The first time the Four Tops found themselves at No. 1 on the charts, it was courtesy of a love song with a dramatic build courtesy of a legendary songwriting trio. A year later, the Motown quartet hit another home run with "Reach Out I'll Be There," penned by the same songwriters - with a touch more drama.
That's not to suggest there was discord between the Detroit quartet and the writing/producing trio of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. From the moment the Tops broke with their repertoire of jazz standards to cut Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Baby I Need Your Loving," it was clear this was a match made in heaven. In 1965, the group scored back-to-back Top 5 hits with "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," which topped the Billboard Hot 100, and the peppy "It's the Same Old Song."
Part of the secret to the Tops' sound was a defiance of musical gravity: frontman Levi Stubbs, a natural baritone, was pushed to sing in a higher register by his producers to sell the drama of the songs. "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," bandmate Duke Fakir explained to The Guardian. "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."
If "I Can't Help Myself" paid tribute to a head-over-heels love and "It's the Same Old Song" was a plea for a partner who's not in the picture, "Reach Out I'll Be There" was an urgent vow of commitment - a promise to "give you all the love you need." Lamont Dozier later told Sound on Sound he felt this track marked a notable shift in how Motown's signature sound was perceived. "I think the experiment of putting classical and gospel together reached full force on 'Reach Out I'll Be There,'" he said. "I mean, so many people have tried to define the 'Motown Sound', and if it's anything, it's gospel and classical merging together."
It was Brian Holland's idea to start with the dramatic, almost Russian-inspired minor chord intro, while Eddie devised most of the lyrics himself instead of taking title suggestions from his partners. But one key lyric was devised by Stubbs on the spot: the shouted "Just look over your shoulder" before the final chorus. That "was something he threw in spontaneously," Fakir recalled. "Levi was very creative like that, always adding something extra from the heart."
Within months of its release in August 1966, it was clear that the Four Tops were no fluke: on Oct. 15, 1966, the song started a two-week run atop the Billboard Hot 100 - and just weeks later, on Nov. 2, it reached the top of the U.K. charts for three straight weeks as well - the group's first Top 10 hit in that country.
The song's popularity has endured over the decades - covers by Diana Ross, Gloria Gaynor and Michael Bolton all charted in the States - but the most interesting version may have been a re-take by the Tops themselves, which converged with a surge in popularity of Motown throughout Europe, leading the Tops to eventually record the track in Italian! Stubbs may struggle with the lyrics of "Gira, Gira" - his improvisations are still in English - but the power of the track remains.