The Four Tops – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” Pop # 1, R&B # 1
By Joel Francis
The dramatic introduction to “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” owes more than a little to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and was Motown’s most cinematic chart-topper to date. While the flute gets the signature melody, check out James Jamerson’s uber-melodic bassline bubbling underneath the bevy of instruments. Paul McCartney gets a lot of (deserved) credit for his inventive basslines, but Jamerson’s brilliant countermelody here rivals anything McCartney came up with the Beatles – OK, maybe not “I Feel Fine” – and should permanently insert Jamerson into the ‘60s bass legends conversation.
The song was written by the white-hot trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland – there were actually other Hitsville employees at the time, although one wouldn’t know it by looking at the Billboard charts – but Norman Whitfield supplied the galloping percussion. Propelled by HDH’s rich arrangement, “Reach Out” starts strong and continues to build through the verse, dropping off and resting slightly before the Tops casually fall into the chorus. Lyrics could almost become superfluous with a melody this strong, but lead singer Levi Stubbs’ words of commitment and devotion are equally compelling.
Although the song became the Tops signature number, Stubbs initially felt his voice was too rough for the song and tried to recuse himself. Fortunately, HDH prevailed on Stubbs to give it a try. Stubbs promptly delivered one of the great vocals in the Motown catalog. Critics who pick on “overproduced” songs like this as examples of the slick Motown sound need to pay more attention to Stubbs’ vocals. His signing is as gritty and soulful as anything in the Stax cannon. Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson may sound a little stilted in singing in front of Stax’ incredible house band Booker T and the MGs. It’s not hard to imagine Stubbs being more than up to the task. Unfortunately such cross-pollination never occurred, but with the advent of ProTools and continued merger of major record labels, maybe the Motown and Stax catalog will end up under the same corporate umbrella and someone will give us a recreated session.
Stubbs’ soulful signing on “Reach Out” inspired a lot of people – unfortunately it inspired a lot of the wrong people. While the ability to sing soul music is not racial, a whole lotta white dudes certainly tried to make the case. Elton John, Michael Bolton and Michael McDonald all failed on this number. More successful were Diana Ross, who took her cover into the Top 40 in 1971, and Gloria Gaynor, who did a disco version just four years later.