The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #74: (Reach Out) I’ll Be There by The Four Tops (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #74: (Reach Out) I’ll Be There by The Four Tops.

Of all of the artists and singing groups that came through the Motown Hit Factory, The Four Tops are the ones that hold the unique distinction of having kept the same line-up intact the longest. In fact, the lineup of Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton stayed together as one unit….no breakups, no taking a hiatus….for over forty years! Furthermore, if it weren’t for the fact that Death came to call, one by one, The Four Tops would probably have lasted even longer than the forty years that they did.

The Four Tops known for their harmonies but, also, for their professionalism and skill set when it came time to record a new song. It was said that The Four Tops often kept the first take or two of every song they ever recorded. And, they recorded lots of songs! Their roster of hit singles includes, “Baby, I Need Your Loving”, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”, “River Deep/Mountain High”, “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I Got”, “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There” and many more. When The Four Tops wound their career down due to health issues, Motown head, Barry Gordy lauded them as being the epitome of style and grace. The Four Tops were inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

As for the song, “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There”, The Four Tops recorded so many songs that, in reality, they had lost track of this song after they recorded it. To them, it was just another song written and arranged by the crack writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. In fact, the guys in the band didn’t even think it was the best song of the bunch under consideration for their next album and tour. The problem with the song, from their point of view, was that it was written by H-D-H as a bit of a challenge for the group. The lead singing part, sung by Levi Stubbs (who has a deep voice) was intentionally written to be sung at the high end of his vocal range which, for him, required a lot of concentration and effort to maintain that high a pitch. Furthermore, there are several changes in octave levels throughout the song, making “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There” a technically-tricky song to sing. It was, actually, Barry Gordy who tabbed “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There” as music gold. A final bit of trivia about this song is that it was conceived as a tribute to Bob Dylan’s style of singing. If you listen carefully to Levi Stubbs, sometimes he is talking and sometimes he is singing. This speak-sing style of singing was meant to mirror how Bob Dylan approached many of his hit songs. When the song hit the airwaves, many people started calling The Four Tops, “the Black Dylans”. ***I am not sure if any of those same people called Dylan, “Mr. White Top”.

I will end this post with a provocative tidbit of information for the ladies reading this today. I am curious as to what you think of the fact that in preparing to write this song, the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland…three men…came up with the concept of “What does a woman really want from a man?” These three men brainstormed a list of ideas that they felt met their criteria and, in the end, these three men decided that what women want most from a man is for the man to be dependable and to always be there for her. For what it is worth, that is not the worst answer but, I found it interesting that, once again, a group of men sat around deciding what was best for the women of the world. Such is life in a Man’s world, I suppose. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section below.

For now, let’s have a listen to one of the biggest Motown hits of all-time; a song that The Four Tops didn’t really think was that hot of a song but, a song that, never-the-less, got them into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and, as well, became only the second Motown song ever to reach #1 in the UK. Here is “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There” by The Four Tops. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There” by The Four Tops, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Four Tops, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Motown Records, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #85: What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #85: What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye.

It was a time of unrest and disillusionment in America, as the Summer of Love gave way to the dawning of the 1970s. The Rolling Stones had a fan lose their life at a concert at Altamont Speedway. There were many clashes between protestors and National Guardsmen regarding the Vietnam War. The War, itself, was still in full swing, with many US soldiers returning home in body bags or else, scarred with physical and emotional injuries. The hopefulness of JFK’s Presidency had given way to President Johnson and now, to President Nixon who was inching closer and closer to impeachment. Racial tensions remained high, too, with The Watts Riots of 1965, unrest in Detroit, as well, all adding to a sense of restlessness and hopelessness across the land. In the midst of this stood singer, Marvin Gaye, singing his love songs for Motown.

All throughout the 1960s, Marvin Gaye was employed by Motown Records and faithfully fulfilled his contractual obligations with a series of solo hits, as well as, many duets, too. In particular, Gaye was known for his rapport with singer, Tammi Terrill. Many point to her death at age 25 as being a pivotal moment in the life and career of Marvin Gaye. While they were never a romantic couple, Gaye and Terrill were certainly fond of each other. It is said that Marvin Gaye was the first kind man Terrill had ever met. His kindness shown toward her was such that Gaye was the only person associated with Motown Records to be invited to be at her funeral. So, as his musical partnership with Terrill had ended and America slipped into a deep malaise, Marvin Gaye found himself at a crossroads.

At the same time, in California, The Four Tops were set to perform a concert at a local arena. But, upon arrival, the band members were witness to a clash between police and students; with many of the students being battered by billy clubs and other weapons of brute force. The entire band was stunned to see the police beating people who were barely older than children. One of the men in The Four Tops was named Renaldo “Obie” Benson. He took pen to paper and wrote of his shock and anger in the form of some rough song lyrics. These lyrics would go on to become “What’s Going On”. First, Benson brought the lyrics to the other members of The Four Tops but, they felt uneasy about singing, what they dubbed, a “protest song”. But, Benson did not give up. The very next time he was in Detroit, he showed the lyrics to a friend named Al Cleveland who, in turn, showed them to Marvin Gaye. For Gaye, seeing those lyrics was an epiphany. Being a very empathetic man, Marvin Gaye was certainly aware of the suffering that was going on around him in the world. He was, especially concerned with racial matters in Detroit, as well as, across America. As he looked at Benson’s lyrics, he asked himself how could he possibly continue with Motown, singing romantic love songs at time when his voice was needed for greater things. So, he asked to record Benson’s song. Benson agreed. The rest would be History, as they say, if not for an additional wrinkle to the story.

As we have seen, time and time again, during this countdown, there were no freelancers at Motown. The organizational structure of Motown was well-established. There was an assembly line process in place and, as such, nobody just up and sang songs without, first, getting the ok from Motown head, Barry Gordy. So, when Marvin Gaye approached Gordy with the idea for “What’s Going On”, Gordy rejected it out of hand. There was no way Motown was going to involve itself in the creation of protest songs. This left Marvin Gaye with two choices: accept Gordy’s directive and abandon the song or else, do what he did, which was, to go on strike. Marvin Gaye (and Stevie Wonder, separately) laid down an ultimatum to Gordy which stated that he would no longer sing any songs for Motown unless he was allowed to record “What’s Going On” as he saw fit. Unbeknownst to Gordy, Gaye recorded the song without awaiting a reply. He gathered up his own session players, booked his own studio time, produced the song, himself and then, when it was in its finished form, played it for Gordy. Gordy still hated it. But Gaye persisted and so, “What’s Going On” was released on the subsidiary of Motown called, Tamla Records.

Needless to say, “What’s Going On” was received by the public as an instant classic. Marvin Gaye captured the essence of the unease and anger many were feeling at the time. His calls for an end to police brutality, sadly enough, are as relevant today as they were back in 1971, when the song was released. “What’s Going On” speaks to a universal truth which is that we should be protecting and nurturing each other, not resorting to any means necessary in order to impose our will upon those weaker or more disadvantaged than us. It is a song that is, at turns, sad yet, hopeful, angry yet, optimistic. It is the song that, among all of his hits, is most revered and respected.

Marvin Gaye had a productive decade ahead of him with solo hits such as “Sexual Healing”, “Mercy, Mercy Me”, “Got To Give It Up” and “Let’s Get It On” still to come after the release of “What’s Going On”. However, this decade also marked a slow but, steady descent into drug use and depression which ended in 1984, when he was shot to death by his own father during an argument. Marvin Gaye left a rich legacy of beautiful and important music, as well as, a lifetime lived for the betterment of others. His treatment of Tammi Terrill is every bit as important as his catalogue of hits. Marvin Gaye was a good man who happened to be a good singer, too. Thank you for everything, Marvin. I hope you are resting in power.

So, without further delay, here is the classic commentary for our times, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Marvin Gaye, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting important music and the artists who create it. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.