For those lucky enough to be at Thursday night's Obama benefit at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, the combination of John Legend, Bruce Springsteen, India Arie, and Billy Joel magically gelling into an instant super group in front of our eyes was unforgettable. The interaction among the artists was superb, the commitment of the artists fully on view, and Barak's superb speech ended with this one-night-only supergroup revving up a sensational version of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours."
Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" was one of the great high points in the history of Motown -- a label that generated so much great music in such a short time, that it can only be compared to the Beatles and all of the English Invasion (and to Bob Dylan, of course). There were many stars in Motown's firmament -- among them, Stevie, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and Diana Ross -- but I happen to have loved the Four Tops most of all. They weren't the most flexible singers, they weren't the silkiest, the slinkiest, the sleakest, or the most original. But, when you put them together with producers/writers Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier, they made music for the ages.
In 1966, they had a legendary trio of hits. In reverse order, they were "Bernadette," "Standing in the Shadows of Love," and "Reach Out, I'll Be There." Levi Stubbs sang the lead on all three, just as he did on all of the Tops records, for over forty years. On "Reach Out," Levi was paired with Holland-Dozier-Holland's single greatest song and production. He rose to the challenge of fulfilling that great song's potential, and created his masterpiece. No pop performance has ever encompassed the extremes of despair, heartbreak, joy, and love more than this one.
When I had the honor of inducting Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seventeen years ago, I recalled hearing "Reach Out, I'll be There," for the very first time. I was driving down Rte 128 outside of Boston and listening to WRKO, our great Sixties era Boston Top Forty. "Reach Out" came on for the first time and thirty seconds into it I pulled over to the shoulder of the highway, and just listened -- losing myself in Levi's performance, with all of its hair raising and spiritual glory. For me, time stood still and I will always remember that moment the same way that I remember hearing "Johnny B. Goode" and "Like a Rolling Stone" for the first time.
Yesterday morning I woke up hung over from the joyful after-show celebration of Thursday night's triumphant Obama concert and benefit, only to learn that Levi Stubbs had passed away. As I heard the news, I had only one thought: I truly hope he died knowing just how much he meant to so many people -- (including me).