Reach Out, I'll Be There

So on the iPod the other morning: "Reach Out, I'll Be There" by the Four Tops. Gosh, what a fine song. (But only my second-favorite Four Tops song; "Bernadette" will always be number one.)

And I found myself wondering: what instrument makes that haunting sound right at the beginning of the song? I went to find out.

The song has its own Wikipedia page, where you will be reminded that it was a Billboard number one single for two weeks in October 1966. How many times have I heard it since then? Maybe five hundred? I could listen to it a couple hundred more times.

From there I got sidetracked to the list of all number-one songs from 1966, and got transported back to my 15-year-old self in Omaha, glued to my transistor radio, listening to the "Mighty 1290" KOIL.

Things sure were diverse back then: Frank Sinatra ("Strangers in the Night") jostling the Beatles ("Paperback Writer") for the top spot. The top song for the entire year? It's somewhat embarrassing to report: "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by Barry Sadler. (Who went on to live a life of sordid tragedy.) And—whoa—there's "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys, "Good Lovin'" by the Young Rascals, "Cherish" by the Association, "Sounds of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel, the first two Monkees singles, and… wow. Just wow. What a year. Something for everyone, I think.

But back to "Reach Out":

Via Wikipedia, I came to this recent article from the Guardian: "The Four Tops: how we made Reach Out (I'll Be There)", an interview with a couple of survivors: singer Duke Fakir and Shelly Berger, manager.

And I got an answer to my original question: that's a piccolo. Berger calls it "typical of how Motown would do something unexpected."

But I also got answers to questions I didn't know I had. For example, I defy you to listen to the song more than once, and not get into the habit of shouting out along with Levi Stubbs at 2 minutes and 37 seconds in: Just look over your shoulder! Where did that come from? Fakir notes this was "something he [Levi] threw in spontaneously."

Why? Because he was a frickin' genius, that's why.

It's one of many brilliant Holland-Dozier-Holland songs, produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. Edward Holland (it is claimed) wanted Levi to do "Bob Dylan-type singing" over the pre-existing instrumentals. (And I say: Dylan? really? I don't hear that at all. Still, Dylan or not, it worked.)

What I hear isn't Dylan, but cowboy music: a galloping horse coming to the rescue, jingling spurs, and Levi saying "Hyah!" a couple times to speed his majestic stallion along. But maybe that's just me.

The group thought it was "experimental", "didn't sound like a Four Tops song" (?!), and were perplexed and saddened that Berry Gordy wanted to release it as a single. Not for the first time, Gordy knew something his artists didn't.


Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:07 AM EDT