Motown 1098 may not sound like a particularly significant catalogue number, but the track it denoted remains one of the defining moments of the company's collective brilliance. Today that song reaches a momentous landmark, on the 50th anniversary of the release of the Four Tops' 'Reach Out I'll Be There.'
Written by Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier and produced by Brian and Lamont, the song came to the Four Tops when they were experiencing something of a lull after their breakthrough of the 1964-65 season. They had were continuing to enjoy support from their R&B constituency, but even there, the quartet's last single, Stevie Wonder's song 'Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,' only made No. 12, and it fizzled at just No. 45 pop, their lowest rating since their Hot 100 debut with 'Baby I Need Your Loving.'
'Reach Out I'll Be There' changed all that, its passionate sentiment perfectly matched to the group's dramatic delivery and the peerlessly plaintive lead vocals of Levi Stubbs. Then there was the unprecedented daring for a Motown single of the choice of instrumentation. Flutes and almost galloping percussion detailed the melancholy introduction, before the unforgettable vocal liftoff that sent Levi's narrative into orbit.
Released on 18 August, 1966, 'Reach Out' was on the charts in no time, made No. 1 pop in mid-October, and as its two-week reign ended there, it started another on the R&B register, and a three-week run at the UK summit.
Even if it's widely recorded that the producers had Bob Dylan's concurrent success in mind when they requested similar urgency in Stubbs' vocal performance, it's still instructive to look back at how the Tops themselves described the song.
"We were talking to Holland-Dozier-Holland one day,” Lawrence Payton told the NME that October, “and we decided that what was needed was something in the folk-rock idiom. So they went away and came back with 'Reach Out And I'll Be There'. I think it's the best piece of folk-rock that's been around in a long time.” Not too many who made it a transatlantic No. 1 would necessarily call it folk-rock, but they'd all call it a soul classic.