When it comes to new groups who have broken through during 1974, none has been more consistent and none has shone brighter than Atco's Philly busters, Blue Magic, five young men who broke through into the very big time with "Look Me Up", continued through "Stop To Start" and "Sideshow" until their current chart rider, "Three Ring Circus".
The last time that we (London, that is!) saw the quintet they were returning home somewhat distraught that they had been requested' to leave the Ike & Tina Turner European tour for no apparent reason except that they set the husband-wife team too high a standard to follow and it created a problem that Ike and Tina rarely face. "That's all a part of growing up for an act I guess," Ted Mills philosophically comments now, a full year after that debacle. "It was our first time on that sort of a tour and we certainly learned a great deal from it. Look at it this way — it drew attention to us at a time when nobody knew us so it turned out to still be advantageous for us. We were too new at the time to understand what was happening to us and we were certainly too raw to consider things like egos and tantrums and such things. We were just trying to do our jobs and it seemed like we did it just a little too well! No, we haven't come across Ike and Tina Turner since then but we don't hold any kind of a grudge against them. Like I said, it's all part of our growing up."
The other incredible (and I mean in the true sense of the word incredible!) thing about Blue Magic is that not one of the five members has any musical training or background. "We all came from regular backgrounds and we just thought it would be nice to form a group", laughs Vernon Sawyer. "We were just regular guys in regular jobs but we had all known each other since we were kids. Then one day we met our managers, Alan Rubens and Steve Bernstein and they introduced us to Ted, who had been writing songs. So he joined the group and off we went. Me and my brother Wendell actually were born in Mount Vernon, upstate New York, but Richard (Pratt) and Keith (Beaton) were both born and raised in Philly — Wendell and me came here when we were just youngsters, though, so we can call Philly our home town. Keith and Ricky lived in the same neighbourhood as us but we only met Ted when our managers came into the picture. That was a little over two years ago now. Until that time, we had no musical experience between us — we never even sang in church. Ted had written a bunch of songs, though, and he wrote our first record, "Spell". Our next trick was to come up with a name. We knew we wanted Magic in there somewhere and at first we had Black Magic but that seemed a little obvious and it could restrict us, too. We then thought about Plain Magic but we finally settled for Blue Magic. Why Magic? Well, I guess because it all happened to us like magic!"
Actually the quartet without Ted did try their luck for a while before the Blue Magic project got under way. They called themselves Shades of Blue but they have chosen to overlook those humble beginnings because they don't really constitute towards the actual source of the group as we know it.
The meeting with Ted Mills and the management duo was the first shot of magic that came into their lives. The musical marriage with Norman Harris and Alan Felder was surely the second. This dynamic duo have been responsible for a feast of great Philly music and it was one of their songs — the disco slanted "Look Me Up" — that broke Blue Magic in the first place. I think it's fair to state that Atlantic were always determined that this was their Philly group and, as such, the group would rise to the top like the cream that they obviously are (and were!).
Yet the guys don't like to be labelled a Philly group'. "In Europe, I guess that was all we could be called at the time," Ted admits. "Even musically, we are not typically Philly, are we? And being on an international record label, we are able to avoid being tagged as just another group from Philadelphia. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying — we're more than proud of our city and of the achievements that have been achieved by Philadelphia residents. But we want to progress beyond such boundaries and limits. I mean, we use the MFSB orchestra just like everyone else and Don Renaldo is the musical director every time. But we've tried to do things a little differently so that we can be looked upon as an entity of our own. Let's be honest, musicians will play whatever is in front of them but there is a distinct sound that seems to almost automatically come from sessions done in Philadelphia — especially if you use Sigma Sound as we do."
In defence of Blue Magic, I think you'll all agree that their sound does differ from the O'Jays, Stylistics or Blue Notes — both in the vocal and music departments. But the Philly Sound is still richly embodied in their basic approach. Listening to Ted Mills' perfectly clear and in tune falsetto simply makes you aghast at the fact that he has had literally no musical training. It also again stresses the link with Philadelphia, too.
The group's debut Atco album, simply entitled "Blue Magic", has been one of soul's underground albums of the year. Though it never reached the absolute peaks of the charts (either in the U.S. or U.K.), it continues to sell in steady quantities even today. The album has two special high spots. There is the disco gem, "Welcome To The Club" — would you believe, another Harris-Felder special — and a ballad gem. "Just Don't Want To Be Lonely" is the latter but Blue Magic's version really is magical. It spans seven minutes exactly and is, to my mind, the best version of the song so far.
Just before Christmas, a second album was released on the group, entitled 'The Magic Of The Blue". "It's composed of a variety of moods and flavours," group lead vocalist, Ted Mills — known the world over, it seems, as the Wizard! — claims. "But it does link with the last album. Norman Harris suggested that we needed as many different audiences as we could get. So, people who liked "Sideshow" got "Three Ring Circus". And people who liked "Welcome To The CLub" got "Let Me Be The One". And those who liked "What's Come Over Me" got "When Ya Coming Home" and so. We tried, if you like, to please everyone who enjoyed the first album. We look at it this way — our job is to entertain people on record and on stage and we try to give them what they want. Not what we think they want but what they actually tell us they want. There's a lot of difference, you see. We try to capture every conceivable audience — from pop, R&B to easy listening and even right through to Country and Western. You may well laugh but we've actually gotten play on country stations with "Looking For A Friend". The record markets are changing it seems like every day so we try to keep aware of what is happening. Barriers are being pulled down in music as we look at them — it's happening that fast. I wouldn't like to say our new album is necessarily better than the first — in fact, I'd prefer not to have to make direct comparisons between them. Let's face it, our first album was a Gold one and the new one looks set to follow suite so we can't be too much in the wrong direction. Maybe the new set doesn't have so many singles on it because we didn't go in to strictly record singles as we did first time around. We're coming from a different direction but the talk is that either "When Ya Coming Home" or "Never Get Over You" could become the next single. But we have another album ready for release in April that has several definite singles on it so we don't have a problem there."
Perhaps the only mystery is why this fine, fine group has yet to break through in Britain. Of course, the Atlantic label isn't renowned for the Philly sound and they have struggled to even bring home the sensational Spinners on a regular basis. Airplay is so important to Philly records and, with all due respect, this may be where Blue Magic (and the Spinners, Sister Sledge, etc.) are suffering. With the antiquated system that this country still is governed by (radio-wise, that is!), the blame' cannot be laid at Atlantic's door because they do everything they can to get their records played.
But it can still only be a simple matter of time before Blue Magic makes the breakthrough here and when it does come, I feel sure that they will be able to consolidate their success and go on to become as big on this side of the Atlantic as they are in their homeland.