100 Essential CDs – Number 15 – Stylistics – Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together

Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together- Stylistics  (Phonogram 1992)

UK Chart Position – 34

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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.

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 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.   

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 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. 

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 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.

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 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!)

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 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.

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 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). 

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 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. 

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 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).

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 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.   

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 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”.

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100 Essential CDs – Number 11 –Gladys Knight & The Pips – Gold

Gold – Gladys Knight & The Pips (Disky 1993)

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Gladys Knight, born in 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia, was a child phenomenon scooping first prize as an eight year old on the nationally televised “Ted Mack Amateur Hour”.  By the age of 10 she was working as part of her family group- alongside her brother and sister and two cousins.  This three girls, two boys incarnation of the Pips lasted until 1958 when Gladys became the only girl left in the group and two more male cousins joined.  By 1961 they had scored their first US hit as The Pips when “Every Beat Of My Heart” reached number 6.

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There were a couple of other appearances in the US charts in the early 60’s by which time Gladys had become the powerhouse in front of the group and this was acknowledged by pushing her name to the front.  In 1967 Gladys Knight and the Pips signed to Motown where great things were expected of them.  For the next six years they were regular visitors to the pop charts with tracks such as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (#2 in 1967), “If I Were Your Woman” (#9 in 1971) and “Neither One Of Us” (#2 in 1973).  In the UK a couple of tracks that hadn’t exactly hit set the charts alight in their homeland became big hits, “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me” (#13 in 1967) and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” (UK#11, US#33).  The group felt increasingly confined by the Motown sound and Gladys, quite rightly assumed that they were not top priority on the label.  By 1973 after 13 US Top 40 pop hits and a reputation of being amongst the very best in the business the group left Motown and moved to Buddah records.

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This is where this 19 track, budget compilation kicks in.  The Buddah recordings upped the sophisticated gloss of the later Motown tracks and by using top producers and great songs continued the run of hits for another few years, during which time the group were really at their commercial peak.  On this CD you get all 7 of their Top 40 hits of this period, including their only US Pop #1 hit.  In the UK the Buddah years were perhaps even more cherished than in their homeland as they scored 11 Top 40 hits between 1975-78, with a run of songs with which they are most closely associated over here.  They are probably one of the greatest groups never to score a UK #1.

Contained within these 19 tracks are three of my all-time favourites singles as well as a resoundingly strong collection of performances which shows how good Gladys Knight and The Pips were.  It kicks off with the biggest and the best, the all-time soul classic which is “Midnight Train To Georgia”.  This Jim Weatherly song started off life as another form of transport where “plane” took the place of “train”.  After the name change it was recorded by Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mum, whose version is very good but it is the vocal interplay between Gladys and The Pips which really took this song to another level.  Released as a single it topped the US charts in 1973 but was not a hit in the UK until 1976, by which time it was already an established soul classic when it reached #10. Gospel roots are very much in evidence as the Pips confirm, question and comment on the proceedings and even get to sound like the train with their “wooh-woohs”.  This is a track I never get tired of hearing and each time I marvel over the quality of the song and the performance.  This is a great way to start the CD.

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“I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” is a funky little track with driving drum and brass work.  There is this perception of Gladys Knight and Pips as a ballads-only supper-club type group but they could excel on the uptempo funk of tracks such as this as well as disco.  This was taken from their debut Buddah album “Imagination” and written by master songwriter Gerry Goffin alongside Barry Goldberg.  The US liked their Gladys Knight & Pips tracks a little funkier and more rhythm and blues based  than we did over here (further proof of this is the lack of pop chart success for the disco tracks that became some of their biggest and best hits over in Europe) and it reached number 4 in the US pop charts as a follow-up to “Midnight Train.”

Two more Jim Weatherly songs follow and first off is their second all-time classic track, one I love so much that I actually had as a wedding song (couldn’t run to Gladys performing it, however).  “The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” is such a well-written song, which could have been sugary in anyone else’s hands but with Gladys’ voice cutting through the whole thing is a sublime treat.  There’s a few lines in here that remain as almost a mantra in my head, one of my ultimate ear-worms as Gladys sings;

“If anyone should ever write my life story

For whatever reason there might be

You’ll be there

Between each line of pain and glory

‘Cos you’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Gladys very appropriately named her autobiography “Between Each Line  Of Pain And Glory” (what else could she call it really?) On the best tracks the Pips’ contribution is vital, they operate far more than as backing singers and this is the case here.   It had previously been a chart-topper on the US country charts by Ray Price.  Gladys’ version topped the Soul Charts, went to number 3 in the US  pop charts and became another belated hit for her in the UK two years later when it reached #7 in 1975.

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The third Jim Weatherly song was chosen as the debut single from the Buddah association.  “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” (US#28 1973) puts the Pips in a prominent position.  It’s a gentle, graceful track which is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite Gladys moment but always sounds good and fits in beautifully with this compilation.  This moves into the Pips led version of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” which demonstrates clearly the group’s gospel roots.  The vocals are somewhat far back in the mix of this which is strangely effective but I think here Nash’s original version is the stronger track.

For a time Gladys looked as if she might follow Diana Ross into the world of Hollywood movies.  She starred in the film “Pipe Dreams” but the only thing that is now remembered about that is the title song written by Tony Camillo which makes its appearance next and is a very good example of a Gladys ballad.  Camillo continues the writing honours with Mary Sawyer on “I Feel A Song (In My Heart)” a track which just oozes with class.  It was the lead single from their third Buddah album.  Once again it is the driving quality of the performances that takes this to another level.  As a single, it perhaps wasn’t the best commercial option as its number 21 placing in 1974 ended their run of four consecutive US Top 5 pop hits.  It was, however, another R&B chart-topper for them.

If Gladys is associated with schmaltz it is probably because of the next track.  The song was a bit of a game-changer for them in the UK which saw them begin a run of consecutive hits and established them on radio playlists was a live version of the Barbra Streisand weepie “The Way We Were” teamed up with a hint of “Try To Remember” which Gladys largely speaks through.  It is a sentimental track but the live performance and Gladys’ voice when she gets into singing mode stop it from going over the edge.  In the UK it became the group’s biggest hit to date getting to number 4 and prompting re-issues of earlier tracks which hadn’t made the grade first time round. In the US it hovered just outside the Top 10.

From this point on Gladys’ chart performances were more consistent in the UK as we really took her to heart.  An association with disco supremo Van McCoy brought forth three top 40 singles and includes what I would consider to be the third all-time classic by this group.  I love the work that was done with McCoy, who died in 1979 at the tragically young age of 39.  Where he worked best is with gutsy vocalists who could cut through the lushness of his arrangements which combined together beautifully –so here I’m thinking of  David Ruffin, Melba Moore, Faith Hope and Charity and especially Gladys Knight & The Pips. The driving “Come Back And Finish What You Started (UK#15 1978) the disco bounce of “Home Is Where The Heart Is” (UK#35 1977) are great tracks but eclipsed by “Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind” (UK#4, 1977) which effectively conveys the paranoia towards a partner’s commitment once his “ex is back in town”.  This track also marvellously rhymes “mind” with “genuine” and all to a disco beat.  I know that many soul artists struggled during the disco years and didn’t hold the music they were being asked to do then in high esteem but Gladys is just great at this and these tracks show why.

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Van McCoy – The Disco Kid

Elsewhere we get Gladys re-exploring “The Way We Were” feel with a version of “Georgia On My Mind”; one of the most sensitive vocal performances ever on David Gates’ “Part Time Love” (US#22, UK#30 1975) and a couple of Curtis Mayfield penned and produced tracks which came off the soundtrack for a movie “Claudine” which starred Diahann Carroll.  “On and On” (US#9 1974) is a track which has grown on me over the years and “Make Yours A Happy Home” (UK#35, 1977) has an irresistibly infectious warmth.

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The Buddah association came to an end in 1980 when they signed to Columbia Records.  Towards the end of the stay Gladys and the Pips began to explore solo projects.  The Pips could never be great without Gladys despite good vocals and excellent stage presence but Gladys without the Pips recorded one of the great James Bond Themes in a “Licence To Kill” and topped the US charts as part of the Dionne Warwick led AIDS fund-raiser “That’s What Friends Are For”.  The post Buddah years threw up a few good tracks for the group including the Ashford-Simpson penned “Bourgie Bourgie”.  In 1988, 27 years after their first chart hit the group disbanded and Gladys embarked upon her solo career.  Pips Edward Patten and William Guest are no longer with us but Gladys now aged 72 released her latest album “Where My Heart Belongs” in 2014.  Her recordings encompass R&B, standards, jazz and gospel, where she has remained incredibly active.  She is truly one of the legends of the entertainment business.

I’ve gone for this European budget compilation using tracks licensed from Buddah because it contains the Van McCoy songs which, because of their lack of commercial US success, some compilations do not feature.  There is also of course great Gladys and Pips tracks to be found from the Motown years (the double CD “Anthology”from 1990 brings out the best of these) as well as great tracks from after the Buddah years, but this is the one (although not the easiest to find and with no frill in the packaging department that I would consider to be essential.  There is a 2006 Double CD available also called “Gold” which takes in both the Motown and post- Buddah years but for a single CD compilation this one is hard to beat.

Gold is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.99, and used from £0.81. It does not seem to be readily available in the US.