Levi Stubbs

When I heard that Levi Stubbs, the phenomenal lead singer of the Motown group The Four Tops died Friday I had all the usual reactions someone in this industry would have.

And a few more.

Stubbs, the handsome rough voiced baritone, was a special part of a very special group.

And I'm not just talking about singing talent.

This was a man who was loved and who loved the business as well as his fellow group members. He turned down chances to star in the movies deciding instead to remain with the group -- a special guy in an entertainment industry populated by divas.

I have a point to make about the music industry and radio that I think you will relate to.

My friend Brian Pastoria sent me this 50th anniversary tribute to The Four Tops by Aretha Franklin at the Detroit Opera House. Stubbs was hobbled by cancer and a stroke but he showed up on stage in a wheelchair with the Tops and one last survivor Abdul "Duke" Fakir and a microphone. Take time to watch it. I promise you will not have a dry eye.

It strikes me that what has changed in the music industry today is not that three of The Four Tops are gone. Not that a lot of r&b and rock 'n roll era artists will be following Stubbs and those than have gone before to the ultimate Hy Lit record hop in the sky. Today, music is very much alive even if the record labels have atrophied.

At the risk of being called a partisan, I know lots of young talent at USC's Thornton School of Music. They come into their own not as Levi and his group did, but worse off. The record labels are turning a deaf ear to the young stars of tomorrow. These young talents out of necessity are taking another path.

Berry Gordy, the impresario and founder of the Motown sound, signed The Four Tops after seeing them perform "In the Still of the Night" on the Jack Paar Tonight Show.

First, where are the Berry Gordys in an industry of lawyers and accountants?

Gordy sent the group to the legendary Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland to work on developing their sound and deliver him a hit record. Holland, Dozier and Holland decided to feature Levi's gravelly voice backed up by the harmonies of the other singers along with female vocals by a group called Andantes and as a New York Times obituary pointed out, "supported by the Motown studio band knows as the Funk Brothers".

The labels don't do this any more -- not on this scale, not on this level of commitment.

And to paraphrase the genius radio programmer Bill Drake -- the hits just kept on coming.

Speaking of radio, none of this would have been possible without radio -- none. In spite of what the record labels are spewing out these days as they campaign for retribution against their old business partners in broadcasting to get radio's performance tax exemption repealed.

Radio drove the hit making machine.

I, along with many of my programming friends and readers of this space, played Motown music in the same era that feature Gamble & Huff and Sigma Sound in Philly as well as a little something that came from overseas known as The British Invasion led by the Beatles.

Even radio couldn't screw that up. Forget problems, we just played the music right through them.

Radio forgot the importance of breaking new music as far back as 1990 and the corporate playlists that were implemented helped to kill off the music industry and radio.

The labels had an important role in an era that preceded MySpace and viral communication.

The colorful characters of the recording industry knew what they were doing after all. They may not have worn suits or held law degrees. They may have known nothing about accounting. And were unorthodox in so many ways -- still, they presented a wide variety of new music to radio.

Wide variety today? You're kidding, right?

Radio programmers decided what got on the air and what didn't. There were some consultants and a few powerful music directors, but decisions were basically local. You see, it was to everyone's benefit that records were worked locally because that's how you grew a national hit.

Radio local? You're kidding, right?

Dick Clark did it when Bandstand was a local after school Philadelphia teenage TV dance show. My old record buddy Matty "The Humdinger" Singer worked upstate Pennsylvania so hard for small market airplay on everything his label released just so he could sit down with me in Philadelphia and Jay Cook at the competition to make his compelling case for major market airplay.

Record promotion didn't survive the suits and their budget cuts.

This local airplay could take weeks or months, but when enough of it happened and bullets appeared in Billboard, Cashbox and R&R, the labels knew how to take their investment the rest of the way. Yes, even this motley crew -- most of whom never went to college-- just the proverbial school of Hard Knocks.

Matty Singer, by the way, once threatened to stay in my office and chain himself to my desk until I played a new artist no one ever heard of called Jim Croce. When I finally relented, he ran across the street to Jay Cook and snagged both of the major stations he needed. And when "You Don't Mess Around with Jim" became a smash hit, in Matty's tradition, he never let me live it down.

On every level, the music industry is broken today.

The wrong people, the wrong mission -- out of touch and clueless about the future.

The best music is ahead -- yet to be made. As I said previously music is alive and kicking. Anyone watching electronica? They should be.

All the best music wasn't made in the past, it's out there right now.

And a replacement for the record label/radio collaboration I described is on its way and it includes social networking, live local performances and free music.

That's right, free music.

Just as free as it was when it was heard on KHJ in Los Angeles, WLS in Chicago, CKLW in Detroit or WABC in New York.

And this is what the labels choke on. They can't see that the free airplay that made groups like The Four Tops successful has morphed into free downloads that music lovers have been "stealing" from them since Napster.

In the past, it was simple. The labels made money from selling 45 rpm records and vinyl 33 1/3 albums. Now, the music is tantamount to promotion. The labels need a new way to cash in. The lawyers running the final four can't get their arms around this notion. Visit any college campus for a period of time and you'll see that the next generation will not be denied.

Because they own the record store -- not the labels.

And the record stores are online with names like iTunes but also Limewire.

Levi Stubbs and his singing buddies stayed and played together for forty years -- remarkable in any industry let alone our ego driven business.

Obie Benson, a Four Tops singer, said he was sadden to perform without Levi Stubbs and Lawrence Payton (who died in 1997).

Obie said "It's like having one body with two limbs missing".

The same could be said of the music industry as 2009 approaches.

It's like having one body of music with two limbs -- the labels and radio -- missing.

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