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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Reach Out I'll Be There" is... a bit more unusual than I realized

I didn't realize that until I looked a little closer for this post, which also led me to appreciating the song even more.

It's strange — despite having more work to do today after taking it easy yesterday, I feel better overall. Maybe it's because getting to and completing my work feels good; maybe it's because I'm more driven on Mondays compared to Sundays; or maybe (if it's just one reason, this is most likely) occupying myself with other things makes me too busy to get all philosophical about myself like I did yesterday.

Still, there is a bit of a connection between "This Is Gospel" and today's entry — a common thread between them of someone trying to assist a friend in need. The difference is the context in which that assisting person is involved. Whereas Panic! at the Disco sang about someone wanting to be let go and freed from a friend who's hurting themself, on "Reach Out I'll Be There" the Four Tops are offering that lifeline of help in the first place. It seems as if the Four Tops' subject is less desperately in need of help, and the late Levi Stubbs et al are simply providing insurance that they're here whenever the woman to whom they're singing needs.

(Note: Yes, "Reach Out I'll Be There" is the official format for the title on streaming services. I always thought there were parentheses around "I'll Be There," but I consistently see the Four Tops' original recording with its title written this way. The More You Know, I guess.)

"Reach Out I'll Be There" is the third Holland–Dozier–Holland composition I've chosen for my Senior Year Soundtrack, following "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Roll With It." There's just something about their songwriting approach that always leaves an impression on me, and it tends to begin with the chords they choose. Lamont Dozier's alternation between the minor-key, bolero-like verse and the gospel-inspired chorus is certainly hard to forget, especially when the transitions between them make the differences all the more noticeable. The switch from the tonic chord of B-flat Major into the verse is made more dramatic by the vocal swell that backs it each time. On the other side, the "Reach out" transition into the chorus is filled with harmony and drama, particularly through its final diminished chord, a less common chord choice in popular fare that ramps up tension through the introduction and subsequent resolution of the dissonant tritone.

Along with Holland–Dozier–Holland's signature touch, Levi Stubbs' vocal performance makes the song a personal favorite. Because he's singing at the high end of his range, there's an extra tint of desperation added to lyrics about "your world around... crumbling down." It makes the support he's offering sound more compelling, if not necessary. This exploitation of a vocalist's range is an underrated and under-appreciated element of writing and production that can really help bring a song's message home if properly executed, as Eddie Holland insisted be done on "Reach Out I'll Be There." As it turns out, he and his collaborators were compelled to use Stubbs' voice this way after being inspired by Bob Dylan and his signature speak/shout-singing delivery. I didn't hear the connection myself before I knew the context, but I always knew that it definitely works on an emotional level. If the song were in a lower key, there wouldn't be that same pull from Stubbs' shout-like offers of assistance.

One last thing blew my mind about this track, and it's something you don't see or hear on the record. Rather, it's that the Four Tops themselves didn't want the song that became their signature number to be released as a single back in 1966. Abdul "Duke" Fakir, the only surviving founding member, remarked a few years back that the song "felt a little odd" to them. After going into some of the details here, I can understand why they felt that way. Between the changing moods, some of the instrumental choices (e.g. a piccolo in the intro, and timpani mallets being used on a tambourine), and the Dylan homage in Stubbs' lead vocals, "Reach Out I'll Be There" is far more adventurous than a 2022 listen lets on. Props to Berry Gordy and the higher-ups at Motown for taking the plunge, because the song far surpassed what the singers themselves expected it would become.


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