Motown’s Songwriting Stars and “Reach Out I’ll Be There”

“Reach Out I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops was inducted into the 2022 National Recording Registry. Graphic: Ashley Jones.

Lamont Dozier grew up in the last days of Detroit’s Black Bottom, the rough-hewn neighborhood just north of downtown that was adjacent to the jazz clubs and nightlife of the Paradise Valley section of the city.

By the early 1960s, he and his songwriting partners, brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, were in their early 20s. In a furious three-year span, they helped rewrite the city’s history as the home of Motown, the Black-owned record label that reshaped American pop music.

Holland-Dozier-Holland songs, recorded by acts including the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, the Isley Brothers and Martha and the Vandellas, topped the charts and defined the Motown Sound. “Heat Wave,” “Baby Love,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “This Old Heart of Mine” were just some of the hits they wrote between 1964 and 1966.

“Reach Out I’ll Be There,” inducted into the 2022 class of the Library’s National Recording Registry, was a smash for the Four Tops in 1966. The H-D-H trio wrote it, like their other hits, in an upstairs office at Motown Studios, a converted two-story house on West Grand Boulevard. They worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., much like the auto factory workers in town. About the only thing in the room was a piano.

“It was a fun time, like kids playing in a playground,” Dozier, 80, said recently in a phone interview from his California home. “Everything we touched turned to gold.”

Life certainly didn’t start out that way for Dozier. Like nearly all of his Motown peers, he grew up in racism-based hardship. Blacks had fled the South for better-paying northern manufacturing jobs in the Great Migration during the first decades of the 20th century. But Detroit, among other destinations, proved to be “the promised land that wasn’t,” in the words of Rosa Parks, who fled Alabama for Detroit.

The new arrivals were forced into downtrodden neighborhoods, such as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, where living conditions were segregated and often harsh.

“Whatever you called it, it was the ghetto,” Dozier remembers.

But jazz, the pop music of the day, had created a class of Black musicians who recorded, toured and made good money. In Detroit, Black kids grew up on that music. Many of them, like Dozier, also had relatives who played classical piano. Combined with the gospel played every Sunday in churches, a fusion emerged that would create soul, rhythm and blues and greatly influence rock and roll.

Dozier, who took to the piano after his aunt would come to their house and play Chopin and other classical composers, jumped into the local music scene when he was a teenager. He got his breakthrough from Berry Gordy, another musically minded, ambitious entrepreneur who was a few years older.

Soon after Gordy established Motown, Dozier began teaming with the Holland brothers. He and Brian Holland composed the music, sitting side by side at the piano. Eddie Holland added lyrics. They’d take the results to any number of the acts — many of whom were teenagers — who were constantly flowing through the studios.

They had their first national hit in 1963 with “Heat Wave,” recorded by Martha and the Vandellas. The next year, they emerged from their office with a song called “Where Did Our Love Go.” Dozier had composed it with the Marvelettes in mind, but they turned it down. The Supremes, who did not yet have a hit, reluctantly agreed.

It was not a happy recording session. In a 2020 interview with American Songwriter, Dozier said that he and lead singer Diana Ross were “throwing obscenities back and forth” about the key in which the song was to be recorded, and the other two singers did not like his complex arrangements for the backing vocals. They eventually agreed, he said, to just sing, “baby, baby.”

The song became the Supreme’s first No. 1 hit. (It was inducted into the registry in 2015.) The Supremes would go on to become one of the most successful acts in American music history, with 12 No. 1 songs. H-D-H wrote 10 of them.

Dozier remembers it all now with pride, saying it was remarkable how quickly the songs came to the trio in the little upstairs room.

For “Reach Out,” they were partly inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” in which Dylan half sang, half shouted the title refrain. They put “Reach Out” in the highest reaches of lead singer Levi Stubbs’ range, forcing his vocals to sound rough and urgent. The galloping percussion sound at the beginning of the song, which helped make it so instantly identifiable, came from musician and producer Norman Whitfield hitting a modified plastic tambourine — they removed all the jingles before the recording session.

“Brian and I came up with the melodies on the piano, sitting side by side, he would start ‘danh danh da danh’ and I’d push him over a bit and I’d play the next bar,” Dozier said. “Eddie would listen and get an idea of what should be said. The music and lyrics would come at the same time. The collaboration was something. The energy was just flying around in the room.”

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