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The Four Tops

 Reach Out I’ll Be There

"Hold on, we were just experimenting. Don't release that as a single," pleaded Duke Fakir of the Four Tops to Motown boss, Barry Gordy in the summer of 1966. (5)

The Tops, all Detroit natives, met when members, Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo “Obie” Benson performed at a friend’s birthday party in 1954. They liked their sound and formed together as the Four Aims, a name they chose because they were “aiming for stardom.” They performed together for a few years before sending a demo to Chess Records in Chicago. Nothing happened at Chess. After their name was changed to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with popular Ames Brothers, they tried their pop vocal style at other labels and couldn’t score. Even Gordy pushed them into a pop/jazz style upon signing with Motown in 1963 with no success. The Tops’ fortunes changed when they met the songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.

Eddie Holland joined Motown as an artist in 1958. He scored his highest-charting hit, Jamie in 1961. Brian Holland started at Motown as a songwriter, co-composing the Marvelettes Please Mr. Postman, the Motown label’s first #1 hit in 1961. Brian’s main songwriting partner, Robert Bateman suggested he team up with singer/songwriter Lamont Dozier. The advice was solid and charted a course on Brian’s career. "Brian and I wrote stuff for various Motown artists, and some of it started to get attention," Dozier recalls. "Then Berry told me, 'Look, if you really want to be successful and make some money at this thing, the writing and producing aspect of it is the way to go.'" Lamont remembered how the songwriting trio formed. "Eddie didn't want to sing any more," Dozier explains. "He didn't like to be on stage, jumping around. He preferred to be in the background, writing lyrics, so we brought him in and that's when things started to click." (1)

The songwriting process usually began with Lamont generating the melody and title while working with Brian to establish the structure of the music. The Funk Brothers would record the basic track with Lamont overseeing the rhythm section, Brian at the engineering board and supervising keyboards and guitars. When the instrumental track was completed, Eddie would write the lyrics. When the vocals were recorded, Eddie supervised the lead while Lamont handled the background vocalists. (2)

The process or variations of it made the Holland-Dozier-Holland team a successful songwriting unit. For the Supremes, the trio wrote Where Did Our Love Go?, Baby Love, and Stop! In The Name Of Love. Martha & The Vandellas did (Love Is Like A) Heat Wave, Nowhere To Run and Jimmy Mack while Marvin Gaye recorded compositions of Can I Get A Witness and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).

That songwriting trio had just the song for the Four Tops. Dozier and the Hollands had written an instrumental track that they thought could make a good song. Although Stubbs was a baritone, the song was written in a tenor range, forcing Stubbs to sing at the limit of his range, producing the familiar pleading, almost screaming sound that became the group’s signature. That song, Baby I Need Your Loving, became their first top-20 hit. (3)

The next two follow-ups, Without The One You Love) Life Is Not Worthwhile and Ask The Lonely didn’t fare quite as well peaking at #’s 43 and 24 respectively on Billboard’s Top 100 list. In 1965, the Tops hit #1 with I Can’t Help Myself. (4)

With the quartet gaining momentum, Columbia Records was ready to release an album of Four Tops material from the early 60s to cash in on their success. “We had to rush the band into the studio, and I came up with It's The Same Old Song, which was similar to I Can't Help Myself,” recalled Dozier. “I found a way of turning the bass figure around, but basically the chords were all very similar — it really was the same old song! So, I added a few chords on top of the high part just to give it some new nuances, and after that we had it out on the street in five days and we squashed the Columbia record." (1)

The next three singles, Something About You (#19), Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over) (#18) and Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever (#45) produced lukewarm results. (4) The Four Tops had been out of the top ten for over a year. “We were also under constant pressure to come up with new material,” Dozier recalled. “Berry would say 'We need something for Marvin,' or 'We need something for the Supremes,' and so we were always thinking about the artists we worked with, although most of our efforts still went into being prolific and making sure that the songs had what it took to be hits.” (1)

Taken in New York, 1965 (L-R) Abdul 'Duke' Fakir, Ronaldo 'Obie' Benson, Levi Stubbs and Lawrence Payton.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives

"Up until then, most of the songs basically had three chords," said Dozier. "They were very simple and, in a sense, very rock & roll, but I think the experiment of putting classical and gospel together reached full force on Reach Out I'll Be There. I mean, so many people have tried to define the 'Motown Sound', and if it's anything, it's gospel and classical merging together. A merging happened when Brian came into the office one day and was searching on the piano when he came up with a melody.

“He kept playing it over and over, but he couldn't find any place to go with it,” Lamont said. "Then something came over me, so I sat next to him — as we'd often do — at the piano and I just went into left field with a totally different feel, a gospel feel: Now if you feel that you can't go on... It was a real hallelujah jump-and-shout type of thing! The two different parts seemed to match, creating an excitement and a collaboration of sounds and feelings that we'd never heard before. When one of us appeared to exhaust what we were feeling, the other would take over and improvise until the whole thing was completed.”

As the two partners continued, other elements of the songwriting process tied the song in a nifty package. “The chorus featured a little bit of both of us, changing chords and adding progressions, and in the end the song came together and really wrote itself in a lot of respects. Brian and I were like two scientists in a laboratory, mixing different concoctions to see what fitted and what sounded best, and it was just unusual that everything fell into place like that,” Dozier stated. (1)

Duke Fakir remembered when the songwriting trio introduced Reach Out I’ll Be There to the Tops. “We were all in the studio one day when they said they wanted to try something experimental. They had this thumping backing track played by the Funk Brothers – it had an amazing drumbeat created by timpani mallets hitting a tambourine. The sound was fabulous, but then Eddie said they wanted lead singer Levi Stubbs to do Bob Dylan-type singing over it.” (5) The song also featured a flute solo played by 13-year old, Dayna Hartwick (she also appeared on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On), added percussion effect created when hands slapped a wooden chair in syncopation with the beat (6) and the Adantes, Motown’s go-to female background group.

Levi balked when Eddie gave him direction. “I’m a singer. I don’t talk or shout.” Duke remembered the session. “Eddie realized that when Levi hit the top of his vocal range, it sounded like someone hurting, so he made him sing right up there. Levi complained, but we knew he loved it. Every time they thought he was at the top, he would reach a little further until you could hear the tears in his voice. The line "Just look over your shoulder" was something he threw in spontaneously. Levi was very creative like that, always adding something extra from the heart.” (5)

The finished song didn’t sound anything like the Four Tops. The group figured it was just an experiment of H-D-H and would end up on an album as filler. At least they did until they received a memo by Berry Gordy calling them into his office.

"Make sure your taxes are taken care of – because we're going to release the biggest record you've ever had," Duke mentioned. “I remember one of us asking: ‘So, when are we going to record this great song?’ He said, ‘You already have.' We're all thinking: "Huh? We haven't recorded anything better than I Can't Help Myself. Then he played Reach Out and we said, ‘Hold on, Berry, we were just experimenting. Please don't release that as a single. It's not us. It has a nice rhythm to it but if you release that we'll be on the charts with an anchor.’ He laughed, but we left the meeting feeling very upset, almost angry.”

Duke was driving when he heard the song on the radio for the first time. “It hit me like a lead pipe. I turned my car round and drove right back to Berry's office. He was in a meeting but I opened the door and just said, ‘Berry, don't ever talk to us about what you're releasing. Just do what you do. Bye.’” (5)

Reach Out I’ll Be There hit the Billboard pop chart on September 3rd, 1966 where it stayed for 15 weeks. (7) The song landed at #1 on October 15th where it stayed for two weeks. (8)

Though the Four Tops never hit the top spot on the charts again, they continued to land in top 20 with songs written by H-D-H through the fall of 1967. The magic ended when the songwriting trio quit Motown. H-D-H believed working for Motown was no longer worth the effort when they were paid salary and none of the publishing. In 1968, the threesome formed their own record companies, Invictus and Hot Wax, recording artists such as Freda Payne and Chairmen Of The Board while entering litigation with Gordy.

"You need to get compensated for work that can destroy your mind and body and drag you down into the depths of depression," said Dozier, who parted ways with the Holland brothers in 1973 to pursue a solo career as a singer, songwriter and producer while Brian and Eddie continued with their own company. "It just isn't fair to not get what you worked for, what you made yourself sick for in a lot of cases. I mean, you put your life, your being and whatever you're about on the line, and then somebody says, 'OK, two for you, five for me, three for you, 15 for me.'" (5)

The Four Tops continued to record for Motown through the fall of 1972. About this time, the label opted to move to Los Angeles where Barry Gordy saw an opportunity to break into movies and television. Many of the older Motown groups elected to stay in Detroit as the company focus was on newer groups such as the Jackson 5.

The Tops signed with Dunhill where they hit the pop charts 11 times with three top 20 hits, Keeper Of The Castle, Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I Got) and Are You Man Enough. The group moved to Casablanca Records in 1981 and scored a top 20 hit with When She Was My Girl. (7)

Much has been written about music stars and ill-fated flights. Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in 1959, Patsy Cline in 1963 and Otis Redding in 1967 all were killed in airplane crashes. In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 became the group's scheduled return flight to the U.S. for Christmas after completing their European tour. A prolonged recording session and a performance at the television show, Top of the Pops caused them to oversleep and miss the ill-fated flight which crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, after a terrorist bomb was detonated on board. (9) Fate was kinder to the Four Tops.

Lawrence Payton succumbed to liver cancer on June 20th, 1997. Obie Benson died of lung cancer on July 1st, 2005. Levi Stubbs passed away on October 17th, 2008. Duke Fakir remains the only living member of the Tops, a group that remained together for 43 years.

The Four Tops performed Reach Out I'll Be There on The Ed Sullivan Show on October 16, 1966.

1) Buskin, Richard, Sound On Sound, The Four Tops ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ Classic Tracks, February 2008, Link.

2) Sullivan, Steve, Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, Volume 1, 2013, Page 320, Link.

3) Lennon, Troy, The Daily Telegraph, Soul singer Levi Stubbs remained fiercely loyal to The Four Tops, June 5, 2016, Link.

4) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 259.

5) Simpson, Dave, The Guardian, The Four Tops: how we made Reach Out (I'll Be There), April 7, 2014, Link.

6) Betts, Graham, Motown Encyclopedia, 1988.

7) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Pages 259-260.

8) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.

9) Wikipedia, The Four Tops, Link.

Abdul 'Duke' Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo 'Obie' Benson.

Photo courtesy of Everett.

Copyright  2009