With a career that dates back to the mid-‘50s, THE BLUE NOTES, lead by original vocalist HAROLD MELVIN, followed the tried-and-tested path traveled by the main R&B artists of the era: local success as a live act, small independent label releases that disappear almost as quickly as they were issued, and then finally after many, many years of honing and grooming, they became the proverbial overnight success! In the Blues Notes’ case, it wasn’t until 1972, when drummer Theodore ‘Teddy Bear’ Pendergrass became their lead vocalist, that they began to make their mark, and to reward Gamble & Huff’s burgeoning Philadelphia International Records empire with some of the finest music they would ever commit to vinyl. “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Bad Luck,” “Wake Up Everybody,” “The Love I Love,” and a dozen others are part of the soundtrack to many of our lives.
In a four-year period, the group rose to prominence on both sides of the Atlantic with a resume of strings-laden disco cuts, and richly emotive ballads. Pendergrass was the epicentre of the group, with a vocal modeled around his mentor and idol Marvin Junior of the Dells, who Gamble & Huff had courted heavily for their signature. With the group’s success and a spotlight firmly on their charismatic lead vocalist and rising sex symbol, it was only a matter of time before Pendergrass would be given his own solo deal, and in 1976 the macho heartthrob got exactly that. His solo legacy gave him personal wealth, gold selling singles, and million selling platinum albums; Teddy had it all, and more. Although we unfortunately know how that story ends.
When Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes departed company with PIR, moving over to ABC in the late-‘70s, David Ebo was drafted as lead vocalist. His tenure was short-lived, however, and he, in turn, was replaced by Sharon Paige on later recordings for Source and MCA.
Despite critical acclaim, their subsequent recordings failed to register with the record buying public, and were met with little or no commercial success. By the time they signed to Philly World Records in 1984, both singers had departed, and Harold Melvin would once again reform his group, this time around William Spratelly, Dwight Johnson, Gilbert Saunders, and Rufus Thorne, with himself at their core.
TALK IT UP (TELL EVERYBODY) would be their only album for the Philly World imprint (one of the hottest new labels of the era, with a roster that also boasted Terri Wells, Eugene Wilde, Cashmere, Bryan Loren, and Joanna Gardner); it would also prove to be the last the collective would record together.
With in-house producer Nick Martinelli overseeing and co-producing the album, he would bring their disco success back, with a contemporary sound of the day rarely bettered on “Don’t Give Me Up” and “Today’s Your Lucky Day.” The former, and lead single, would become a minor hit in the UK, not least thanks to the radiant M&M Mix by John Morales & Sergio Munzibai, which would dominate both the clubs and pirate radio airwaves in the spring of 1984. The same formula was applied to “Today’s Your Lucky Day” with female vocalist Joanna ‘Nikko’ Gardner adding a new twist to the group’s sound, and perfectly complementing the gruff male lead on this upbeat number centred around of romantic roulette.
Gardner also offered her harmonies to the seductive ballad “This Is The Love,” although the album’s killer slow jam was really the sublime “I Really Love” – a precursor to Freddie Jackson’s “Rock Me Tonight” and “You Are My Lady,” with a hint of “Sexual Healing,” while “I Really Love” spoke volumes to late night audiences. Martinelli’s subtle production, matched with the hallmark lyrics and heartfelt delivery, made it an instant quiet storm hit and an endearing message song that’s as significant today as it was upon its release.
“What We Both Need (Is Love)” harks back to the ‘classic’ sound of the group in their PIR heyday, borrowing rhythmically and arrangement-wise from “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” with Gil Saunders’ amazing lead performance, alongside Melvin’s opening monologue, a pure nostalgic trip. Co-produced with former Philadelphia International stable mate Bunny Sigler, who also added his production savvy to the album’s beautifully penned title track, another firm favourite with the UK’s underground soul movement and network of pirate radio stations.
Respected musicians of the calibre of Norman Harris, Jimmy Williams, Donald Robinson, Skip McDonald, and Doug Wimbush provided support on the recording; Harris’ string arrangement on the soul-drenched “Time Be My Lover” is pure poetry in motion, while Wimbush’s bass-licks on “Talk It Up” hark back to his now infamous and innovative riffs for the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash in their formative years.
Matthew Cobb, in his liner notes, reveals that the album’s lack of promotion was in part due to Melvin being on probation for drug related offenses prior to the album’s release, and effectively under house arrest. It’s debatable whether it would have changed the album’s fate, although it did prove to be the group’s latest recording together, that would ultimately lead to their split.
Twenty-eight years later, TALK IT UP (TELL EVERYBODY) still sounds incredibly fresh, vibrant and exciting, the longevity in part comes down to Nick Martinelli’s timeless production, and the enduring songs within. For me, this still ranks as one of the best albums of 1984, and certainly the best of the group’s nine-album career.
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.