Reach Out I'll Be There - the Four Tops
While the world mourned over the deaths early last month of Australians Judith Durham of the Seekers (see last post) and Olivia Newton-John on August 5th and 8th respectively, the passing of a songwriter who has, arguably, influenced popular music more both of them put together, went largely unnoticed in Europe.
Lamont Dozier was one third of the Motown songwriting team that also comprised the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie. Over a period of ten years, from 1963 to 1972, the team wrote more than 70 songs that made the US Hot 100 and/or the UK Top thirty. They also chalked up 13 US Number One records and 3 in the UK.
Holland Dozier Holland were employed by Motown as songwriters and producers from 1963 to 1968, roughly mapping the time that is thought of as the golden age of the label, which is no accident. While Smokey Robinson and the team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong were also prolific, H-D-H were the principal songwriters for the Four Tops, the Supremes, and Martha and the Vandellas, as well as providing hits for many other groups on the label's roster, such as Marvin Gaye, Junior Walker and the All Stars, the Isley Brothers, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and many others.
Some of their songs are amongst the most joyful, exuberant hits of the sixties. Others have a deeper more introverted vibe, not least amongst which are what I term the great trilogy of darkness by the Four Tops beginning with their only UK number one - it reached the top spot min both the UK and America - "Reach Out I'll Be There", released in October 1966.
The H-D-H team were superlative songwriters, under instruction from Motown boss Berry Gordy to write nothing but hits, yet managing to be innovative under pressure, as well as absorbing influences like the best blotting paper. Much has been made of the fact that on "Reach Out" they were trying to emulate the vocal delivery of Bob Dylan, and there's no doubt that there are direct echoes of his "Like a Rolling Stone" (a hit in 1965) in the both the agonised angst of the words and the strained vocals on the record. Lead singer Levi Stubbs was made to sing at the top of his pitch range which emphasised the feeling of desperation in the song. The verses are a list of symptoms of what we would now term "depression":
"Now if you feel that you can't go on
because all of your hope is gone
and your life is filled with much confusion
until happiness is just an illusion
and your world around is crumbling down.....
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.....
I can tell the way you hang your head
you're without love and now you're afraid
and through your tears you look around
but there's no peace of mind to be found..."
This isn't a love song, as a casual hearing might suggest, it's an exhortation to a drowning woman to grab the proffered lifebelt. This is emotional rescue. Which is why its urgency and excitement will never fade. Great tune, great orchestration, wonderful drive, beautiful words and terrific singing. And a great dancer too. Holland Dozier Holland and Motown at their unbeatable best.
"...I know what you're thinking
you're alone now, no love of your own,
but darling, reach out, come on girl, reach out for me...."