Review #429: Reach Out, Four Tops

Karla Clifton
3 min readAug 20, 2023

#429: Reach Out, Four Tops

Rolling Stone’s mention that this was the last Motown album written by the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland didn’t do much other than annoy me at first. Sorry, but the only point of reference I had was another record I reviewed not too long ago, 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields — in “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure,” Stephen Merritt rhymes the philosopher’s name with Dozier. RS calls this a “God-level moment,” which is just, ugh, so annoying. But that’s not Holland-Dozier-Holland’s fault (whom we will now call HDH), so let’s all pretend we didn’t hear that.

HDH = brothers Eddie and Brian Holland and friend Lamont Dozier, songwriting partners who worked for Berry Gordy’s Motown records from ’62 through ’67, and then began fighting with Gordy and split from the whole operation — more on that later. After the split, HDH started record companies Hot Wax and Invictus, which released albums by Laura Lee and Parliament, as well as singles by themselves.

HDH supported Four Tops frontman Levi Stubbs with dramatic flourishes and horns. (See “Reach Out I’ll Be There” & my boyfriend’s favorite, “Bernadette.”) Stubbs was such a ham that he was later cast in the ’86 version of Little Shop of Horrors as Audrey II, a plant that eats people. Stubbs sings like a bluesman who stumbled into a Motown convention, the slick falsettos of the other Tops backing his desperate baritone. He shouts a Halloweeny gospel in “7 Rooms of Gloom” and wails dramatically in Smokey Robinson-penned “Wonderful Baby.”

(Fun Fact: Despite being offered, Stubbs turned down opportunities to have separate billing from his fellow Four Tops, unlike Robinson and Diana Ross.)

Non-HDH songs are mostly covers chosen by Gordy, who chose some good ones — the Monkees (“Last Train to Clarksville”), Neil Diamond (the ever-delightful “I’m A Believer”), and Stevie (“What Else Is There To Do (But Think About You)”). The Four Tops joyfully launch their way through other people’s hits, as well as some random one-hit wonders. Tim Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter” and the Association’s “Cherish” are both weirdly faithful.

(Wild Card Cover: “Walk Away Renée” by the Left Banke, written by Michael Brown. It was one of three songs he wrote for Renée Fladen-Kamm, a hot girl and singer who Brown knew for all of a month before writing this. She’s still alive! She became a vocal coach!)

Berry Gordy, notoriously hard to work with, got sued by the Four Tops over profit-sharing and royalties, which ultimately ended their relationship. Gordy, who is still alive, says that he never “cheated” anyone. But it’s hard not to be on the side of the artists, especially when we know what a machine Motown was. It doesn’t shock me that so many of these OG Motown bands are still technically together — see the Temptations, the Commodores, and, yes, the Four Tops.

Final, Unfun Fact: Gordy wasn’t the only person the Four Tops ended up in litigation with. One of them was Aerosmith over their song “The Other Side,” regarding similarities to their own badass thumper “Standing In The Shadows Of Love.” (I am a simple gutter punk so of course I loved Aerosmith’s ripoff, though I heard the similarities.)

I was surprised that there was never any suit from the Four Tops about the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup,” (1968) released a year after their own “Turn To Stone.” The chorus is so starkly similar that me and my dog, cat, fish & boyfriend all picked up on it.

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