Tag Archives: the four tops

170) The Four Tops – “Reach Out I’ll Be There”

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



Filed under 10, 1966

138) Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”

“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” replaced “Back in My Arms Again” after just one week atop the charts, giving Motown its first set of back-to-back number-ones. As with The Supremes before them, Four Tops succeeded with the help of the writing/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland, who rescued the promising group from the label’s B-list and crafted a musical persona for them that was both distinctive and easily replicable. Four Tops had bounced around labels for nearly a decade, mostly recording lite-jazz standards and touring the supper club circuit. But it wasn’t until H-D-H positioned the Tops’ sound as a heavier, more gospel-influenced take on The Supremes’ polished soul-pop that the group had their first hit, 1964’s “Baby I Need Your Loving.” Lead singer Levi Stubbs began shouting against the upper limits of his baritone, the strain adding both a desperation and a forcefulness to his voice that marked it as the ultra-masculine, ultra-emotive counterpart to Diana Ross’s demure girlishness. “I Can’t Help Myself” even shares a similar chord progression and some lyrical content with “Where Did Our Love Go,” albeit fleshed out with a bridge and full Funk Brothers instrumentation, including vibes, strings and a saxophone.

While The Supremes sang in questions (“Where did our love go?” “Why must we separate?” “Won’t you hurry?”), though, the Four Tops issue proclamations. Stubbs isn’t apologetic or insecure about telling his girl how he feels; he lays out his anguish in plain terms, take it or leave it. Nor does he hold her directly responsible for causing his heartache. Rather, he turns the blame on himself for being “weaker than a man should be,” for letting himself fall in love at all. But even as he resists her, the swell of the strings and the jangle of the tambourine betray the rush of exhilaration he’s so desperate to tamp down. He may complain about the burning in his heart, but he can’t deny its warm glow. This being a Holland-Dozier-Holland production, Four Tops would repeat the formula with the aptly-titled “It’s the Same Old Song” – though as with “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me,” the knockoff arguably improves on the original. But the group’s most electrifying material was still around the corner, as H-D-H’s productions would grow increasingly gothic to match the exquisite agony of Stubbs’ voice. 8

Hit #1 on June 19, 1965 for 1 week; repeaked on July 3, 1965 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
138 of 1009 #1’s reviewed; 13.68% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 08, 1965