It seems entirely appropriate I find myself writing this blog this week, as it marks the 60th anniversary of the formation of Motown Records. One of the Detroit soul label’s greatest number 1s was Reach Out I’ll Be There by local boys, Four Tops. It was the first time a black male group had been in pole position since The Platters in 1959 with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
The quartet began life as friends at a Detroit, Michigan high school. Levi Stubbs, Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson and Lawrence Payton were asked to sing at a friend’s birthday party, and went down so well, they remained together until Payton’s death in 1997. Originally named The Four Aims, they signed with Chess Records in 1956, but changed their name to Four Tops to avoid confusion with pop act The Ames Brothers.
Seven years and several record labels followed, with no hits to their name. But they stuck at it and developed a slick stage presence. Fortune finally smiled on the group when Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr asked them to join the label, which had been steadily growing since its formation in 1959. They joined its Workshop offshoot, mainly covering jazz standards, as well as occasionally singing backing vocals on other group’s records, such as Run, Run, Run by The Supremes.
Their fortunes changed when Motown’s main songwriting team, Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland gave the quartet Baby I Need Your Loving. Climbing the US charts to number 11, the Four Tops now moved away from jazz to the uptempo soul and pop that Motown excelled in, the most notable being I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), a Billboard number 1 in June 1965.
Lamont-Dozier-Holland were inspired to write Reach Out I’ll Be There after discussing their experiences with women and what they looked for most in a man. It was agreed they wanted someone to always be there for them. They didn’t think at the time that this would become one of their most famous songs. It was just another track on the label’s production line, such was Motown’s approach. Four Tops had no inkling either, they rushed through the recording in two takes and quickly forgot about it.
Reach Out I’ll Be There is a song everyone knows and admires, but when you consider the speed of its recording, the results are that much more impressive. I’m a big soul fan, but sometimes find 60s Motown a little too sweet. This track is different though, and that’s largely down to the lead vocal of Stubbs. Lamont-Dozier-Holland had realised they got the best results out of him by making him sing at the top of his range, creating a raw urgency that added an extra layer of emotion that made him stand out among the crowd.
This effect is perfect for Reach Out I’ll Be There, as he captures the desperation you would feel if your ‘world comes crumbling down’. Stubbs treats the words like punches, stabbing certain words with extra emphasis.
This was suggested by the writers/producers after they heard Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone. The darkness of the verses make the chorus that much more effective. Stubbs shouts ‘Ha!”, the clouds break, and the heavenly sound of the Four Tops as one takes over. It’s beautiful, and could move you to tears. As always, Motown backing group The Funk Brothers put in an exemplary performance.
Topping the UK and US charts, Reach Out I’ll Be There became Four Tops’ signature song and one of the biggest Motown tracks ever. The hits continued for some time, including follow-up Standing in the Shadows of Love, then in 1967 Bernadette. and a cover of Tim Hardin’s If I Were a Carpenter. After their version of the Left Banke’s Walk Away Renée in 1968, the sales started to drop considerably.
Motown were starting to look old fashioned, and the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland was a big blow. Gordy realised this and began to shine the spotlight on their newer acts like The Jackson 5 and Diana Ross, now a solo artist after leaving The Supremes.
In 1972 it was announced the whole label would move from Detroit to California. Some of the older acts opted to stay in Detroit, including Four Tops, Martha Reeves and The Funk Brothers. The Tops signed with ABC-Dunhill, and didn’t too bad for a while, having hits with Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got) and Are You Man Enough from blaxploitation sequel Shaft in Africa (1973). In 1976 they left the label.
As the 80s began, Four Tops were with Casablanca Records, home to Parliament and KISS. However by the time of Motown’s 25th anniversary they were back with the label and appeared on its TV special in a battle of the bands with The Temptations. Their first album back with Motown was appropriately named Back Where I Belong. The group took part in 1985’s Live Aid, but left the label again in 1986.
The 80s also saw them feature in the movies, with an appearance on the soundtrack to Grease 2 back in 1982, and Stubbs providing the voice of Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors (1986).
In 1988 they returned to the singles chart with Loco in Acapulco from the hit movie Buster, starring Phil Collins, who wrote the track with Lamont Dozier as well as getting behind the drumkit. Fair play to all involved – until I researched this, I assumed the track was from the 60s. That December, Four Tops were scheduled to return to the US for Christmas on Pan Am Flight 103, but a prolonged recording session and appearance on Top of the Pops meant they overslept. To say this was a stroke of luck would be a massive understatement – had they boarded, they would be among the victims of the Lockerbie air disaster when a terrorist bomb detonated the plane.
The 90s started well, with the quarted entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, but form then on they concentrated on live appearances as their albums and singles couldn’t hit the heights of the past. In 1997, after 44 years together, they suffered their first loss when Peyton succumbed to liver cancer, aged 59.
For a while they continued as a trio known as the Tops, before adding Theo Peoples from The Temptations. From then on, age caught up with the group and line-up changes continued. Benson died of lung cancer in 2005, and Stubbs passed away in his sleep in 2008. The group continues to this day, led by the last remaining surviving member, Fakir.
Four Tops will always be known as one of the finest soul groups ever, and Reach Out I’ll Be There still appears in lists of greatest songs of all time.
Written by: Lamont Dozier & Brian and Eddie Holland
Producer: Brian Holland & Lamont Dozier
Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 October-16 November)
Conservative MP Jeremy Cunt – 1 November
Chef Gordon Ramsay – 8 November
Conservative MP Peter Baker – 14 November
14 November: The trial of John Whitney and John Duddy over the Shepherd’s Bush murders (see With a Girl Like You) began at the Old Bailey, but was adjourned only a day later when the third assailant Harry Roberts was captured.
16 November: Cathy Come Home was broadcast on BBC One. This docu-drama about homelessness was watched by a quarter of the population and is considered now to be one of the most influential pieces of television in the 60s. Although slow-paced by today’s standards, it still has the power to shock and depress.