The Stylistics have been recording and performing for almost four decades. Best known as proponents of the 'sweet soul sound' of Philadelphia, the group continue to tour the world. During their recent successful UK tour, Barry Towler - who has long appreciated the group's sterling work - caught up with original member Airrion Love and gives us his take on the group's live performance...
On a cold, wet November night in a small Hampshire market town, the scene is being set for one of the warmest events that I have had the privilege to experience. On this, their 42nd anniversary, the legendary Philadelphia group The Stylistics and their band, The Style, have swept into town for a sell-out performance. I meet up with the group before the show and shoot the breeze with one of the original members, Airrion Love, to talk about their most recent album, “That Same Way” and, of course, their current UK sell-out tour. Airrion greets me, as do his fellow group members with huge warmth. Behind the scenes, it’s relaxed – these guys are at the top of their game and between the laughs and the conversation and waiting to go onstage, there’s a mix of congeniality, expectation and meticulous preparation. Instruments are tested, moves are rehearsed and in the dressing room music is playing. In fact, Airrion’s iPod is on random and I like what I hear. This guy, I thought, likes to keep things up to date. Eric Benét and Tevin Campbell serenade us as we sit and get comfortable. Airrion is luxuriant in his manner, and sitting contentedly. He smiles when I address him. I tell him that I am not here to talk about the past, and that instead I wanted to talk about The Stylistics today, the new album and their current tour. This, I think, he likes.
Released in Japan, “That Same Way” continues the work that The Stylistics left off on their 1996 album, “Love Is Back In Style”. Production, again, comes from the legendary Preston Glass. We chat about the new album, and what it’s about. “This is a project we did ourselves,” Airrion says with some conviction, “We had previously worked with Preston and we wanted to do so again. Instead of approaching a label first and then recording the music we had our product ready and we presented it to companies. The Japanese loved it, and took the album right away. The United Kingdom was next and we’re now pending a record deal in the US.” I mentioned to Airrion that the new CD had not been released in the UK as an album on its own merit, and he reflects on this. “We were disappointed. It’s released as a compilation alongside our old material...it’s not making this stand out as a new album. My hope is that our tour is going to kick-start the album. Merchandising for the tour sure is good!” he beams.
Congratulating him on the album and giving my thanks for all the music they have created over the years I comment that The Stylistics are still as much a part of the music scene for me today as they were many years ago, and that their sound remains classic and true to their Philadelphia roots, yet they are still rooted in today’s musical arena. This brings us to the production work of Preston Glass. For Preston, Airrion has nothing but warmth, praise and professional respect. “Preston” says Airrion, “is a relaxed individual. There is no shouting or screaming, he’s even...he just...flows. He’s smooth and he knows all about making songs”. Leaning forward, beaming he relates “Preston Glass is a protégé of Thom Bell. He brings with him new music to appeal to today’s audiences but carries with him a flavour of the old school. He came to us with this project and has always been supportive of us.”
Of the new CD, Airrion says, “the Japanese have been very appreciative of our new album, our new music. But the Japanese have always been supportive. In fact,” he says with some realisation, “we’ve been going there as long as we have been visiting the UK.” Asking about the love of the music and the new CD in Japan, I ask him why he feels this has been the case. He thinks for a while. “I’m not sure! I have yet to figure it out” he laughs, “You’d think the language barrier and all would create issues, but it doesn’t. When we perform there, we’re at smaller, more intimate venues. We are very warmly welcomed and supported there”. I ask about the loss to the group of original lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr. who is a very hard act to follow. I comment that their new lead singer is an amazing choice as replacement. “We have our new lead singer, Eban Brown, who has worked with the Delfonics and he is a blessing.” Airrion says warmly. Sadly, and without any trace of anger, Aairon reflected on the fact that in most marriages, musical or otherwise things can wane and can go wrong. “We saw the signs that Russell may have wanted to leave, and it was getting harder knowing that. We knew it was coming. On the 29th April 2000 at a concert in St. Louis we were performing and Russell stopped, and walked off. I was shocked. But one week later we set off with a new group”.
We talk about songs. “My favourite song was given to us by Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire and is called “Painted In The Sky”. This is, indeed, a great song and very much in an EW&F ballad groove. We talk about “Laughing Out Loud (LOL)” and “I Just Wanna Know U” which are also favourites of mine. I tell Airrion that their “Love Is Back In Style” album rates as one of my favourites and he seems nicely surprised. It’s been fourteen years between albums but the group hasn’t rested on their laurels, having extensively toured the world and in the US as part of collaborations on the “’70s Soul Jam” which has had The Stylistics paired with such luminaries as The Chi-Lites, The Dramatics and The Emotions. “A US company called PDA recorded a live DVD for the States,” Aairon says with understandable pride.
I ask whether he feels there is a difference between performing these days and performing in the past. Aairon is quick to answer with real joy: “Our music is appreciated more now. As a group [and sound], we were not distinguishable then per se. When people come to a show now, they appreciate it more. We’re finding that we still have our fan base, but audiences are definitely getting younger!” This pleases me greatly. Qualifying this, Airrion is so happy to tell me that two weeks previously, they saluted a twelve-year-old girl. This girl has been a regular visitor to the group’s concerts with her mother since she was five years old. “We acknowledged that,” smiles Aairon, “three generations of her family were there that night. We have literally watched her grow up from the stage”. I can tell that this is important to Airrion and the guys. To say that such a gesture was for me personally heartwarming is an understatement.
“We began touring the UK on 22nd October and [at the time of writing], this is our fourth week. We arrive home on the 2nd December, and we’re off to Japan on the 9th December then we’re away for the holidays,” Airrion reveals. I ask about family commitments and with some regret Airrion says “you sacrifice yourself on the road. It is difficult”. The UK, it seems, has been yet another resounding success. “The Ipswich Regent two days ago was a great success. Our measure of success is more than just attendance. It’s about things going perfectly with sound quality, and all.” Airrion notes that he especially enjoyed recent shows in Basingstoke, the London O2 Arena and Basildon in Essex. “The UK is always responsive and warm. London is always busy for us, and Liverpool is always a sell-out. The Philharmonic Hall has a great sound. Liverpool is a great musical town and it’s always been like that for us. Last year we played Dublin for the first time in twenty years. We had left it due to all the difficulties there, but this year we did five shows and found that our audience had grown! People knew our songs, they knew the words. It’s wonderful, and from conversations we’ve had we feel like we have the biggest family in the world”.
As far as being on the road these days, Airrion laughs, “There are no all-night parties anymore! We’re looking at our career differently now. If you’re up all night, it affects your voice! I’m gonna have to retire at some point...there are no plans to but I would like to at one point. Herb says that he wants to continue until he can’t!” As for the future? “We have another project in mind, and would love to work with Preston Glass again. He works well and keeps us kinda fresh. The plus is the sheer wealth of material we have. As long as people are still interested in us, we’ll still be performing.” It appears the fellas are taking a tip from The Temptations and are going to ride the hair from this particular horse, and as long as they continue to record, tour and entertain there will be one huge family of fans worldwide who are tagging along for the journey, me included.