Motown writing/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland frequently sneaked references to traditional gospel music into their otherwise secular records. On the Supremes tracks “Come See About Me” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” paraphrases of familiar gospel songs function as a shibboleth, tacitly invoking a culture shared by the artists and a specific (African-American, Christian) subset of their audience. For records like the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” though, the allusions are more thematic than literal, a means of adding heft to a formula love song. The song, directed toward a depressed woman apparently on the verge of suicide, promises everlasting love, support and consolation to guide her through her trouble. The narrator is portrayed as a near-omnipotent force capable of salvation. All the woman has to do is ask and her prayers will be answered.
The intro to “Reach Out” enacts the record’s theme in miniature: a mournful cry from a flute, answered by the gallop of a woodblock rushing to rescue. Though the beat migrates to tambourine and drums/bass over the course of the song, it never ceases or varies tempo, even when most other instrumentation drops out at the song’s tensest moments. Lead singer Levi Stubbs’ declamatory baritone is nearly as constant, at times so powerful that it veers into distortion. His strained vocals and jagged phrasing attest to the intensity of his effort. His ability to rescue her isn’t in doubt; the question is whether she will reach out for him. All the Tops can do is offer a hand and beg her to accept it. The suspense builds to a climax on the bridge between verse and chorus, as the backing Tops’ cries to “reach out!” escalate and Stubbs’s pleas grow more fervent (“come on girl, reach out for me!”). The vocals cut out and, for a few moments, her fate hangs in the balance. Does she succumb to her fears and anxieties? Or does she accept his help? At last, Stubbs’ triumphant “HAH!” relieves the tension, as if he’s caught her hand and is pulling her to safety. The pleading in the bridge gives way to a reassuring affirmation: “I’ll be there/ to always see you through.” By the final verse, she no longer needs to seek him out; he’s already with her (“just look over your shoulder!”).
While gospel is the obvious reference point for the vocal style and lyrical themes, musically “Reach Out” suggests that Holland-Dozier-Holland were paying attention to rock as well – specifically “Paint It Black,” where the cantering rhythm and major-minor fluctuations stand for existential angst. The Four Tops’ run of singles from “Reach Out” through “7-Rooms of Gloom” can be considered Motown’s counterpart to the arty and experimental wing of mid-’60s rock, foreshadowing the label’s forays into psychedelic soul. As psychedelic rock sought to chronicle the interior drug experience through sound, these Four Tops singles externalize the mind-altering effects of anxiety and jealousy, jolting listeners through a series of dynamic contrasts (major vs. minor; Stubbs’ anguished roars vs. the Tops’ beatific tenors; frantic instrumentation vs. suspenseful moments of near silence), until, by song’s end, the audience is as worn out and on edge as the songs’ narrators. This unsettling physicality renders these singles tangible; unlike similarly theatrical records of the period (think “Lightnin’ Strikes”), they refuse to be reduced to camp. Even compared with its siblings “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and “Bernadette,” the beyond-life-and-death urgency of “Reach Out” gives it an unmatched gravity. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, though, the song is too encouraging to feel ponderous. “Reach Out” understands the depths, but it celebrates the certainty of deliverance. 10
Hit #1 on October 15, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
170 of 1023 #1’s reviewed; 16.62% through the Hot 100