Arresting Levi Stubbs
Cocaine, candles and the Moody Blues
In their hearts, the British have a special place for the Four Tops. Unfortunately, that once included London’s Bow Street Magistrates Court.
Levi Stubbs made an appearance there on March 13, 1970, charged with illegally possessing cocaine and live ammunition. The Tops’ mighty lead singer was granted bail, and spent part of the next two months fighting the case to a successful conclusion. He denied that the drugs found in his luggage the day before were his, and a jury eventually acquitted him.
There was a musical verdict, too. During the same month that Levi was on trial, he and the Tops recorded a substantial U.K. hit in London. Ironically, perhaps, it was called “Simple Game.”
In this account, the court case will shortly play second fiddle to the music, but for a moment, imagine the scene on March 12, 1970, when police officers disturbed a press conference with the Tops at London’s Mayfair Hotel, in order to question Levi about the drugs. Shortly afterwards, he was escorted to a nearby police station to be charged.
“They didn’t arrest him at first,” recalled John Marshall, Motown Records’ London-based international director at the time. “They cautioned him, then arrested him later.” Marshall was present at the Mayfair, where the Tops were briefing media about the International Union for Harmony. This was a philanthropic cause in which they were partnered with British peer Lord Brockway, a 1960s campaigner for racial equality laws in the U.K. Earlier on March 12, he had taken the group for lunch at the House of Lords.
John Marshall knew the Tops well. Enormously popular in Britain since “Reach Out I’ll Be There” had topped the charts in 1966, the group regularly visited for concerts and TV appearances. “I spent a lot of time going to their gigs,” he told me. “One, because they were very important, and two, because they were just great to deal with. They had very good road managers, too.” During the 1970 trip, that duty belonged to Ralph Garcia, who accompanied Levi to the police station on March 12.
At the trial in May, the judge and jury proved to be unconvinced by the prosecution, and by the fact that the police would not reveal the identity of the informant who claimed that Levi had the cocaine. The singer did, however, confess to owning twelve bullets for a .357 magnum pistol without a license, and he received a small fine for that. “They might have found some bullets in his luggage,” said Marshall. “That wouldn’t surprise me. There were a lot of guns in Detroit with the artists.”
The former Motown official was certain that the case was brought purely for publicity. “Funnily enough, I got to know the police guy who arrested [Levi] and he just said, ‘Oh, we gave it a shot.’ It was like a game with them – a bit of publicity, they might get promoted. That’s the feeling you got.” Marshall was relieved that Levi took the matter seriously, though. “We were really sweating, of course. There was talk that perhaps he didn’t want to come back [from the U.S.] to face it, but he did.”
And in the middle of this, there was “Simple Game,” the Four Tops’ unexpected collaboration with the Moody Blues and their producer, the late Tony Clarke. The Moodies were apparently Motown fans: when the band played concerts in Detroit the previous November, they had asked about visiting Hitsville. Disc jockey John Small at “underground” station WABX-FM called his friend at the company, Al DiNoble, who was part of the team operating the Rare Earth rock label. “And I said, ‘Of course,’ ” recalled DiNoble. “They walked into the studio and they were touching the walls like they were lined with gold.”
Coincidentally, Motown’s international HQ under John Marshall had recently taken London office space which was formerly occupied by…the Moody Blues. “I got to know Tony a little bit from that,” he explained. “He was a big Motown fan.” Moreover, the producer wanted to work with its artists. “I didn’t know what he was going to come up with. All I knew is that Motown was interested, and the Tops went along with it.”
As the foursome was due to spend time in the U.K. for a concert tour – and Levi for the court case – this seemed to be the ideal opportunity. “The deal was done,” added Marshall, “and I remember the money coming over [to London] for Tony.”
The Tops went into London’s Wessex Sound Studios on May 5, 1970. Clarke had already cut the instrumental track for “Simple Game,” a song written by Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues and first recorded by them in 1968. “That’s the first thing [the Tops] heard,” said Marshall. “It was just fantastic. They went into the studio and knocked it out in a couple of hours. I just couldn’t believe how good it was.”
The same session yielded “You Stole My Love,” co-written by Clarke, and “So Deep Within You,” also penned by Pinder. The arranger was Arthur Greenslade, respected for his work with Dusty Springfield, among others. Later in the month, British music paper Disc breathlessly reported that “the Moodies ‘jammed’ on some of the sessions and that the Tops were ‘knocked out’ with the new Pinder song, and said they thought it would be a ‘world smash.’ ”
And yet more than a year passed before the world heard that “smash.” Tamla Motown in the U.K. issued “Simple Game” in September 1971, and Motown shipped it (as “A Simple Game”) in America the following January, after the single had proved itself on the British charts.
When interviewing John Marshall for Motown: The Sound of Young America, I neglected to ask him about the delay. In retrospect, it seems likely that the Tops’ material with Motown producer Frank Wilson was top priority in 1970. Their Still Waters Run Deep album, released that March, was proving to be their biggest seller in several years, fortified by a pair of hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic, “It’s All In The Game” and “Still Water (Love).” All this was followed by Changing Times and the Tops’ tryst with the Supremes, The Magnificent 7.
Motown, meanwhile, had recruited Tony Clarke for its flagship rock act, Rare Earth. “With all the success of the English Rock world,” wrote the band’s Pete Rivera in his autobiography with Larry Stephens, Born to Wander, “they came up with an idea that we might be able to work with Tony Clarke.” For their third album, Rare Earth was expecting to again collaborate with Tom Baird or Norman Whitfield. “Well,” declared Rivera, “Tony told us we were collectively going to write all the songs. We were stunned!”
The British producer confirmed his modus operandi to Mike Gormley at the Detroit Free Press. “I take the artists and sit at a table for an hour or so and decide what we’d like to hear if we had a record player in front of us. Then the musicians sort of go off by themselves and write songs. Eventually someone comes up with a tune everyone likes and we start work on it.”
For Motown, that was different. “Tony had a session with candles burning,” recalled Barney Ales, who was originally responsible for the formation of Rare Earth Records. “The band didn’t get along with him. Nothing materialised.” Yet drummer Pete Rivera remembered otherwise: “Well, we started our little circle sessions and I’ll be darn [cq] if song ideas didn’t start pouring out of us.”
Two of Rivera’s ideas, “The Seed” and “If I Die,” made it onto Rare Earth’s next album, One World, as did songs by Rare Earth's Gil Bridges, John Persh, Ed Guzman, Mark Olson and Ray Monette. But Clarke came off the project, and Baird and the band ended up as its producers. Even so, One World did not sell as many copies as its predecessors. “Tony was a really nice guy and meant well,” Rivera concluded, “but I think he walked into a stranger situation than he had ever imagined.”
Probably none stranger than the sight of Scotland Yard detectives invading a press conference to interrogate Levi Stubbs about cocaine and ammunition. "Shake me, wake me (when it's over)"?