Feb 06

THE FOUR TOPS – “Reach Out I’ll Be There”

Popular49 comments • 3,598 views

#225, 29th October 1966

Marvel Comics of the mid-60s had several innovative competitive advantages over their competition. A small company, they ran a tight and unified creative ship, which allowed for competition and crossover between titles and gave everything they did a distinctive identity. This identity flowed partly out of plotting and writing that focussed obsessively on the heroes’ emotional lives – Marvel characters were dogged by tragedy and hard luck, and would brood on it between their epic fights. And the fights themselves were just as crucial to the Marvel magic – its house art style was forged by the remarkable Jack Kirby, whose action sequences boomed with unmatchable vigour.

Kirby’s main technique was foreshortening – dramatic distortions of perspective that made limbs and figures seem to be blasting off and out of the page. It created a visual language that matched the melodrama of comics dialogue – flying bodies and punches given unreal emphases to match the urgent splatter of bold-type words in the speech bubbles. Read back over this description and parallels between Marvel and Motown – that other great 60s small business success – are there to be forced. But when I hear “Reach Out I’ll Be There” – and especially Levi Stubbs’ vocal performance – Jack Kirby’s newsprint epics are what springs to mind.

Stubbs’ own stabbing emphases – “When you FEEL that you cant go ON” – sound comicbook to me but they actually come from Dylan (when I read someone, maybe Frank Kogan, point this out it was one of the great “well DUH” rock critic revelations). But Dylan’s songs are mostly more languid, his phrasing a calculated sneer designed to imbalance you, lead you in, or both. Stubbs sings this like he’s in the teeth of a storm, reaching out one desperate foreshortened arm for his lover to catch hold of.

His urgency is enough to convince me, every time I’m not listening to it, that the song is faster and harder than it is: I remember the brisk, nervy bass figures and forget the gentle backing vox; I fix on the shouts and growls that accompany Stubbs and imagine an instrumental attack to match. Like a dimly remembered comic-book battle, “Reach Out” grows in my mind, becomes huger and more momentous.

This is what Stubbs wants – this kind of Good Samaritan pop is always partly a hustle. Reach out to me, I can help, I can fix you, I’m the only one – “I know what you’re thinking! You’re a loner! No love of your own!”. (Recent bestseller The Game calls this “negging”, apparently.) The girl has to reach now, quickly, before the song finishes – this is, Levi’s frenzy suggests, her last chance. For this one Kirbyfied cliffhanger moment everything in the world is at stake – until next week, next month, next song when the action can start all over again.



  1. 1
    p^nk s on 7 Feb 2006 #

    i don’t think you shd be too diffident abt the marvel-motown comparison, tom! it is exciting and deep– i am ready to plunge in w.all six feet!

    [note to self: now read all superhero comix ever]

  2. 2
    Tom on 7 Feb 2006 #

    Well you can read my diffidence as “I have an exciting proof which is too small to fit in this margin” if you like!

    They both had a weird rapprochement with psychedelia later too.

  3. 3
    Ian on 7 Feb 2006 #

    I’m with sinker – this is an apt and exciting comparison. Who in Motown gets to be the Silver Surfer, though? (Gaye?)

    And I hope you follow up that thought about psychedelia _somehwere_ – you’re on to something!

  4. 4
    Stephen on 7 Feb 2006 #

    Love to read more re: Marvel and Motown.

    Also, terrific song, isn’t it!?

  5. 5
    alex on 7 Feb 2006 #

    I’ve only just realised that this would have to be a 10 from me — one of those songs you grow up knowing inside out and back to front and can’t remember where from or how or why. Not that I’ve heard it for a while. Blimey, I’ve posted on Popular…

  6. 6
    Stephen on 8 Feb 2006 #

    10 for me, too, actually. For much the same reasons: it’s just always there.

  7. 7
    Anonymous on 8 Feb 2006 #

    you really are good at this

    hurry up and finish so you can turn into a very marketable book

  8. 8
    Rosie on 8 Feb 2006 #

    I love that visual imagery, it really works for me. You are going to turn this into a book, aren’t you Tom? You’ve a bestseller opn your hands. And yes, I said this before I saw the previous post!

    Motown seems to loom larger in my recollection of the 1960s than its representation in Popular would suggest. Maybe it was a specialist choice – I used to get some funny looks for my enthusiasm. But anyway, Motown didn’t get much better than this and the song was on my shortlist for a 10 too.

    Perhaps the girl being addressed was called Renee, and that other fine Four Tops song was what happened when Renee didn’t reach out quickly enough.

    I recall leaving a conference in Leeds on a Sunday in the late 1980s and being anxious to get back to London for a Four Tops revival gig at Wembley. Alas, the trains were screwed and I had to let my p[recious ticket go to another. I’m told it was a great night, but you’d ecpect that, wouldn’t you?

  9. 9
    Pete Baran on 8 Feb 2006 #

    Not so sure about the DUH aspect of the Stubbs Dylan connection. Such intonation could one the one hand be said to go back to Guthrie on the folk side, and Stubbs is probably drawing from a very different tradition.

    Can we just call it a case of Leibniz / Newton and leave out the dread “influence”?

  10. 10
    Tom on 8 Feb 2006 #

    IIRC I’ve read someone quoting Stubbs as acknowledging it, and the pre-“Like A Rolling Stone” Four Tops hits don’t have the same mid/end line stresses that “Reach Out”, “Bernadette”, “Seven Rooms Of Gloom” do. But of course I partly want to believe it cause I like the idea of folk-rock-pop-soul cross-pollination more than I like the idea of “different traditions”.

  11. 11
    p^nk s on 8 Feb 2006 #

    i think it’s WAY more likely that the DUH came via dylan than that stubbs wz a secret woody guthrie fan! obv there are r&b and blues singers aplenty who sing non-smoothly who he might have been fans of, but at the very least dylan = who gave general permission to bring this stuff out in late-60s top-40-land

  12. 12
    Kat on 8 Feb 2006 #

    One of my fave Motown songs. I never liked the Four Tops really, (wz more of a Temptations gal) but this song is smashing. The only thing that could improve it would be a better transition from the end of the chorus to the next verse. The link between verse->chorus is ace but not the other way round.

  13. 13
    Anonymous on 8 Feb 2006 #

    Doctor Mod said:

    I’ve been waiting for a new entry for a while (and making comments about old entries that lost their original comments). But now, when I’d love to write something, I’m literally packing to go to a conference in Dublin.

    For now, I’ll just say that this recording is so DRAMATIC that it actually scared me when I was fifteen. I always visualized people lost in a fog calling out–adolescent romantic imagination, I suppose–then that hair-raising “HAH!”

    More later…..

  14. 14
    Minister on 8 Feb 2006 #

    Another “Would have been a 10” from here too. Was pretty much breast-fed motown, and Reach Out… still gets me every time.


  15. 15
    Tom on 8 Feb 2006 #

    It almost was a 10, incidentally – when I was listening through the first time after I sourced all the songs I remember thinking “right, THAT’s probably the first 10”, as with most of my marks it depends very much on the mood I’m in when I listen.

  16. 16
    Marcello on 8 Feb 2006 #

    This post has been removed by the author.

  17. 17
    Anonymous on 8 Feb 2006 #

    I was a freshman in college in 1973 when I heard a long radio interview with Phil Spector. During one section, the interviewer played well-known records and Spector critiqued them. One of the songs was the Four Tops’ “Reach Out – I’ll Be There.” Spector’s comment was “That’s Motown singing Dylan.” Someone else could have said something similar before then, but that’s the first time I remember hearing it, and that’s who said it.

    I’ve always wondered what went through the minds of Holland-Dozier-Holland when the time came, three months later, to write and produce the Tops’ next single. “How do we follow up THAT??”

  18. 18
    Anonymous on 8 Feb 2006 #

    And that was me, the forgetful unnamed entry above.


  19. 19
    Frank Kogan on 9 Feb 2006 #

    this recording is so DRAMATIC that it actually scared me when I was fifteen

    Scared me too, and I was 12. One reason was that it reminded me of the overture to Carmen; this overture would play at the start of an opera radio show my parents listened to back when I was 5; the show itself was some genial soft-spoken guy playing highlights from one or another deceased opera singer’s career. The show itself provoked no fear (except the fear of being bored): but the intro-overture was absolutely menacing. Now, Holland-Dozier-Holland weren’t using the Carmen riff, but what they came up with was even more menacing, maybe not to a 12-year-old’s ears, but to the 5-year-old memory feelings that the 12-year-old retained.

    I didn’t like the song. But somehow I must have loved it even in the dislike, since when it resurfaced in my mid ’60s rediscovery days (c. 1972), the song thoroughly astounded me.

  20. 20
    Frank Kogan on 9 Feb 2006 #

    Spector was my source too, a clip from that very same blindfold test. I heard it in summer of 1975, same summer that Grand Funk’s great version of “Locomotion” was going chuffa chuffa chuffa on the charts. I don’t know why that fact feels pertinent, but it does. I was in Chicago, sharing an apartment, listening to my apartmentmate’s radio, looking out a back window or something, and there’s Spector, and he’s actually singing along to “Reach Out,” putting on a Dylan caricature voice to make his point, which made it obvious.

    Probably Motown was consciously reaching for the white audience and reaching for a hipness that they never actually got but didn’t yet need, ’cause the hipsters would buy them anyway in 1966. It’s sung to Miss Lonely if you simplify her down to a lost girl in the scary city.

  21. 21
    Frank Kogan on 9 Feb 2006 #

    Also, the Marvel Comics comparison hits the nail on the forehead.

  22. 22
    Steve Mannion on 9 Feb 2006 #

    I loved the SAW(esque) remix issued back in ’88. Blummin’ kids eh?!

  23. 23
    Lena on 9 Feb 2006 #

    A lot of what I want to say has already been said (as per), but yes, this is operatic – an aria sung to one person, but the lyrics are big enough that it can apply to not just love but also sheer empathy – the singer (who I can’t separate from the song) clearly has been in the same situation as the person he is singing to, so he too has been crying, alone, afraid, his head hanging down, happiness is just an illusion…he knows, and it’s this quality of knowing that touches me and while the music – sharp and strangely quiet (at one point all you hear is James Jamerson) and relentless, as simple and urgent as the lyrics. This is the first automatic, don’t-even-need-to-think-about-it 10 for me.

    (On the comics tip: I like Craig Thompson and Ho Che Anderson and if you put them together, it’s like this song, if not Marvel Comics.)

  24. 24
    Lena on 9 Feb 2006 #

    Oh, and also, this is the total polar opposite of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

  25. 25
    Chris Brown on 9 Feb 2006 #

    As it turned out, this was one of the last things the Four Tops did before Holland/Dozier/Holland split with Motown. Hence the eventual Four Tops Reach Out album was quite heavy on covers, and I think it’s interesting in the light of what’s cropped up here to note what they were: ‘Walk Away Renee’, ‘If I Were A Carpenter’, ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ etc. No actual Dylan, admittedly, but you can see where they were looking for material.

  26. 26
    Frank Kogan on 10 Feb 2006 #

    Oh, and also, this is the total polar opposite of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

    Well, Holland-Dozier-Holland certainly didn’t “get” Dylan, or if they did they made the conscious decision to do something different, but not the polar opposite, exactly. For one thing, “happiness is just an illusion” is a Dylan touch right there – not your happiness, but happiness itself; something’s rotten in the state of happiness; though of course the line can and probably should be understood in a different way – “happiness seems unattainable,” for instance, and that’s probably how most listeners would have understood it. But the other reading is there for those who want it.

    “Like A Rolling Stone” itself was understand in a lot of ways, which is one reason for its popularity. Mouse & the Traps thought that Dylan was just putting down some bitch, and gleefully did the same; the Young Rascals sing their cover version as if they’re also putting down some bitch. But I heard the song as absolutely and totally drenched in sentiment, way more than “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and about 100 times more romantic to boot. I mean, I was surrounded by Miss Lonelys and aching for them. At the end Dylan, just like Levi, does tell Miss Lonely to reach out to him.

    Of course, Dylan’s not telling Miss Lonely that happiness is an illusion, he’s telling her that she’s an illusion; and he’s not offering to rescue her from confusion, since it’s the confusion that rescues her from herself. And he’s not offering to take her home, he’s demanding that she hit the highway. But he’s sure offering to go with her, or at least offering her some Dylan lookalikes: the Mystery Tramp and Napoleon In Rags. So Napoleon Tramp and Miss Lonely can go off arm-in-arm in the moonlight, now that she’s had her false identity blasted from her. La di da.

    (Of course then there’s “Memphis Blues Again,” but that’s later.)

    “Reach Out” is just a strong man helping damsel in distress; “Like A Rolling Stone” is gamblers embracing the distress as a means to shed the bullshit and share the love on the wild highway.

  27. 27
    Frank Kogan on 10 Feb 2006 #

    “Like A Rolling Stone” itself was understand in a lot of ways

    Once upon a time/I proofread so fine/but damn/I don’t now understood/what happened to my grammar.

    I was surrounded by Miss Lonelys and aching for them.

    But that was in 1970 at age 16, when I went back and discovered Dylan. Wasn’t listening to pop radio back in 1965.

  28. 28
    Lena on 11 Feb 2006 #

    You used to be so amused
    At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
    Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
    When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
    You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

    I think the main difference between these songs for me is the strong sense that Miss Lonely once had something and that the person being sung to in “Reach Out” never had anything to begin with; she is already invisible and probably has things to conceal, although who knows? Maybe she’s beyond caring.

  29. 29
    Anonymous on 14 Feb 2006 #

    I like the Marvel analogy. Works for me , too.

    BUT, it seems to me that this Motown v.s Dylan thing has really gotten out of hand.

    I can’t really see any R ‘n’ B or ” Soul ” singer looking to Bob Dylan to help his delivery or phrasing.

    Motown , Stax, Atlantic artists were more in tune with Gospel and Blues than folkie Dylan. They don’t have to borrow from Bob wehne they had Sam Cooke , Lou Rawls, Jackie Wilson and a host of Black voices that punch and bawl their way through a song.

    Dylan ? ” AH, come on, now “

    Brian in Canada

  30. 30
    Frank Kogan on 19 Feb 2006 #

    Lena, I’m hearing a very different “Like A Rolling Stone” from yours. In mine, Miss Lonely isn’t the poor girl who had something and then lost it and now needs to be rescued; what she had was stunting her and wrecking her, so she needed to lose it. And she doesn’t need a rescuer and a comforter, she needs a colleague on her new adventure. That she has nothing to lose is the condition of her being able to embark on the adventure and to accept Napoleon In Rags as a companion on her journey. In other words, she herself gets to be a stand-in for Dylan, too. “Like A Rolling Stone” was the latest in a string of songs where he’s saying he’s been stripped of his own certainties and now will go on better off without them, Hero Him. And so in Miss Lonely he’s manufactured a Heroine to keep him company, but he has to put her through hell to make her worthy of the role.

    By the way, the New York Dolls’ “Frankenstein” manages to do “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Like A Rolling Stone” simultaneously.

  31. 31
    Lena on 21 Feb 2006 #

    Thanks, Frank! Next time I hear this song I will hear it in a new way – I guess the only real difference between these two songs is the whole lifting up vs. dragging down metaphors. And now I want to hear “Frankenstein.”

  32. 32
    Anonymous on 23 Feb 2006 #

    Interesting take on LARS by Dylan.

    But I think the Miss Lonely is a personification of all that was wrong with American at the time. And as the the “times were a changing” the old guard found themselves invisible with no secrets to conceal.

    Granted it didn’t all come off as planned/hoped but there were many smug comforatable lives that were changed by a new awareness ushered in during this volatile social & political era.

  33. 33
    Anonymous on 23 Feb 2006 #

    Interesting take on LARS by Dylan.

    But I think the Miss Lonely is a personification of all that was wrong with American at the time. And as the the “times were a changing” the old guard found themselves invisible with no secrets to conceal.

    Granted it didn’t all come off as planned/hoped but there were many smug comforatable lives that were changed by a new awareness ushered in during this volatile social & political era.

  34. 34
    Eric Van James on 23 Apr 2007 #

    The Four Tops, I believe, are the greatest vocal group of all time.

    “Reach Out I’ll Be There” is one of the greatest songs ever recorded (in the history of Rhythm and Blues). . . . There is nothing like it in the entire literature!

    Take another listen to the Tops’ backing vocals. Check out how the song builds in intensity and, seemingly, speed with the Tops’ great antiphonal chanting (e.g., “No piece of mind to be found”) against Levi’s tremendous lead vocal.

    The Four Tops also harmonize the ‘Reach out’ choruses slightly different each time. So, the song contains more than just “Dylanesque phrasing.” It contains a level of vocal dynamicism that’s unrivaled.

    – Eric

  35. 35
    Eric Van James on 23 Apr 2007 #

    By the way, it’s “No PEACE of mind to be found.”



  36. 36
    rosie on 17 Oct 2008 #

    So, it’s farewell Levi Stubbs. RIP.

    A great pity that we haven’t seen more of the Four Tops in Popular, but he’s remembered here by one of the very best.

  37. 37
    wichita lineman on 19 Oct 2008 #

    RIP. The Dylan comparison, as far as I know, was first noted in Dave Marsh’s Heart Of Rock & Soul – an almost perfect book, apart from his stumblings over how to describe synth sounds, and his tendency to shun 1) British pop and 2) non hits.

    It was also a “duh!” moment for me. And a revelation which made me laugh out loud and impress people with for the next 17 or 18 years.

    Levi Stubbs could turn flowery prog into apocalyptic soul (Simple Game, which used to scare the hell out of me and was only kept from a Popular post by Maggie May and Redbone’s Witch Queen Of New Orleans). He could take two unimpeachable classics – Tim Hardin’s If I Were A Carpenter and the Left Banke’s Walk Away Renee – and make them new, more intense, doubly emotional. Soul has many screamers who over-emote (I’ll court trouble by citing Aretha Franklin and James Brown) but Levi Stubbs was always entirely beautiful, believable, walking a lonely street, standing in the shadows.

    Beyond Reach Out, The Four Tops’ best records were brumal (the stormy strings on Simple Game) and brittle with frost (the harpsichord on If I Were A Carpenter), the eerie angelic bv’s (see Seven Rooms Of Gloom) sounding like Christmas gone wrong. Their desperation and resignation – exemplified by the “…makes me feel half alive” line on Baby I Need Your Loving – seems somehow Unamerican.

    Add all this up and it makes sense the Four Tops were the biggest Motown act in the UK, bigger even than the Supremes.

  38. 38
    wichita lineman on 20 Oct 2008 #

    Dave Marsh was quoting Phil Spector, who described Reach Out as a black man singing Bob Dylan. But this quote is all Dave’s and spot on:

    “I could never figure out whether Levi was the toughest or the tenderest singer at Motown, so I finally accepted that he was both.”

  39. 39
    Waldo on 18 Nov 2009 #

    A giant of a record all day long. Stubbs’ vocal is astonishing and the song magnificent. Beautiful intro too. Without question one of the greatest of our number ones.

  40. 42
    Billy Smart on 5 Dec 2011 #

    TOTPWatch: The Four Tops performed Reach Out I’ll Be There on Top Of The Pops on 10 November 1966. Also in the studio that week were; Bobby Darin, Sandie Shaw and The Small Faces. Pete Murray was the host. No copy survives.

  41. 43
    lonepilgrim on 13 Mar 2013 #

    this had been number one in the US for a few weeks before it reached the top in the UK, when it was replaced in the American charts by a questionable classic.

  42. 44
    lonepilgrim on 27 Mar 2013 #

    also while the Tops were top in the UK the young generation had something to say at number one in the US concerning trains.

  43. 45
    lonepilgrim on 10 Apr 2013 #

    while the Tops continued at number 1 in the UK, there was yet another US chart topper from the poor side of town.
    this is unfamiliar to me but appealing, perhaps because of that

  44. 46
    mapman132 on 15 Feb 2014 #

    As I’ve been running through the list of UK number ones from the 60’s, I’ve noticed the relative absence of Motown compared to the US charts of the time. Which is why it’s good to see this record here, since for me, it’s Motown’s greatest masterpiece among many. 10/10.

  45. 47
    hectorthebat on 1 May 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 1
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 4
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Paul Williams (USA) – Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1993)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 266
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 23
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 206
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 209
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 45
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1960s (2008)
    Colin Larkin (UK) – The All-Time Top 100 Singles (2000) 55
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 32
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 83
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (1976) 24
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 150 Singles of All Time (1987) 45
    Paul Roland (UK) – CD Guide to Pop & Rock, 100 Essential Singles (2001)
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Uncut (UK) – 100 Rock and Movie Icons (2005) 75
    Zig Zag (UK) – Gillett & Frith’s Hot 100 Singles (1975)
    Nils Hansson, Dagens Nyheter (Sweden) – The 48 Best Rock Songs (1998) 36
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 16
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 49
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 150 Songs from the 20th Century (1998) 44
    Mauro Ronconi (Italy) – The Best Song from the 200 Best Albums (1998)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  46. 48
    Red Seeker on 3 Dec 2014 #

    One of the greatest records ever made from the stampeding flutes opening the song, the beautiful harmonies, thundering vocals from Levi and the way it builds to a crescendo. I sometimes wonder what it was like being in my early twenties in 1966 having this followed by Good Vibrations at no 1 – probably the greatest consecutive no 1’s ever !

  47. 49
    lonepilgrim on 6 Sep 2015 #

    Levi Stubbs performs like a boxer, making stinging jabs and powerful vocal blows before floating back on the stomping percussion and elastic bass lines to create a knockout hit.

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page