PERHAPS ONE of the most significant 'happenings' this year has been the much-deserved chart success of the sweet-soul-sounding Stylistics who have undoubtedly been hailed as a major force in the sould world during the short time of their existence.
It was particularly rewarding for all the fans the group has been collecting since they first captured everyone's imagination with their Avco smash, 'Stop, Look, Listen', to watch 'Betcha By Golly Wow' climb up the British charts and, without wishing to blow or own trumpets, it was yet another case of astists being earmarked by Blues & Soul as future stars. And the Stylistics have more than exceeded any expectation!
Aided by the masterful touch of producer/arranger/writer Thom Bell, the group's debut album was so successful that it gave birth to no less than four hit singles in the States – 'You Are Everything', 'Betcha By Golly' (and its equally successful flip, 'Ebony Eyes'), 'People Make The World' and of course, the ever-beautiful, 'Stop, Look, Listen'. Not content with meeting with chart success once in this country, the group look set to repeat it with their latest single, 'I'm Stone In Love With You' which, no doubt by the time you read this, will have begun its chart course to the very top.
Having a great personal admiration for their work, I was delighted with the opportunity to meet this very young and talented group on their very first trip to our shores. The Stylistics' story as such began when the group, who had all been in school together, decided to cut a record for the local Sebring label in late 1970. Produced by Bill Perry, 'You're A Big Girl Now' sold very well locally in and around Philadelphia, spreading its way up to New York and to Avco Embassy Records, who quickly snapped it up for national distribution, together with the group's contract.
Enter now Mr. Thom Bell, ace producer for that other Philadelphia group The Delfonics and generally, multi-talented genius! Result: The Stylistics' first sessions – which, incredibly lasted a mere six hours – and from whence came all the material for their album simply entitled, The Stylistics, consisting entirely of original material. Lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr., was quick to stress that Mr. Bell did not regard the group as a follow-on from The Delfonics (for whom he had just stopped producing) – rather he regarded them as an entirely new entity to work with.
Prior to the release of the album, the group had been touring and with the success of 'You Are Everything' and the LP's release, it was only natural that they should continue their work on the road.
"In fact," said Russell, "we've been working more or less non-stop for two years! We get the occasional week off if we ask for it, but generally all our time is spent out playing gigs and making television appearances" The five-man group, who consist of Russell, 21, Airrion Love, 23, Herbie Morell, also 23, and James Smith and James Dunn, both 22, have now played nationwide throughout the States at nearly all major theatre and club venues They've twice visited the West Coast and when I asked abouth the Apollo, they all grinned – they must have achieved some kind of record by appearing there no less than four times this year! They are also very firm college favourites and are set to play several such dates on their return home, following a short tour of U.S. bases in Germany.
Naturally, with such a hectic schedule the group finds that it's been hard getting new product together and indeed, their second Avco album has only just been released in the States. It's produced, of course, by Thorn Bell and it's entitled STYLISTICS – ROUND TWO. The album took around two months to complete, with the instrumental tracks having been laid down and the vocal added whenever the group were in Philadelphia.
"One of the problems," said Russell, "was that, directly after coming off the road, our voices needed a rest before we could do any recording – in fact, while on the road we'd often sing a note and pray!" For their second album, Thom Bell selected eighteen songs, of which twelve were recorded and all the songs were discussed and worked on before the album was completed. Already scheduled for release in January, the group say they've picked up considerable airplay on many of the albums' cuts and on present showing, the favourite for their next single is a tune called, 'You're As Right As Rain', which alongside all the other tracks with the exception of two, is a Thom Bell original. Those two are Carole King's 'It's Too Late' and the Dionne Warwicke/Bacharach-David number, 'You'll Never Get To Heaven' – which the group say have been given totally new and fresh arrangements.
Unlike many others, The Stylistics say they have no problem performing live any material from their recordings and in fact, the only problem as such is getting musical arrangements ready for the seven-piece band that travels with the group. The group have spent so much time on the road that they say it's difficult trying to change their stage act too much, but they believe in keeping up with the times, so they frequently include snatches of any current songs which fit their own vocal style. Working as hard as they do, the young group gets very little time for hobbies but they do try to squeeze in a little pool, basketball and football. They do seem very resolute in their dedication to their work and the only real problem they've encountered is the weather – "it's naturally a lot easier on our voices to play in warmer climates".
Remembering my own initial reaction to their latest single, and bearing in mind that it was the first from their new sessions, I wondered if 'Stone in Love' had worried the group in any way, coming after such a string of hit singles. "I always felt that the song wasn't too strong myself," admits Russell, "but it seems that I might have been wrong. It's not quite in the vein of our other hits which had far more dramatic highspots, but our next one, 'Right As Rain' is more in the 'Betcha By Golly' vein. Judging from the present success of 'Stone In Love With You', the group, in fact, need have no worry. It will be interesting to see if American radio stations pull as many singles from the new album as they did from the first one!
Very fortunately, courtesy of Phonogram, I was given a glimpse of what to expect from The Stylsitics in action at a very well-attended press reception and they are an act which is well worth seeing. They displayed a fine rapport with their audience and demonstrated some very capable choreography throughout the all-too-brief spot.
Opening, topically, with 'Backstabbers', the gentlemen featured two album tracks, 'Point Of No Return' (to be found on the flip of the British copies of 'Stone In Love') and 'Country Living' both performed with the verve you'd expect. 'Stone In Love With You' followed before we were treated to a truly beautiful 'Betcha By Golly Wow' complete with a very slick routine and some truly standout falsetto work from Mr. Thompkins. The song sadly marked the end of their programme but no doubt under normal circumstances, the group adds several tunes to their performance.
In the meantime, all those who miss them this time around need have no fear – the group are already setting time aside for making a return trip in the New Year – by which time, no doubt, they will have expanded their following even further.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.