Motown 1098 may not sound like a particularly significant catalog number, but the track it denoted remains one of the defining moments of the company’s collective brilliance. The classic in question is the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” released on August 18, 1966. It was a US pop No.1 on October 15, and repeated the feat two weeks later in the UK.
Written by Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier and produced by Brian and Lamont, the song came to the Four Tops during something of a lull after their breakthrough of the 1964-65 season. They had were continuing to enjoy support from their R&B constituency, but even there, the quartet’s previous single, Stevie Wonder’s song “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” only made No.12, and fizzled at just No.45 pop. It was their lowest rating since their Hot 100 debut with “Baby I Need Your Loving.”
“Reach Out I’ll Be There” changed all that, its passionate sentiment perfectly matched to the group’s dramatic delivery and the peerlessly plaintive lead vocals of Levi Stubbs. Then there was the unprecedented daring for a Motown single of the choice of instrumentation. Flutes and almost galloping percussion detailed the melancholy introduction, before the unforgettable vocal liftoff that sent Levi’s narrative into orbit.
“Reach Out” was on the charts in no time, and made No.1 pop when it took over at the Hot 100 summit from The Association’s “Cherish.” As its two-week reign ended there, it started another on the R&B register, and a three-week run at the UK summit.
The Dylan influence
Even if it’s widely recorded that the producers had Bob Dylan’s concurrent success in mind when they requested similar urgency in Stubbs’ vocal performance, it’s still instructive to look back at how the Tops themselves described the song.
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“We were talking to Holland-Dozier-Holland one day,” Lawrence Payton told the NME that October, “and we decided that what was needed was something in the folk-rock idiom. So they went away and came back with ‘Reach Out And I’ll Be There.’ I think it’s the best piece of folk-rock that’s been around in a long time.” Not too many who made it a transatlantic No.1 would necessarily call it folk-rock, but they’d all call it a soul classic.
Buy or stream “Reach Out I’ll Be There” on the Four Tops’ Reach Out album.