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Spotlight: The Stylistics
The Stylistics are one of the most fondly remembered Philadelphia soul groups of the 1970s, with twelve consecutive U.S. R&B top ten hits that bring us back! Who doesn’t remember groovin’ and movin’ to hits like “Stop, Look, Listen”, “You Are Everything” and “Betcha by Golly, Wow”?
The Stylistics were originally formed in 1968 by the merging of certain members of the two Philadelphia based groups, The Percussions and The Monarchs. The groups were friendly, with The Monarchs once beating The Percussions in a talent show at the Benjamin Franklin High School. Russell Thompkins Jr., James Smith, and Airron Love sang with the Monarchs, whilst James Dunn and Herbie Murrell vocalised with the Percussions.
In 1970, the group recorded “You’re a Big Girl Now,” a song their road manager Marty Bryant co-wrote with Robert Douglas, a member of their backing band Slim and the Boys, and the single became a regional hit for Sebring Records. The larger Avco Records soon signed the Stylistics, and single eventually climbed to number seven in early 1971.
THE EARLY 70s: MEETING THOM BELL
Thom Bell & Linda Creed
Once signed to Avco, the label approached producer/songwriter Thom Bell, who had previously produced a catalouge of hits for The Delfonics. Bell saw the potential in The Stylistics’ lead singer, Russell Thompkins, and The Stylistics became Bell’s pet project.
The first song recorded with Bell and his collaborator, lyricist Linda Creed, was the lush “Stop, Look, Listen”. Bell imported techniques he had perfected with The Delfonics and his musical arrangements worked perfectly with Thompkins’ falsetto vocals.
Their hits from this period —distilled from three albums— included “Betcha by Golly, Wow” (U.S. #3), “I’m Stone in Love with You”, “Break Up to Make Up” (U.S. #5), “You Make Me Feel Brand New” featuring Thompkins singing a rare lead vocal duet with Airrion Love, “Stop, Look, Listen”, “You Are Everything”, and the Top 20 Pop hit “Rockin’ Roll Baby” (U.S. #14). “You Make Me Feel Brand New” was the group’s biggest U.S. hit, holding at No. 2 for two weeks just as the spring of 1974 turned to summer, and was one of the group’s five U.S. gold singles.
THE MID 70s: CONTINUING INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS
Following “You Make Me Feel Brand New” in the spring of 1974, the Stylistics broke away from Bell and began working with Van McCoy, who helped move the group towards a softer, easy listening style with “Let’s Put It All Together” (#18 pop, No. 8 R&B) and “Heavy Fallin’ Out” (#4 R&B, No. 41 pop).
The lighter ‘pop’ sound fashioned by McCoy and Hugo & Luigi gave the group a UK #1 in 1975 with “Can’t Give You Anything”. Further successes with “Sing Baby Sing”, “Na Na Is The Saddest Word”, “Funky Weekend” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” consolidated the group’s European popularity, making them one of the few U.S. acts to have two chart-topping greatest hits albums in the UK.
THE LATER YEARS
Both James Dunn and James Smith departed in 1980 due to conflicts over the direction of the group. The group continued, recruiting new member Raymond Johnson. They would also reunite with Thom Bell and sign with Philadelphia International Records subsidiary, TSOP Records in 1980. They released the single, “Hurry Up This Way Again”, that year which brought them back into the R&B Top 20 (peaking at #18). Johnson departed in 1985, leaving the group a trio. Love, Murrell, and Thompkins continued to tour until 2000, when Russell Thompkins, Jr. left the group.
Love and Murrell brought in two new members from one set of the Delfonics – (Harold) Eban Brown as lead singer, and tenor singer Van Fields who also sang with an a cappella group called A Perfect Blend. In 2011, Fields departed from the group due to creative differences and was replaced by Jason Sharp (formerly with the band Heatwave). The group, prior to Fields’ departure, was featured live on the DVD The Stylistics Live at the Convocation Center (2006), as well as with other artists of the 1970s on the DVD, 70s Soul Jam. They recorded their latest album, That Same Way, in 2008.
Russell Thompkins, Jr. launched his own group in 2004, the New Stylistics, with the returning Raymond Johnson, plus James Ranton and Jonathan Buckson. They were featured on the DVD Old School Soul Party Live!, which was part of the PBS My Music series.
IN POP CULTURE
Their song, “People Make the World Go Round”, was used by Spike Lee in the soundtrack for 1994 film Crooklyn, as performed by Marc Dorsey.
In 2006 their hit single, “Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)”, was used as the base for a Japanese advertisement campaign by Gatsby, to launch their new male hair styling product, ‘Moving Rubber’. The campaign was successful and featured one of Japan’s most popular celebrities Takuya Kimura of the pop group SMAP. They were also featured guests on SMAP’s television show, SMAP×SMAP, one of the highest rated shows in Japan to promote the ‘Moving Rubber’ product.
In October 2009, they featured on the UK BBC One television program, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross.