Reach Out I’ll Be There: The Four Tops; The Tremeloes; Gloria Gaynor

Hello there! This week our blog features a wonderful Motown R&B tune, Reach Out I’ll Be There. We will first discuss the original song by The Four Tops. Next, we will discuss covers of this song by The Tremeloes and by Gloria Gaynor.

The Four Tops and Reach Out I’ll Be There:

We covered the Four Tops in an earlier blog post on the song I Can’t Help Myself, and more recently in a post on the song Walk Away Renee. So here we will briefly review the career of the Four Tops.

The Four Tops were a vocal group who were among the most popular Motown artists. Here is a publicity photo of the Four Tops from 1965. From L: Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, lead singer Levi Stubbs and Lawrence Payton.

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Although 1965 was the “breakout year” for the Four Tops as Motown stars, by that time the group had been together for a significant amount of time. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the Four Tops hold the record for longevity as a group. They had exactly the same lineup from 1953 to 1997, a remarkable 44 years!

The Four Tops formed while all four members were in high school – Fakir and Stubbs went to one school, while Benson and Payton attended another. They first sang together at a birthday party, and began their career as The Four Aims.

Over the next seven years, the group worked in the Detroit area, where they became polished performers and gained a strong regional following. They also backed up singer Billy Eckstine. However, their jazz-inspired records did not sell, as they moved through four different record labels.

In 1963, Berry Gordy, Jr signed the boys to Motown Records. Then in 1964, the Motown songwriting and producing powerhouse Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H) composed an instrumental track. For a while, they weren’t sure what to do with it, but they eventually added lyrics and gave it to the Four Tops.

That song, Baby I Need Your Loving, became the Four Tops’ surprise breakout hit, making it to #11 on the Billboard pop charts. This success convinced the Four Tops to switch their focus from jazz to R&B. And H-D-H began to write songs specifically tailored to the Tops.

The Four Tops were unusual in that their lead singer Levi Stubbs was a baritone, whereas the “natural” arrangement for pop groups was to have a tenor as lead. As a result, many of the arrangements for Four Tops songs were pitched at the top of Stubbs’ range. This made him strain to reach the notes, and that became a hallmark of the group.

Duke Fakir commented on Levi Stubbs’ vocals in 2014.
Eddie [Holland] realised that when Levi hit the top of his vocal range, it sounded like someone hurting, so he made him sing right up there. 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.

The song Reach Out I’ll Be There was released in 1966. It was one of the biggest hits for the Four Tops, and it became their signature tune. The singer tries to reassure his lover that he will support and console her regardless of any troubles that she might experience.

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 crumblin’ down;

Darling, reach out (come on girl, reach on out for me)
Reach out (reach out for me.)

[CHORUS] I’ll be there, with a love that will shelter you.
I’ll be there, with a love that will see you through.
I’ll be there to always see you through.

So here are the Four Tops in a “live” performance of Reach Out I’ll Be There, from 1967.

I believe this song is lip-synched. First off, I don’t believe that the acoustic effects (echo chamber) can be replicated in live performance (also, you can hear vocal backup from a girl group, but they are nowhere in sight). However, it is great to hear Levi Stubbs’ lead vocals on this song. As he tries to reach the high notes, this lends a real urgency to his delivery.

In addition, Levi is complemented by those great Tops harmonies, and their presentation is backed by the incomparable Motown house band The Funk Brothers, with additional contributions from the Motown girl group The Andantes.

And now here is an actual live performance by The Four Tops.

As you can see, the Four Tops are still a really fine group, but they can’t match the audio fidelity and close harmonies from the record. However, I would have loved to see them in their prime (I caught them a couple of years ago, but after Levi Stubbs had passed away).

Alas, in 1967 H-D-H left Motown after a contract dispute with Berry Gordy. After losing their main songwriters and producers, The Four Tops began a slow but inexorable slide. A number of the remaining Motown songwriters and producers worked with the group, and they had a few more hits, but nothing like their glory years.

Poster for the 1986 movie Little Shop of Horrors.

In the 70s the group moved around from one record company to another, scoring the occasional hit.  The Four Tops continued to perform, becoming favorites on ‘oldies’ tours. In 1986, Levi Stubbs appeared as the man-eating plant Audrey II in the musical Little Shop of Horrors.  At left is the poster for that movie.

The Four Tops continued touring until in 1997, Lawrence Payton died from liver cancer. The group added a replacement in 1998, but in 2000 Levi Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer and he also had to be replaced. Obie Benson died from lung cancer in 2005, and Stubbs himself passed away in 2008.

The Four Tops continue to tour, although only Duke Fakir remains from the original lineup. The Tops have deservedly received a slew of honors. In 1990 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and the group was named as one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by both Rolling Stone magazine and by Billboard magazine.

We salute the Four Tops, most of whom are currently in Rock and Roll Heaven. They left us with a terrific legacy of Motown classics.

The Tremeloes and Reach Out I’ll Be There:

The Tremeloes were a British Invasion pop group whose reputation was defined by a single incident. They were initially called Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, after their lead singer.

Here is an early publicity photo of Brian Poole and The Tremeloes.

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On New Year’s Day 1962, the band auditioned for Decca Records along with another rock ‘n roll group. Decca chose The Tremeloes over their competitor, The Beatles. Of course, Decca never lived down the scandal of having turned down the greatest rock group in history. You can read about that episode here.

In January 1962 the Beatles were not as polished and productive as they would become, but still, what a catastrophic blunder by Decca. A quote from one of their executives after the audition lives on in infamy – “Guitar bands are on the way out.”

And of course, after that decision people invariably compared The Tremeloes to The Beatles. This was extremely unfair to the Tremeloes, but probably unavoidable.

Below is a 1963 concert poster that has Brian Poole and the Tremeloes as the headliners, with billing above The Rolling Stones (!)

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The Tremeloes were initially a quintet, with lead guitarist Rick West, rhythm guitarist Alan Blakley, bassist Alan Howard and drummer Dave Munden joining Brian Poole. In 1966, Chip Hawkes replaced Howard on bass. After Poole departed all of the members contributed to the vocals, although the lead vocals were generally by either Hawkes or Munden.

Over the period 1963-1966, the Tremeloes had a few hits in the UK, most of which were covers of American rock tunes. For example, they covered the Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout (an unfortunate choice, since The Beatles had covered the same song a few months earlier. It became one of the Beatles’ signature songs, and only emphasized comparisons between the two bands).

The Tremeloes had a bit hit in the UK with a cover of Do You Love Me which was initially recorded by The Contours. Then, Poole left the group in 1966 for an unsuccessful solo career, and at that time the group became a quartet.

The Tremeloes released their cover of Reach Out I’ll Be There in March 1968. Here is the audio of that song.

As you can see, the Tremeloes version is essentially a direct copy of the Four Tops original. This was probably not a great strategy. First of all, it is simply impossible to reproduce the terrific backing of the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band.

Second, the Tremeloes are unable to recreate Levi Stubbs’ soulful vocals. They even throw in Levi’s ad-libbed line “Look over your shoulder.” So, although the Tremeloes are a talented pop group with impressive vocal harmonies, I don’t count this as a memorable cover.

So now here is video of The Tremeloes “live,” performing their 1967 hit Here Comes My Baby.

Of course, the boys are simply lip-synching the song; however, you can see that The Tremeloes are a typical British-Invasion band. This tune was written by Cat Stevens, although it was originally released by The Tremeloes.

Here Comes My Baby rose to #4 on the UK pop charts, and to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Cat Stevens subsequently released the tune on his 1967 album Matthew and Son.

The Tremeloes had one other big hit in the States. This was a cover of the 1964 Four Seasons hit, Silence Is Golden. That song reached #1 in the UK and #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

At present, original drummer Dave Munden and lead guitarist Rick West (who now goes by his real name Rick Westwood) get together from time to time for concerts. And Munden is still performing with a group called The Tremeloes.

So believe it or not, The Tremeloes are still performing today! Despite invidious comparisons with The Beatles, the Tremeloes can at least claim that they remained together longer than the Fab Four. Of course, over the decades there have been many changes in personnel.

We wish The Tremeloes well. For reasons beyond their control, they can never avoid being compared to the Beatles; but they released some decent songs and showed great longevity.

Gloria Gaynor and Reach Out I’ll Be There:

Gloria Gaynor is an American singer who became a superstar in the disco era. She was born Gloria Fowles in Newark, New Jersey in 1949.

She began singing with a jazz rhythm & blues group called the Soul Satisfiers in the 1960s. Although she cut her first record in 1965, her first real success came in 1975 when Clive Davis signed her to Columbia Records.

Below is a photo of Gloria Gaynor, disco diva.

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Gloria Gaynor’s cover of Reach Out I’ll Be There was a single from her 1975 breakthrough album Never Can Say Goodbye. And here is Gloria in a live performance of Reach Out I’ll Be There.

I believe this is lip-synched, but the song certainly gives you a vivid sense of Gloria’s powerful voice. Here the drums and instrumental backing provide the disco-era beat. Although I prefer the iconic Four Tops song, I find Gloria’s cover very appealing.

Gloria Gaynor’s album Never Can Say Goodbye was organized in a clever manner. The first side of that album contained three songs – Honey Bee, Never Can Say Goodbye, and Reach Out I’ll Be There. But there was no pause between the songs – all three were combined back-to-back, providing 19 minutes of non-stop disco dance music.

Not surprisingly, this album side became extremely popular at disco clubs. Subsequently, all three songs were released as singles. The Gloria Gaynor version of Reach Out I’ll Be There hit #3 on the Billboard Disco Singles, but only made it to #60 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, the song climbed to #14 on the UK singles playlist.

Another interesting feature of this song is that Gloria Gaynor’s earlier records were speeded up, in order to make her voice sound higher than it actually was. Apparently this was a common technique in disco music.
Most disco hits at the time were heavily produced, with multiple voices, overdubs, and adjustments to pitch and speed.

But it was Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 hit I Will Survive that established her as a pop superstar. Amazingly, that song was the “B” side of a single with a forgettable tune called Substitute as the “A” side. A Boston DJ named Jack King began plugging I Will Survive, and it became an instant disco classic.

I Will Survive became Gloria Gaynor’s signature tune. One of the interesting features of that song is that it is relatively free of the overdubbing, multi-tracking and changes of speed that characterized so many disco tunes. This is presumably because it was regarded as the “B” side of a record, so it was not “doctored” as heavily as other singles.

In any case, I Will Survive has become one of the defining songs of the disco era. That song was rated the #1 dance tune of all time in a 2000 VH1 list of great dance songs.  Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer are arguably the “queens” of disco.

Gloria Gaynor was unable to escape the rather brutal backlash against disco that began in 1979. Then in 1982, Gaynor became a Christian and she subsequently regarded much of her earlier work as sinful. She took a significant break from recording, and when she resumed issuing albums they consisted mainly of covers of songs by other groups, patriotic tunes and contemporary Christian music.

However, Gaynor capitalized on a disco revival movement in the 1990s. In 2005 she was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. Her song I Will Survive lives on at oldies and dance music radio stations, where younger generations of listeners become introduced to it.

So we salute Gloria Gaynor, who has indeed survived.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Reach Out, I’ll Be There
Wikipedia, Four Tops
Wikipedia, The Tremeloes
Wikipedia, Gloria Gaynor

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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