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The Stylistics

Reviewed on this page:
The Stylistics - Round Two - Rockin' Roll Baby - Let's Put It All Together - Heavy - Thank You Baby - You Are Beautiful - Fabulous - Once Upon A Juke Box - Sun & Soul - Wonder Woman - In Fashion - Love Spell - Lookin' For Trouble - Wanna Play Your Game - Hurry Up This Way Again - Closer Than Close - 1982 - Some Things Never Change - A Special Style - Love Talk - Christmas - Love Is Back In Style - Collection: A Matter Of Style

Writer/producer Thom Bell launched Philly Soul in 1968 with the Delfonics' "La La Means I Love You" and soon brought the genre to its apex with the Stylistics. His inspiration was to bring Platters-style smooth vocalizing together with sophisticated compositions and orchestrations, a la Burt Bacharach's work with Dionne Warwick: lead singer Russell Thompkins, Jr. even sounds like Warwick, though his falsetto vocals are a bit higher pitched. In a market overloaded with psychedelic soul and funk, the Stylistics' slow-dance love songs were a breath of fresh air, and they were an instant success. For some reason, Bell turned his attention to The Spinners, and soon left The Stylistics in the clutches of 50s schlockmeisters Hugo & Luigi. The group stuck together for many years, though they lost two members in 1980 (replaced by Raymond Johnson) and cut down to a trio a few years later, but then splintered in 2000 or so as lead singer Thompkins left, first for a solo career and then a group he calls the New Stylistics (with Johnson and two others). (DBW)

Russell Thompkins Jr., Airrion Love, Herbie Murrell, James Smith, James Dunn, all vocals. Smith and Dunn left in 1980, replaced by Raymond Johnson. Johnson left, 1986. Thompkins left, 2000, replaced by former Delfonic Harold "Eban" Brown and Van Fields.

The Stylistics (1971)
Bell and Linda Creed wrote this debut, which stays fearsomely on message: guitars are restricted to rhythmic chicks, horns are kept in a supporting role (no solos), and there's not a single uptempo tune. No less than four singles hit the Top Forty: the stunningly Bacharach-esque "People Make The World Go Round"; "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)" (covered by Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye and Kool & The Gang); "You Are Everything" (Ross and Gaye again, Rod Stewart); and "Betcha By Golly, Wow" (Prince, Stanley Jordan, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and Warwick). The album tracks are equally memorable ("Ebony Eyes"); the disc also collects an earlier single, "You're A Big Girl Now," written and produced by Marty Bryant and Bill Perry, that has the same retro-tearjerker appeal but a cheesy organ-led arrangement. The large cast of musicians includes Norman Harris on guitar and Vince Montana on percussion. (DBW)

Round 2 (1972)
More huge hits in the same sophisticated soul style, including the ballad "I'm Stone In Love With You" and the gently syncopated "Break Up To Make Up." And once again, the album tracks are up to the standard of the singles (the joyous, bouncy "If You Don't Watch Out"; the rolling, Motown-like "You And Me"). Bell even stretches the sound a bit on the uptempo "Pieces," with a funky bass line and fuzzed-out keyboards. But Bell and Creed's inkwell wasn't bottomless, as they found room for two covers: Carole King's "It's Too Late" and Bacharach/David's "You'll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart)"... both are sung beautifully by Thompkins. The weakest point is the extended instrumental fade of "Children Of The Night" (which Bell later cut on Dionne Warwick), and even that's enjoyable. Again the musicians are the usual Philly International vets. (DBW)

Rockin' Roll Baby (1973)
Major single "You Make Me Feel Brand New" is probably my least favorite of the group's big hits (despite the sitar hook), and other ho-hum tunes mark a step down (the love song "There's No Reason"; the corny title track despite its Harrisonian slide solo). The lyrics are not quite as sharp either (the gimmicky "Payback Is A Dog"; the anti-gossip "Let Them Work It Out"). But there's still plenty of good stuff here: "Make It Last," with a light samba beat and sumptuous orchestration; the sweeping, O'Jays-like "Only For The Children." Mostly Bell and Creed again, though the team of Jefferson, Hawes and sometimes Simmons (the main writers for The Spinners) contributed three tunes (the breathtaking "Could This Be The End," which manages to be simultaneously smooth and ominous). (DBW)

Let's Put It All Together (1974)
All of a sudden, Bell and Creed stopped working with the group - they're only represented by a repeat of "Brand New" - and this album started a commercial slide the Stylistics never broke out of. All the new material was produced by Hugo and Luigi, mostly written by them with George David Weiss, and arranged by Van McCoy. They try to stick to the group's trademark sound, but keeping smooth elegance from slipping into mawkish tackiness is too difficult for this crew most of the time ("We Can Make It Happen Again") - the dismal "Love Is The Answer" also comes in a discofied instrumental. The one hidden gem is "I Take It Out On You," and the smooth title track was a hit. Despite the weak results, the production team would remain together for the next few albums. (DBW)

Heavy (1974)
Again, some trend-riding and hackwork: McCoy overuses the sitar on the opening "The Miracle" and closing "From The Mountain"; "Heavy Fallin' Out" has a gaga Norm Whitfield-imitation extended psychedelic fade. Several of the tunes don't make much of an impression ("She Did A Number On Me," a Four Tops knockoff with Murrell singing lead), and Thompkins isn't developing as a vocalist, using the same high, clear tone on every cut ("From The Mountain"). Despite that, the album is better than its predecessor, as some of George David Weiss's ballads capture the affecting quality of Bell and Creed: "Go Now"; "Don't Put It Down Til You Been There." (DBW)

Thank You Baby (1975)
A version of the 20s tune "Can't Give You Anything (But My Love)" - updated with disco strings and a Love Boat-style groove - became a #1 hit in the UK. Most of the album is in that same bag ("Disco Baby"), and the incongruous, old-timey "A Honky Tonk Cafe" also stretches the formula of albums past. But there's still plenty of slow romancing ("I'd Rather Be Hurt By You (Than Loved By Somebody Else)") and reuse of Bell/Creed devices: the sitar lives on (title track), and the lyrics continue to repurpose commonplace expressions ("What Goes Around Comes Around"). Good points: "Tears And Souvenirs" is a memorable ballad, and the orchestration of "I'm Gonna Win" is lovely. (DBW)

You Are Beautiful (1976)
A trite, lifeless batch of love songs (title track; "Na Na Is The Saddest Word") plus a little formula disco ("Funky Weekend"). Songs like "Jenny" and "That Don't Shake Me" are the dullest the group had ever released, and there's nothing new on the arrangement, production or performance fronts. One track is pretty much like another except for the beautiful, Bacharachian "If You Are There," and the bizarre "The Day The Clown Came To Town." (DBW)

Fabulous (1976)
A sudden step up, for some reason - maybe Hugo & Luigi were psyched about their brand-new vanity label, H & L Records. The bouncy pop "Can't Help Falling In Love" was the best song the group had come across in years, and a bunch of other tunes have solid melodies (the midtempo "Baby, Don't Change Your Mind"; the ballad "Maybe It's Because You're Lonely"). And they attempt the slow-burning, hypnotic, Whitfield-esque thing again, but pull it off this time ("It's So Good"). A couple of flops ("Starvin' For Love") but not many: perhaps the best from the post-Bell Stylistics. Some tunes arranged by Horace Ott, the rest still by McCoy. The 2003 CD release has a couple of bonus tracks, "Lovin' Proof" and "Because Of You" - not sure where they come from but they're worthy additions. (DBW)

Once Upon A Juke Box (1976)
Also known as All-Time Classics. At this point, Hugo and Luigi resorted to unabashed nostalgia, as they pulled out a ton of ancient doo-wop ("The Great Pretender"; "Only You"), pop standards (a charming Thompkins solo take on "My Funny Valentine") and Ellington ("I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good"). The thing with standards albums is this: if your original material is so drab and faceless that you're better off singing songs that have already been recorded by lots of better artists, you have to ask yourself why you're heading into the recording studio in the first place. That said, everyone involved does a decent job with these hoary chestnuts: "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" has an eye-rolling disco interlude, and the zippy "Satin Doll" is extremely tacky, but otherwise the production isn't embarassing, and the version of "Unchained Melody" is touching. In the pantheon of 70s nostalgia for the 50s the album ranks below Happy Days but above Sha Na Na. (DBW)

Sun & Soul (1977)
Ott consolidated his grip as arranger and conductor, serving up more dance tunes ("So What") and love songs (Love's feature "I'm Coming Home"), and everything has a forced, cheery air. The title refers to some dabbling in calypso, with horrific results ("Shame And Scandal In The Family"; "$7000 And You"). Everything else is formulaic and dry ("Our Love Will Never Die," with overdone brass flourishes), with equally horrific if less risible results. "I Run To You," a midtempo tune adorned with string swoops, is the best of the lot. This would be the album I'd be most afraid to play for someone who asked me why I liked the Stylistics. (DBW)

Wonder Woman (1977)
The calypso experiment continues on the up-with-people "Give A Little Love," and a few tunes have the falsetto-meets-streetwise slickness of the Bee Gees ("A Rock And A Hard Place"). Otherwise, it's exactly the same pop-soul dreariness you'd expect - whether the songs are intended to be celebratory (title track; "A Good Thing Going On") or melancholy ("Fool Of The Year"), they're trite, inauthentic and uninvolving. Around this time the group also cut a version of the Tokens' "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"; I believe it wasn't collected on LP. (DBW)

In Fashion (1978)
Finally Hugo & Luigi were out, replaced by Teddy Randazzo of "Goin' Out Of My Head" fame, but at first it didn't help. The arrangements are sharper and sound more modern ("There'll Never Be Another You"), but the compositions are the same mealy mix of slow and midtempo love songs ("You're The Best Thing In My Life," with protracted Thompkins scatting). There are no new ideas: the "Brand New" sitar is back on "Looking At Love Again"; a couple of tracks open with a Love vocal before handing the baton to Thompkins at the chorus. The better tunes are well constructed but have the same assembly-line feel ("I Can't Stop Living"; the lovingly orchestrated "California Sun"). Backing musicians are Philly Soulsters like Ron "Have Mercy" Kersey, Norman Harris, Michael "Sugar Bear" Foreman and Charles Collins. (DBW)

Love Spell (1979)
Randazzo took the plunge into disco (just as it was going out of fashion), but it's a big step up from the pop pap the group had been recording for the past few years. The title track - which starts and ends as a ballad, but kicks into high gear in between - and "One Night Affair" are soaring, spacious journeys, and Thompkins sounds perfectly at home. There are a couple of cute tricks, like fuzz guitar on "Broken Wing" and hurdy-gurdy keyboards on "I Won't Forget To Tell You I Love You." Lyrically too, the record has pleasant surprises: contrary to so many 70s free love celebrations, the narrator of "One Night Affair" is sorry that no real lasting connection had been made. Side Two is more of the band's usual balladeering ("Between Hello And Goodbye"), though that too is more lively than usual ("Don't Know Where I'm Going"). I'm not saying this is the group's best record since Bell split, but it's my favorite. (DBW)

Hurry Up This Way Again (1980)
A switch to TSOP records, and a small army of producers led by Dexter Wansel (title track) and Jefferson/Simmons ("Maybe It's Love This Time"). Alternating between disco and ballads again, but this time the uptempo stuff is cheesy to the max: not to get too technical, but whenever you hear a disco number with the bass pulsing eighth notes between root and fifth, you're hearing a producer who thinks she/he gets disco but really doesn't ("Driving Me Wild," co-written and produced by Cynthia Biggs and Ted Wortham). The semi-smoldering slow disco title track remained a staple of their live shows, and some stuff is undeniably catchy if silly ("Found A Love You Couldn't Handle" with its schoolyard "Hate to say I told you so" refrain), but most of the tunes here are flat and forgettable ("I Have You, You Have Me"). This LP and the two following are available on one 2-CD set, which is a decent deal in terms of quantity. (DBW)

Closer Than Close (1981)
Creed and Bell - who had stopped working with The Spinners by now - returned for half of the disc (title track, written with Preston Glass); Wansel and Biggs contributed the remainder ("Mine All Mine"). Either way, there's a lot of repetitive late disco (Bell/Creed's "Habit"; Wansel/Biggs's "What's Your Name?") and romantic blather (Biggs/Wansel's "It's Only Love"). Depressingly enough, not only is there not a single song that's worth the trouble, there aren't even any interesting failures, just lots of rehashed lyrical concepts ("Almost There"), familiar melodies ("I've Got This Feeling") and lazy arrangements ("Searchin'"). (DBW)

1982 (1982)
The disco experiment was over, as the arrangements are back to light pop ("We Could Be Lovers"). Tunes come from everywhere: Gamble & Huff ("United"); Jefferson & Hawes ("You're Leaving"); Wansel ("Lighten Up"). Bacharach & David's "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me" uses the same synthcopated arrangement that would soon appear on "I Just Called To Say." Interestingly, two songs by band members Thompkins and Raymond Johnson are the best cuts on the disc: the pleasantly jumpy "Call On You" and the smooth, sax-driven "Don't Come Telling Me Lies." (DBW)

Some Things Never Change (1984)
Produced by Maurice Starr under the eye of Arthur Baker, and it's one side of old school ballads (title track) and one side of irritating mid-80s synth/drum programming ("Love Is Not The Answer"). If you can deal with the production, some of the songs are respectable ("Hooked On Your Lovin'" with an unusually heavy guitar hook; the tender "Just The Two Of Us"). The formulas get mixed on "Don't Change," which has Thompkins soaring over an "It's Like That"-recalling groove, and is thus the disc's most amusing cut. Less amusing but highly weird is a repackaging of the nursery rhyme "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" ("Row Your Love"). (DBW)

A Special Style (1985)
Quite the contrary: there's nothing remotely special here, though if you're in love with the lead singer's voice and/or the smooth ballad style you'll get something out of some of the tunes ("Sad Girl"). Again, largely written and produced by Maurice Starr (the "Planet Rock" knockoff "Let's Go Rockin' Tonight"), but the singers had more input than usual: Thompkins wrote two songs ("Only") while Murrell ("Love Is Serious") and Johnson ("O Sha Mea Yakine") contributed one each. (DBW)

Love Talk (1991)
After a layoff, the Stylistics returned to their core competency, mellow ballads (title track), avoiding the crashing drums and synths except on the Bobby Brown ripoff "I Don't Need This." Generally pleasant although originality is at a minimum: there's a hits medley, a medley of "Goin' Out Of My Head"/"Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You," and a cover of "You Were Always On My Mind" (a hit for Willie Nelson). Confusingly, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager's clever "I Just Don't Know What To Do" is not a cover of Bacharach's 60s hit "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself"; he and Sager also contributed (with Gerry Goffin) "Hang Your Teardrops Up To Dry." Two new songs by Andy Goldmark ("Me - U = Blue") and Jeff Tyzik's "You're My Woman, You're My Lady" aren't as impressive. Whoever wrote and produced, most of the arranging and performing was left up to Randy "The Great Randini" Waldman. (DBW)

Christmas (1992)
Exactly what you'd expect: "The Little Drummer Boy," "The Christmas Song," "Silver Bells" ad infinitum, all rendered as laid-back soul. But it's carefully orchestrated ("God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen") and tasteful, apart from the tacky, big-beat closing medley. In fact, it's the songs that aren't over-recorded standards that drag the disc down: "When You've Got Love It's Christmas All Year Long" and "I Wanna Be Wrapped In Your Arms This Christmas" are awkward breaks in the fun. Producers include Bob Stein, Tyzik and Andy Zulla. (DBW)

Love Is Back In Style (1996)
A well crafted, low-key disc - their best since Love Spell, though by this point hardly anyone was paying attention. Production is from a variety of sources including Preston Glass, F.L. Pittman, Felton C. Pilates and Noel Clossen, and they all stick to the same blueprint: the uptempo tunes were never the best part of a Stylistics record anyway, so they basically dispense with them - the midtempo "Go" is about as upbeat as it gets. Glass wrote or co-wrote many of the songs, and I've been critical of his other work but here his ballads are subtle and charming: "Shoulder"; "You Must Love Loneliness." There are weak links, sure ("Keeping You To Your Promise"), but fewer than you'd think. (DBW)

Collection: A Matter Of Style (Russell Thompkins Jr.: 2002)
Thompkins struck out on his own, and produced with Christopher Biehler; keyboardist Andy Calabrese also worked on arrangements. His voice is as high and pure as ever, and the rest of the singers were never particularly prominent, so it sounds very much like you'd expect an early 2000s Stylistics album to sound: gentle ballads with sedate, mostly synthesized backing ("Jealousy") - there are also some tasty piano solos ("Summer Love"). Songs include a couple of Bell/Creed remakes ("People Make The World Go Round"), a couple of Bacharach tunes ("(April Fools) True Love Has Found Us"), the Gershwins' "Embraceable You," and the Diane Warren/Michael Bolton monstrosity "By The Time This Night Is Over." One of the nicest tunes, though, is a Thompkins/Johnson original, "Because" - more songs like that and fewer remakes like "La La At The End" would have made the disc less of a nostalgic curiosity and more of an unalloyed pleasure. (DBW)

In Concert 2005 (2008)
The post-Thompkins band in concert, singing hits from "You're A Big Girl Now" through "Hurry Up This Way Again," though of course most of the tunes are from the key Bell period ("Break Up To Make Up," "You Are Everything," and so on). (DBW)

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