11/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Levi Stubbs, No Tears, Just Thanks

There are many ways to define greatness. Here's one more: being truly great when you could probably get away with simply being good.

I will never forget being taught that lesson beautifully by the now late great Levi Stubbs. It was the early Nineties and I was flying to Vegas on business when I ran into the wife of a comedian who was opening up for the Four Tops that night. She kindly invited me to come by and see this remarkable and still intact group that I'd always loved but never seen.

Now grunge era was not exactly the apex of the Four Tops career and a mid-week early show casino gig seemed like a recipe for mere nostalgia. The Four Tops' set was suitably hit-packed and a little slick -- just as their excellent Motown training would suggest -- but the revelation arrived every single time Levi Stubbs opened his mouth. Of all the brilliant soul men to come out of the Sixties, Levi was arguably the most manly sounding, and rather than dusty Big Chill oldies, Stubbs and his fellow Tops squeezed every bit of intensely macho, melodramatic romance out of "Standing In The Shadows Of Love," "Baby I Need Your Loving" and "Bernadette," among so many other Motown masterpieces. Rather than just going through some paces for some high rolling conventioneers on the Strip, the Tops reached out and connected as if it was the show of a lifetime -- which in a way they all are.

There's a wonderful song by Billy Bragg called "Levi Stubbs' Tears" but hearing of the man's passing after years of being very ill, I find myself not moved to tears, but to a sense of appreciation for his enduring voice and his inspiring example.