As regular A.V. Club readers already know, one of my favorite singers ever, Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, died in his sleep Friday at the age of 72. He was battling multiple illnesses, including cancer and a debilitating stroke. It was a tough end for one of Motown's toughest vocalists. Stubbs' final years, in a sense, were a realization of what he had fought against for so long in his music.

In his prime Stubbs sang with a gruff passion that belied a seemingly bottomless fear of loss. Only Otis Redding was better at reconciling a vocal style that asserted ĂĽber-macho masculinity with songs that begged, pleaded, demanded that he not be abandoned to a life without love and happiness. That sounds pretty grandiose, but Stubbs's fear manifested itself in ways anyone could relate to. (Like in "Baby I Need Your Loving" where he yearns for his heart to be put at ease so he can get some damn sleep already.) For Stubbs, who sang like a man's man while expressing weakness and an almost neurotic neediness, life and death hinged on whether his all-consuming love was returned. (Which is pretty much true for all of us, isn't it?) Stubbs might have lost his power as a singer by the time he died, but he never lost the truth, and that truth will always be there for anyone who wants to listen to it.

We've all heard Stubbs on "Reach Out I'll Be There" and "Standing In The Shadows Of Love" and "Bernadette" and several other played-to-death hits, but how many times have we listened? Motown is so ingrained in pop culture that getting around the baggage that gets attached to an artist like Stubbs can be impossible. How many lame movie montages have been set to "I Can't Help Myself"? How many dopey products have been sold with "Baby I Need Your Loving"? Is it possible to still find the haunted-sounding man losing his mind on some of the best pop songs ever written by one of pop's best songwriting teams, the incomparable Holland-Dozier-Holland? Or are we stuck with the California Raisins every time Stubbs gets his two and a half minute on the radio?

Honestly, many people can't see past the baggage. But watch out—Stubbs has a way of sneaking up on you. I'll never forget the time I heard "Bernadette" for the billionth time on some anonymous oldie station during a late night drive, and realized that–holy shit!—this was the greatest pop song I had ever heard. I couldn't believe all that I had missed the other 999,999,999 times I came across "Bernadette." The opening Psycho strings, the chilling lyric about an unhealthy romantic obsession, and, best of all, Stubbs' courageous vocal performance–this song laid out the insecurity, jealousy, and hatred lurking in the "shadows of love" that Stubbs seemed all too familiar with. All of a sudden I realized that a lot of other Holland-Dozier-Holland songs written for The Four Tops put creepy words in Stubbs' mouth ("Baby, I need your loving, got to have all your loving"). But "Bernadette" was a culmination, a twisted recrimination that suddenly played like the bitterest Elvis Costello track Elvis Costello never wrote.

"And when I speak of you I see envy in other men's eyes, and I'm well aware of what's on their minds.," he hollered, and I could feel the heat of his rapid breathing against my neck. A minute or so later the floor dropped out of the song, and it was like the world ended for a second. "Bernadette!" Stubbs screamed from out of the silence, emerging from a bad dream he was living and wouldn't let himself escape. "So whatever you do, Bernadette, keep on loving me, Bernadette, keep on needing me!" He was trailing off now, and he sounded like he'd really been alone the whole time.

We've all been Levi Stubbs in this song, and we've all probably been Bernadette. If "Bernadette" weren't such an incredible song, you'd want to file a restraining order against it. As it is, I could hear it every day and never tire of Stubbs' unhinged desperation. I hope you rest in peace, Levi, and that your music never does.

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