October 27, 2008 at 10:32 pm

Motown family gathers for Levi Stubbs' funeral

Ali Ollie Woodson, former lead singer of The Temptations, with Jesse Jackson in background, belts out a song and then as he touches the casket at the end says, "Rest in peace brother." (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

The life of the "golden baritone" of Motown, Levi Stubbs, was celebrated Monday in a homegoing service that spanned nearly three hours at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.

Some 3,200 mourners were gathered in the large church as Berry Gordy Jr., Smokey Robinson, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, Stubbs' daughter Beverly Meah and others spoke of Stubbs.

"I came to celebrate my brother's life," Robinson said. "I did not come here to be sad. Today, we will turn on the radio and hear him. Tomorrow, we will turn on the radio and hear him. He will always be here. We will never be able to forget him."

Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. said, "He was a master interpreter of songs. He could be rough and tender at the same time. He made you walk in his shoes, love what he loved. ... He did not sing the song, he was the song."

Stubbs, 72, died in the early morning hours of Oct. 17, some eight years after illness forced him to retire from touring with his beloved Four Tops. The group had formed in 1953 as the Four Aims, made up of Stubbs and Fakir from Detroit's Pershing High School, and Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Lawrence Payton from Northern High.

Fakir's friendship with Stubbs went back so far, his voice cracked with emotion when he spoke. He said his three departed groupmates told him two days ago to thank everybody for what they'd done for the group.

"I usually don't talk at homegoings," Fakir said. "I'm a sensitive person, and I get tearful. But it's as if he and Obie and Lawrence got together and said, 'Duke, there's something you must say before you go.' I'm honored to be able to represent three great friends, three great men, especially the Captain ... If someone gave us $10, that wasn't small back then, we thank them for that. If someone took us to the mountain -- Berry Gordy -- we thank them for that.

"When we first started, we got our first uniforms at Hot Sam's -- white flannel -- but we didn't quite have the money for the four suits, but they let us have them. We thank them for that. They told me to say this," Fakir said of Stubbs, Payton and Benson.

Detroit city councilwomen JoAnn Watson and Martha Reeves presented resolutions from the city that proclaimed Stubbs' birthday, June 6, as Levi Stubbs Day in Detroit forever more. Representatives of Detroit mayor Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr. and Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm read proclamations praising Stubbs, and his Motown colleague Claudette Robinson of the Miracles read his obituary.

"Levi Stubbs was my Pavarotti," Reeves said, after she half-spoke, half-sang through a retrospective of Tops songs. She talked about how the Four Tops were "always gentlemen. Levi and the Four Tops brought out things we didn't know we had within us, as ladies."

Fakir's son, Minister Nazim Fakir, read some scripture and spoke of how he was lucky to have four fathers -- the Four Tops -- and that, just as Stubbs was rough and tender as a singer, "His parenting style was the same way."

Fakir said that Stubbs and the other Tops were "shining examples of what real manhood is all about."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson talked about the "leap year of talent" in Detroit that produced Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stubbs. "They don't come in bunches like grapes, they are rare like pearls."

He recounted how Stubbs grew up in a Detroit project with Little Willie John, and how he was a cousin of Jackie Wilson. Jackson recalled visiting the Stubbs home just three weeks before the singer died. "He was still alive, to the very end," Jackson said. "When I asked him to sing, he said 'No!'

"In the end, God let him down easy," Jackson said, of the peaceful way Stubbs passed.

Motown founder Gordy also said, "He took the incredible lyrics of Eddie Holland -- the most underrated songwriter of the 20th century, and the great production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland -- and made them better."

Bishop Charles H. Ellis III gave the eulogy, and he spoke of how important Stubbs and the Four Tops were to his generation (he turned 50 in July).

"Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops gave a lot of solace to the community through seasons of injustice, through seasons of segregation and discrimination, through the riots, through prosperity and recession," Ellis said. "Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops gave us dignity and hope."

Motown etiquette teacher Maxine Powell first met Stubbs and the Four Tops in Idlewild, the resort town in western Michigan. "Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops were always class," she said.

Stubbs' family, including his widow Clineice and five children, arrived in 10 white limousines Monday morning, as many from the extended Motown family walked in to pay their respects.

"I think my favorite song, of the ones we wrote for the Tops, was 'Bernadette,' " songwriter Eddie Holland said outside the church.

Also in attendance were Cal Street of the Velvelettes; songwriter Brian Holland; former Temptation Dennis Edwards; Detroit mayoral candidates Dave Bing and Freman Hendrix; businessman Don Barden and his wife Bella Marshall; Robin Terry from the Motown Historical Museum, Wayne County Circuit Court judge Craig Strong; Harry Weinger from Universal Motown Records in New York.

"We have lost one of the best lead singers of all time," Edwards said. "He was my mentor and best friend. He will be missed."

Speaking before the service, Jesse Jackson said the story of Stubbs and the Four Tops is an American family story. He praised Stubbs for being loyal to the group. "He didn't break away and form his own group -- it wasn't Levi Stubbs and the Three Tops."

Ollie Woodson, formerly of the Temptations, sang a soul-stirring version of "Walk Around Heaven" that had most people on their feet.

"It's a sad day. He was the first person I met when I signed with Motown in 1983," Woodson said earlier.

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall@detnews.com">swhitall@detnews.com

Funeral of Levi Stubbs Jr. of Motown Records recording group, The Four ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
The father of Motown, Berry Gordy comes to the podium. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)