Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together- Stylistics (Phonogram 1992)
UK Chart Position – 34
Now I will admit that a sweet tooth is needed here. The Stylistics led the way in a brand of soul music which combined romance, lushness, a distinctive falsetto lead and a tight vocal group performance sound which was a progression from the Doowop sounds of a decade earlier. Others in this soul subsection who shone most brightly in the mid 1970s included The Moments, The Chi-Lites, The Delfonics, Blue Magic, all of whom had been around some time when they found fame but the sweetest of all the sweet soulers were The Stylistics.
This was, without doubt, because of the lead vocal of Russell Tompkins Junior, a beautifully rounded soft, nasal sound which always avoided becoming the whine it could so easily have been. Not strictly falsetto his voice is often described as high tenor. In some of the group’s strongest recordings this was paired with the rich baritone voice of Airron Love. Also, providing sterling back-up were James Smith, James Dunn and Herbie Murrell. They had been in various groups since the mid 60’s in the Philadelphia area but joined forces in 1968. By 1975 their first hits compilation “Best Of The Stylistics” was the UK’s biggest selling album of the year and at that point the biggest ever selling by an African-American act.
The hit singles continued after 1975 leading to another chart-topping Volume 2 compilation just over a year later. The best compilations combine these two volumes and as consistent sellers there have been a number over the years. I have chosen as my Essential Stylistics recording an eighteen tracker from 1992 which achieved a moderate chart position but is a great indication of what was both good and frustrating about their success. It contains all sixteen of their UK Top 40 hits and nine out of the 10 US hits.
The CD opens with their only UK number 1 hit single from the summer of 1975. For “I Can’t Give You Anything But My Love” record label Avco’s hot disco producer Van McCoy was drafted in as arranger to add a little extra something for the group. Chart-wise it was the most successful track for both the group and the arranger but is not representative of the very best of either of their work. It does have a lovely languid trumpet introduction which captures the attention and it heads off into a shuffling track which is a little faster than we would expect from the group and a nod to Disco. It does sound at times as if Van McCoy’s signature hit “The Hustle” is playing in the background. Van’s best productions were when he used gospel based singers to add bite to the lushness of his Soul City Symphony Sounds, most successfully in his work with Melba Moore, David Ruffin and his gospel based backing singers Faith, Hope and Charity with whom he cut a couple of albums. With Russell Tompkins Jnr’s already sweet falsetto it’s a little bit too much of a sugar rush to be their very best work. It was, however, their biggest UK hit and gave them a gold single. It was not a US chart hit.
And here we have the dichotomy of the Stylistics hit career. It is in two distinct phases, the first, which saw them as a Philadelphian soul act which captivated the US and gave them a solid reputation in the UK and the second where veteran songwriters and producers Hugo and Luigi took over which gave them bigger UK success but their increasingly middle of the road sound did not work so well with their traditional US audience. By the time the group returned to their more soulful Philadelphian roots in the late 70’s/early 80’s their chart career was over on both sides of the Atlantic.
Linda Creed & Thom Bell Hugo and Luigi
The second track on the album is the one that most clearly marks the end of the first era and is the track most associated with the group as well as being their biggest US hit and marked the first time they scored a UK Top 5 hit. 1974’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New” was both a UK and US number 2 as well as being a Top 3 hit in Australia and Canada, amongst other markets. It is also their best track. It marked the culmination of the group’s association with producer Thom Bell, who, with songwriter Linda Creed worked a string of gems not just for this group but for other sweet-soul stalwarts The Detroit Spinners and The Delfonics. It employed the under-used rich voice of Airron Love as a counterpoint to Tompkins. At the time it foxed quite a lot of people, who thought it was a male-female duet, even at this point in the career not everyone had cottoned on the fact that what they were listening to when they heard the Stylistics was a male voice. The intimacy of the track is undeniable and it feels like they are singing to each other. This was a little too much to contemplate in 1974 and may be why the group concentrated on one lead singer rather than using much interplay between the two. Other groups got away without anyone asking questions but it is the sheer honesty of the voices and of the songs lyrics that can make it feel like a love song between two men. (I don’t think that’s just me!)
The CD is not chronological so both periods of their career are interspersed. I might have implied that the later tracks were not without merit, but this is far from the case. Not every one of the Bell/Creed songs hits home and some of the Hugo and Luigi/George David Weiss tracks are real guilty pleasures. Like The Drifters who had an extended UK career after their American hits dried up there’s a lot of enjoyment from their later tracks, but unlike the Drifters, who had enjoyed a long chart career, these two phases were condensed into a period of just six years from their first US hit “Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart (US#39) (better known in the UK as a Diana Ross/Marvin Gaye duet three years later (UK#25) to their cheesy chart career end of “$7000 Dollars And You” which got to number 24 in the UK in 1977.
Phase 1 really kicked off with another hit which was later more associated with Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye with the Bell and Creed song “You Are Everything”. There’s a calm confidence in this, their first US Top 10 pop placing (#9 in 1971) and a much richer sound than the version which became a UK #5 three years later for Diana & Marvin. Motown here appropriated the Philadelphia sound and turned out an inferior track. What Bell and Creed were producing here at this time were standards, good quality songs with great orchestration to which was added the Tompkins voice. Hugo and Luigi put the voice first, maybe over-egged the orchestration and the songs were more throwaway. In phase 1 you get the beautiful love song that is “Betcha By Golly Wow” (US#3, UK13- 1972) a good enough song to have two great cover versions by Prince (UK#11 1996) and the under-rated Phyllis Hyman together with “I’m Stone In Love With You (US#10,UK#9 1972) which also became a comeback hit (after a twelve year chart absence) for Johnny Mathis (UK#10 – 1975). There’s also a lovely version of the Bacharach/David song “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart) (US#23 -1973) which had to wait until it was re-released as the led track of an EP to chart in the UK (#24 1976).
The track which hasn’t dated so well from the first phase is the uptempo “Rockin’ Roll Baby”. As a child when this was released I got this completely wrong and thought, despite its joyous take of a father’s love for a young son, that it was a sad song. The line that did this for me was “He’s got a funky walk/In his little orthopaedic shoes”. This to me conjured up a disabled child being forced to dance, thrust on the stage to perform. I thought it was a song about neglect with a theatrical setting “One night stands weren’t easy for little Joe” and was chilled by it. I haven’t quite ever forgiven the song and the “Na Na Na” repetitions are a little annoying.
Phase two of their career opened strongly as “Let’s Put It All Together” is actually really quite a beautiful song and the highpoint of the Hugo and Luigi productions. It became their final US hit reaching number 18 in 1974 as well as number 9 in the UK. I’ve also got a sneaking affection to the “Stone In Love With You” feel of “Star On A TV Show” UK#12) and the real guilty pleasure that is “Sing Baby Sing” (UK#3). I used to spend all my pocket money on 7 inch singles around this time and “Sing Baby Sing” was actually the last Stylistics single I bought. Things started to slip downhill a bit from here. “Funky Weekend” was a nod to the disco market but was just too empty a song. There was no reason why The Stylistics could not have made a stronger transition to disco, other Philadelphian male vocal groups such as The Trammps, The O’Jays and Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes produced great hard-hitting disco gems in this era but The Stylistics were not going to get too far with “Funky Weekend” despite its number 10 UK chart placing. Their version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” was also uptempo and both likeable and popular (UK#4).
The track I find it hardest to forgive is “Na Na Is The Saddest Word”. What does that even mean? Musically it’s an attractive song but lyrically, please! The group were hot after their number 1 single and this was chosen as the follow-up. There was enough interest in them to make this a UK #5 but this was not a chart position based on the song’s merit. “I wrote a love song in 16 bars” is not The Stylistics taking to alcoholism and once again is not strong lyrically. It reached number 7 in 1976. It did seem, at this point that the cash registers were ringing happily so it did not matter a great deal if the songs were a little throwaway. What happened to The Stylistics is far from unique in the history of pop. Another massive group from the 70’s Boney M finished the decade with real disposable tracks (Painter Man/ Hooray Hooray It’s A Holi-Holiday etc.) that suggested those around them wanted to just take the money and run.
It’s money that marks the end of the Stylistics chart career. “$7,000 Dollars And You” has a cheesy Tijuana feel but the song shows the boys had their price. Up to a million and they would choose the girl, but after that they’d take the cash! It actually puts a smile on my face this track! It’s actually a shame record-buyers tired of them from this point as in the 1980’s they returned to their home-town and recorded again with Thom Bell under the Philadelphia International umbrella, churning good quality. less commercial pop-soul tunes. The group, with changes in personnel, continues to tour to this day.
The Stylistics – still touring!
The 18 tracks here give perhaps the best overview of the hits of The Stylistics. If the Hugo and Luigi tracks are too much then you might wish to consider a compilation which focuses on the early years. (One of their all-time best tracks “Only For The Children” which appeared as the B-Side of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” can be found on other compilations) but I’ve always got pleasure from the bitter-sweet soul of the Thom Bell stuff and the sugar overdose of the later tracks so this selection is the one I end up listening to most of all.
The video is intended for Karaoke purposes but seems to be the best version of the guys singing this song. Just ignore the highlighted lyrics unless you want to sing along!
Greatest Hits; Let’s Put It All Together is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £8.24 and used from £2.19. It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available from $13.07 and used for $1.68. Other promising compilations available include 5 Classic Albums (48 tracks) and the 36 track Double CD “Ultimate Collection”.