225. ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, by The Four Tops

Amongst all the glorious music that has reached the top of the charts over the past few years, as we’ve reached the apex of the swinging sixties – Merseybeat, R&B, folk, soul, garage rock – one genre has been seriously underrepresented. Motown.

Granted it’s not technically a genre, more a record label… but hey – everyone knows the Motown sound. And ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, by male vocal group The Four Tops, is only its 2nd ever UK #1, after The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’. And so, in the context of the charts of 1966, this record stands out every bit as much as its predecessor, Jim Reeve’s croon-tastic ‘Distant Drums’.

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Reach Out I’ll Be There, by The Four Tops (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 27th October – 17th November 1966

And, though I mentioned the ‘Motown sound’ right there in that last paragraph, the intro to this song is more ‘Spaghetti-Western’. They’re not pan-pipes, are they…? It’s ominous, and thrilling. A horseman clattering round the corner to save his damsel in distress. Now if you feel like you can’t go on, Because all your hope is gone, And your life is filled with much confusion, Until happiness is just an illusion…

It should be a ballad. It should be sung by Lionel Richie at a piano. It’s a brilliant song, but the music and the lyrics don’t really match. The woman in the song isn’t just a little unlucky in love; she’s apparently suicidal. Her world has gone cold, is crumblin’ down, while she drifts out all on her own… I mean, it’s heavy stuff. And all the while The Four Tops charge to her rescue aboard a frantic and incessant groove. Reach out for me…

It’s melodramatic – I get that – and way over the top. It reminds me of John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’, possibly the only other #1 single so far to be based on a horse’s gallop. But several things about this record push it above camp curio and into the realm of the classic. There are the ‘Ha’s!’ the pepper the end of lines, the spoken asides – Just look over your shoulder! – and the outrageously funky bass riff before the choruses. And, most of all, the Dar-lin’s!

The Top’s lead singer, Levi Stubbs, commits to each and every line of this record. It’s one of the most memorable vocal performances that we’ve heard in this countdown. He commits to the point where it doesn’t matter how ridiculous the song is. His vocals are the reason that this is a Rolling Stone ‘Top 500 of All Time’ kind of tune.

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It’s a deserved #1. It’s a great song and it’s about time that another Motown disc got there. For a genre that is hugely loved and respected in the UK – think all the compilation CDs and ‘Motown Weeks’ on X Factor – it really never got its due representation at the top of the charts. ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ was the label’s 13th Billboard chart-topper. In Britain it was, as I mentioned at the start, its 2nd. They will have 1 (one!) more #1 in the ‘60s, and only eight in total, ever…

And I have to admit that The Four Tops are a band I’d heard of – Motown, sixties, etc. etc. – but didn’t know too much about. The hits were more famous than the group it seems, as scanning through their discography you can see some stone-cold classics: ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’, ‘Standing in the Shadows of Love’, ‘It’s the Same Old Song’… Not a bad encore. And they do still tour, though ‘Duke’ Fakir is the only surviving original member.

All of a sudden, then, in The Four Tops and Gentleman Jim, two American acts have wrenched us away from what had been ‘the sound of ‘66’. And up next, another bunch of American ‘Boys’ (hint, hint) will drag us even further from our comfort zones with, ah yes, possibly the greatest pop song ever recorded…

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