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What the world needs now is love, sweet love — and compassion. In 1966, Four Tops, Motown’s second-greatest male vocal group, after the Temptations, delivered both with their signature hit, “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” As the U.S. was suffering from the heightened trauma of a deadly global pandemic and racial reckoning last year (conditions that continue to plague the country in 2021), then-Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden chose it for his campaign soundtrack. If you pay attention to the lyrics, it’s easy to see why he found it such an appropriate song for the times.
“When you feel lost and about to give up
‘Cause your best just ain’t good enough
And you feel the world has grown cold
And you’re drifting out all on your own
And you need a hand to hold
Darling, reach out, come on girl, reach out for me
Reach out, reach out for me
I’ll be there, to love and comfort you”
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Taking love and affection to even higher ground, Four Tops’ classic was strong medicine for chronic despair, as hopeful as any Black anthem during the ‘60s. But it didn’t just offer hope to the broken. It led by example. The quartet’s lead singer Levi Stubbs so convincingly conveyed undying loyalty that he likely left listeners wishing and hoping for that kind of unwavering devotion and perhaps inspired them to extend it, too. It was exactly what a Black America reeling from the injustices of systemic racism, in the middle of a civil rights movement, needed to hear in 1966. It’s what we still need to hear in 2021.
If Biden’s intention in singling it out as one of his campaign songs was to express solidarity with the Black community through one of our great anthems of humanity, he had many to choose from. The popular Black music tradition is steeped in compassion, from Aretha Franklin’s redefining gospel rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Ashford and Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” Luther Ingram’s “I’ll Be Your Shelter (In Time of Storm),” Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” and The Isley Brothers’ “Harvest for the World” to H.E.R.’s current Grammy-nominated “I Can’t Breathe.”
Four Tops’ immortal smash, though, encompassed compassion on so many relatable levels — as a vow of eternal devotion to a romantic partner, as encouragement to embattled Black Americans, as support for a despondent loved one — four years before “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and decades before Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s “Don’t Give Up” and R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” The group that had previously hit number one with “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” were plumbing new lyrical and musical depths.
Written by the Motown songwriting and production trio of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, who also constructed many of the Supremes’ greatest hits, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was a transitional Motown hit that bridged the glossy love songs of the Detroit-based record label’s first era and the more socially conscious psychedelic soul that powered phase-two Top 10 hits like The Temptations’ “Runaway Child, Running Wild” and The Supremes’ “Stoned Love.”
At a time when Motown chief Berry Gordy was smoothing over the Black edge of Motown’s biggest singles for maximum pop-chart potential, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” sounded uncompromisingly Black. It was a rough diamond standing up and standing out in a pop scene dominated by milk-White acts like The Monkees and the Beach Boys, both of whom also hit number one in 1966. Testifying from the microphone pulpit, Levi Stubbs delivered the lyrics in a stream-of-consciousness style as if he was a Black Pentecostal preacher being infused with the Holy Spirit.
The grit of Stubbs’ baritone — comparable to Temptation David Ruffin’s raspy tenor, only growlier — had long set him apart from Motown leading men Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, and the song’s sophisticated bolero-style instrumentation was unlike anything that had previously been produced by the label’s hit factory. It arrived like a crescendo that started at the top and kept rising. The group would never again soar so high.
As with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” two years earlier, folk-rock pioneer Bob Dylan served as a major source of inspiration. In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, original Four Tops singer Duke Fakir revealed that producer Eddie Holland had instructed Stubbs to perform it in Bob Dylan’s shout-singing style. Despite initial reservations, Stubbs complied and an instant classic was born. “The lyrics were ostensibly about a guy telling his girl he’ll be there for her in her darkest moments,” Fakir told the Guardian. “To me, it felt like a chant, almost religious — a song of hope for the world.”
It might be Motown’s single best vocal performance of the 1960s, and for me, right up there with both the Gladys Knight and the Pips and Marvin Gaye version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” as one of the greatest singles the Motown family released during the second half of the decade. Its visceral emotional punch was comparable to that of Aretha Franklin’s groundbreaking “Respect,” which topped the charts the following year, and the message of strength and support it conveyed was just as universal. “Reach Out” became the second Motown song ever to top the UK pop singles chart, after The Supremes’ “Baby Love.” What Four Tops were singing about, though, was no baby love. This was seasoned devotion, a pledge of allegiance as empathetic as it was sympathetic. In 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Blacks in the US were all in the same boat, and the song offered inspiration to keep the faith while lifting each other up.
The piccolo flute intro served as a gorgeous, infectious call to action, like a siren announcing the arrival of a brave new hopefulness. The quartet wasn’t just singing about loyalty; they lived it. While Motown’s biggest golden-age groups were known for shifting membership, the Tops were the U2 of their day. They retained their four original members for 44 years, until the death of founding Top Lawrence Payton in 1997.
Despite the song’s iconic status, few major singers have attempted to take on the song and risk having to endure being compared to Stubbs. Diana Ross recorded an easy-listening soul cover that was a minor hit in 1971, and a pre-”I Will Survive” Gloria Gaynor gave it the disco treatment in a 1975 remake that still stands as one of the best covers of a Motown classic. But it’s the original by Four Tops, definitive and timeless, that still resonates. Its unwavering message of devotion continues to reflect the fighting spirit of Black Americans. No matter what obstacles society drops in front of us, with solidarity, we can move mountains.
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