The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (Sony 2014)
It was back in 1954 that Philadelphian Harold Melvin formed a doo-wop group. They had a good reputation, were a popular live band and recorded on a number of small record labels. Commercial success eluded them. The best of the early tracks is a song called “Get Out (And Let Me Cry)” which became popular in the UK Northern Soul Scene. (It reached number 35 in the UK Pop Charts in 1975 when re-released on the Route label). Fifteen years into their existence a drummer joined their touring band. His name was Teddy Pendergrass and when lead singer John Atkins left in the early 70’s Teddy took over the role of lead vocalist.
In 1971, 17 years after their formation, this struggling group got a break and were signed by the very up and coming Philadelphia International Records by the two men behind the label Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who saw the raspiness of the Pendergrass voice as an excellent foil to the lush orchestration which was to become the selling point of this new Philadelphia sound.
At long last success came, but they are still very much an under-rated group and should have been bigger commercially. The hit single tally is 4 US Pop Top 2o hits and five UK Top 40 hits for the Philadelphia International label, all of which are included on this seventeen track album.
When fame came there was always going to be an issue and that was the group’s name. By the early 70’s we were used to performers in groups being pushed to the front – Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles the list goes on. But here the problem was Harold Melvin was not the lead singer, even though the casual listener would have assumed he was. Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes featuring Theodore Pendergrass was tried but just didn’t exactly slip off the tongue. It was going to cause tensions. There were four albums before the group were faced with Pendergrass’ departure. Even within these Melvin was experimenting with other voices on the tracks, including female singer Sharon Paige. The record label, seeing where the unique selling point of this group was kept Pendergrass on as a solo artist, where he became an R&B legend. The group found a new lead singer in David Ebo and moved to ABC records and a return to relative obscurity.
These seventeen tracks are taken from the golden four year period and have stood the test of time. They are a combination of classic soul ballads and uptempo numbers which due to the lushness of the Philly orchestration are early disco classics. For a long time this group was not best served by compilations. I favoured the ten track “Super Hits” (Epic Legacy 2000) but there are obvious omissions and a couple of the tracks in their full-length version are a little over-realised. This compilation adds seven more tracks, generally in their single length or Part 1 versions and is therefore my choice as an Essential CD.
Some of the other hits compilations that have been available over the years
The album kicks off with a bang and one of those early disco classics which is here presented in its full-length six and a half-minute form. “Bad Luck” became the group’s third US hit in 1975 when it reached number 15 but never became a UK hit. The opening funky bass-line would have perhaps been more recognisable to us Brits as it was used by The Ritchie Family in their hit disco-medley “The Best Disco In Town”. From this it explodes into a sing-a-long stormer from the group- not their best uptempo track but close to it. The standard is maintained for the O-Jays-ish “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back) which is archetypal uptempo Philly Soul and reached number 32 in the UK when issued as a single in 1974. This track is inexplicably absent on the “Super Hits” compilation so it is great to hear it here. It was one of the stand-out tracks on their second “Black And Blue” album. It features one of the great in-intro grunts on record, sounding like a bear being awoken from its slumbers.
“Wake Up Everybody” was very much a swan-song for the group, their last US Pop hit reaching number 12 and number 23 in the UK in 1976. Philadelphia were quite hot on political message songs with songs such as “Love Train”, “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”, and “Let Em In” doing well for the label. In fact, the output of the label was very much either love songs, message songs or have a good time dance tunes. “Wake Up Everybody” is the Blue Notes’ most significant message song, intended to stir us out of our mid 70’s lethargy and self-centeredness. (Things haven’t really changed). Headed off by a lovely piece of piano glissando this is a great tune. Message songs can come across as naive but there’s something about Teddy’s call to get motivated to help out the community which I’ve always found appealing.
The big hit is next which really kick-started the Philadelphia International career for them. “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is a true soul classic and one of Gamble & Huff’s best songs and productions. It seems like Teddy, in a ten year relationship, is not going to change so it’s a bit of a like it or lump it situation. In late 72/early 73 this reached #3 in the US and #9 in the UK. The chart honours for this particular track, however, go to Mick Hucknell of Simply Red who took it to the very top of the US charts and number 2 in the UK in 1989. I’m sure even he would admit that the original version is the best.
There’s still a couple of disco anthems to be enjoyed beginning with “The Love I Lost” (US#7, UK#21 in 1974). This benefits from being shortened from the album version where the “I lost you, sorry I lost you” refrain goes on too long. As a three and a half minute single it is perfection. This song also had a new lease of life in 1993 when West End featuring Sybil took it to number 3 in the UK. And talking of a song with an extended lease of life…
“Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a Gamble and Huff song written with Cary Gilbert began life as an album track on the “Wake Up Everybody” album. A slow moody start, with tom-tom intro it ripples into an impassioned disco track. Over at Motown they decided to give it a Hal Davis “Love Hangover” treatment for Thelma Houston which just exploded causing the Blue Notes version to race up the charts in the UK alongside Thelma. In the US it gave Thelma her only US number 1 single, the biggest hit of her career. In the UK it became Harold Melvin’s biggest chart success peaking at number 5 where Thelma had to make do with a number 13 placing. I love both versions of this song. To complex matters there was a third even bigger excellent version nine years later when The Communards topped the UK charts in 1987. I’d be hard pushed to pick my favourite of the three versions of this song. By 1977 when the group were in the UK Top 5 there was no chance of them capitalising with new material as by this time they were Teddy Pendergrass-less and recording for ABC. The impetus caused by this re-release did see their ABC debut “Reaching For The World” getting a limited amount of UK action, reaching 48, but that is beyond the scope of this album.
Don’t Leave Them This Way – The Blue Notes, Thelma Houston & Communards
The writing on the wall can be heard on the track “To Be True” which comes from their 1975 album of the same name as the vocalist here is none other than Harold Melvin himself. It’s a nice enough track but I find myself willing Teddy to make an appearance. It is certainly still Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes but it’s not Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes as we knew them and that shows why this group was unlikely to do that much after Pendergrass’ departure. To a certain extent I feel this way about the two tracks which feature Sharon Paige, “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” is very much a Paige/Pendergrass duet and did in fact top the US R&B charts. Sharon is given a bigger bite of the cherry with “You Know How To Make Me Feel So Good” and my reservations here apply. It looks like I’m pushing Teddy into his solo career here, but I’m actually not. What I really like is the juxtaposition between the group’s vocals and the lead. You can tell their roots are in doowop and really like Gladys Knight and The Pips it is this interplay which make this group great. This works so well on the bluesy “Yesterday I Had The Blues” and in the magnificent disco treat of “Tell The World How I Feel About Cha Baby”. Here they are certainly not relegated to backing singers as they have the song’s hooks but the group sound and the Teddy lead just work really so well.
Elsewhere on the CD, away from the hits, you get the excellent “Where Are All My Friends” a time-old tale of friends vanishing when you hit on bad times, “Be For Real” which is a musical lecture from Theodore to his lady who looks down on people and “I Miss You” one of the great soul songs about loss which is almost animalistic in its howling passion, which can make it a little difficult to listen to.
The song that really feels out of place is the one minute 45 section snatch of the show-tune “Cabaret” sung in harmony very much in the same style as Motown would occasionally employ with The Four Tops (with “Mame”) and The Temptations (with “That’s Life” and “Hello Young Lovers”). Was this an attempt at broadening the appeal of the group? Berry Gordy over at Motown would at one point deliberately record tracks like these for his acts in order to chase the lucrative older white album-buying market which would lead to lucrative supper-club bookings but it feels a little late in the day (1973) to be doing this. Was it just a way to show that this group were every bit as good singers of more traditional fare as the Tops and the Temps? I’m not sure but it is less than two minutes out of an hour-plus of super-soulful sounds.
Harold Melvin and Teddy Pendergrass
Harold Melvin continued to plug away with various incarnations of The Blue Notes and died in 1997. Teddy recorded two of the best singles of all time in his long solo career, his debut release “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” which promised so much and even better than that is “Can’t We Try?” which contains one of the most heart-felt male R&B vocals ever. I preferred him more as a loser of love than the Barry White-esque Love God he was sometimes made out to be in tracks such as “Turn Off The Lights” and “Close The Door”. In his homeland he recorded a run of big selling albums and was an essential live performer. In 1982 things changed overnight when a horrific car accident left him paraplegic. There were years of health issues over the years with musical comebacks and much charity work. He died in 2010 at the age of 59.
These are the glory days of these Philadelphia International’s superstars career. Listening to this album shows what a great ballad group and also what a great group of uptempo material they were.
The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72. It can be downloaded for £6.99. In the US this CD is harder to come by but other compilations are available. In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.