, two parts parking lot gravel—was perfect for this mean green mother from outer space.
That same voice was also, of course, ideal for some of the most soulful r&b tunes of the 1960s. Admittedly, the Funk Brothers—the house band immortalized in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown—made everyone in Berry Gordy Jr.’s stable look pretty good. But it was Stubbs, as lead singer of the Four Tops, who infused some of that band’s most infectious tunes—”Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” and “Bernadette” and “I Can’t Help Myself”—with an emotional urgency one didn’t necessarily hear in Smokey Robinson or The Temptations. With a cannon for a larynx, Stubbs’s unabashedly black-and-proud style was more in synch with Stax than Motown, and it is the incongruity between his rough edges and the candy production behind him that lifts these songs above the average din on oldies radio. We’re ready for the heartaches to come, and for that we’re indebted to the Stubbs discography.—Benjamin Strong