Friday, October 17, 2008

A View of the Passing

Almost a decade ago, my mother and I went on a trip to Las Vegas. My cousins were on a traveling bowling league team just to go on the annual year end trip to Vegas. It was a lot of fun. We did a little gambling, a little shopping, a little sightseeing, and a lot of people watching. We stayed in the old Maxim casino - forever infamous as the location where Tupac Shakur was fatally shot in 1996 - but didn't spend much time in there. It was simply a place to hold our clothes and grab a nap between adventures.

The most memorable part of our time together in Vegas was the day we went to lunch at the old Motown Cafe inside New York, New York Casino. It was one of those theme restaurants that served so-so food and overpriced drinks, but people went for it because who can resist a "Baby Love Burger" or a "Sugar Pie, Honey Bun"? My mom often said the world fell into two distinct groups - the good people who loved the Temptations (her all time favorite singing group), and the hopeless people who loved the Four Tops - a group who, in her eyes, could never equal the Tempts.

The restaurant featured a show from "your favorite Motown artists" every hour or so, and my mom was hoping to see a Temptations revue. She asked the hostess for a seat close to the stage so she could see and hear everything. Just after we placed our orders and began sipping the most expensive Coca-Cola we ever had, the lights dimmed in the house and a spotlight was trained on the stage.

"Ladies and gentlemem," a deep voiced announcer boomed on the overhead speakers, "the Motown Cafe is proud to bring to you...."

My mom held her breath and closed her eyes in anticipation.

"The Four Tops!"

Everyone cheered and applauded - except Mom and I.

"I hate the goddamn Four Tops!" she exclaimed as four young men came bounding onto the stage dressed in tuxedos that were just a touch too big, shiny white patent leather shoes that were just a touch too small, and a remarkable ability to hear her exclamation over my laughter and the opening strains of "I Can't Help Myself." One of the young men looked over at our table upon hearing her, made a quick turn to his fellow Tops and gave a quick wink. They found the perfect foil to play to for the duration of their enthusiastically danced, partially lip synched, partially sung show. For the next 20 minutes or so, they danced around our table, sung to Mom, dedicated songs to her ("This one is for our number one fan - what's your name, dear?"), and had the time of their lives at her expense. After a while, she kind of got into it and began singing and dancing along.

I couldn't applaud because I was laughing. I laughed so hard through the whole show my sides hurt, especially when the group had her sing along to "Bernadette" - her least favorite Four Tops song.

Over time, she revealed her theory about the world being either a Temptations or a Four Tops fan wasn't as carved in stone as she wanted us to believe. While she absolutely loves the Temptations, my sister and I would occasionally catch her singing along to a Four Tops song. One day as I was driving her to work, "Still Water (Love)" began to play on my iPod and she admitted that it was pretty good, "you know, for a Four Tops song." Coming from my Mom, this was high praise for that "other Motown group."

The tide completely turned when Levi Stubbs, the lead singer for the Four Tops, made an appearance on a tribute show and tearfully sang as a thank you to everyone who came to salute him. It was one of his last public appearances. He was in a wheelchair, suffering from the effects of a stroke and cancer. His appearance and sincere appreciation of the love everyone sent his way brought her to tears just as it did with everyone at the event. Just as it will probably bring you to tears if you watch the clip.

Today when I read the news about Levi Stubbs's passing, I called her to see if she'd heard. When I told her, she quietly gasped and then was quiet for a few moments.

"Wow," she finally said. "I'm really sorry to hear that. He went through so much."

I thought about that day at the Motown Cafe after I hung up the phone. So much has changed since that trip. The Las Vegas Motown Cafe is gone. I just read that it closed permanently not too long after our visit. In fact, it looks like the entire chain is gone. The Maxim Casino is gone. It closed in 2001, and is now a Westin hotel and casino. Three of the original Four Tops are gone. Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Lawrence Payton preceded Levi Stubbs in death. Abdul "Duke" Fakir is the only original member of the group still with us. Even Motown Records as it once existed and dominated the airwaves is gone. Berry Gordy sold Motown to Polygram, and (there's no other way to put it) stands in the shadow of its former glory.

The memories are still there, though, alive and thriving. The music is still there and still lives. The power of strong clear voices singing in harmony still lives and thrives. And the impact groups like the Four Tops had on the world will always live. Like them or loathe them, you cannot deny the impact their songs, their performance, their love of music had on everyone who came in contact with them.

Rest in peace, Levi Stubbs. You will be missed.

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