Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1095

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The Stylistics
The Stylistics The Stylistics The Stylistics The Stylistics

With The Stylistics currently celebrating their 40th Anniversary, original group member Herb Murrell discusses with Pete Lewis their new âSouvenir Editionâ 2CD album âThe Greatest Hits And Moreâ¦â and looks back on the four-decade career of Philadelphiaâs premier sweet soul vocal group.

In the summer of 1972, the release of the shimmering sweet soul ballad âBetcha By Golly, Wowâ began an unbroken string of 17 UK Top 40 singles for The Stylistics that ended in the autumn of 1977 with the Top 30 appearance of â7000 Dollars And Youâ. Meanwhile, the then-quintetâs two âBest Ofâ¦â compilations became two of the best-selling albums of the decade; the first becoming, at the time, the best-selling LP ever in the UK by a black act in 1975. Which in turn was the same year in which they topped the British singles chart for three weeks with the elaborately orchestrated disco-soul of âCanât Give You Anything â(But My Love)â.

Nevertheless, The Stylisticsâ story had actually begun several years earlier when, in 1968, two local Philadelphia groups - The Monarchs and The Percussions - decided to join forces. Originally released on a shoestring budget, the groupâs first local single - âYouâre A Big Girl Nowâ - made enough noise in their hometown to be picked up for national release by the Avco label. A debut US Soul Top 10 hit in spring 1971, its simplistic charm persuaded Avco Records to let the fivesome record an entire album with classically-trained Philly super-producer/writer Thom Bell.

With Bellâs unique talent for counterbalancing the street corner harmonies of the R&B vocal groups with lush symphonic arrangements, his pairing with The Stylistics became one of the most perfect musical combinations of the era. Indeed, the three classic albums the group went on to record with Bell (1972âs Gold-selling âThe Stylisticsâ; 1973âs Gold-selling âRound 2â; and 1974âs âRockinâ Roll Babyâ) in particular firmly established lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr.âs distinctive bittersweet falsetto globally via a succession of international hit singles peaking with 1974âs majestic love ballad âYou Make Me Feel Brand Newâ.

However, just as quickly as the pairing with Thom Bell began in 1971, it was equally suddenly over in 1974. When Avco label-bosses Hugo And Luigi decided to take over The Stylisticsâ production themselves via a string of six albums (beginning with 1974âs âLetâs Put It All Togetherâ and ending with 1977âs âOnce Upon A Jukeboxâ) which took the group in a decidedly more pop-oriented direction. Which ultimately led to The Stylistics losing their American audience but becoming pop superstars overseas (in particular the UK and Europe).

Meanwhile, after leaving Hugo and Luigiâs label somewhat acrimoniously in 1978, The Stylistics went on to record for a series of both major and independent labels between 1978 and 1996, without every regaining anything like their previous level of mass-popularity. Nevertheless, the lasting quality of their 1970âs hits has continued to ensure them sell-out shows across three continents, despite numerous personnel changes over the years; the most potentially crippling being the departure of aforementioned former lead vocalist Russell Thompkins Jr. in April 2000.

Which brings us to today where - 40 years down the line from The Stylisticsâ original formation - Herb Murrell (one of the groupâs two surviving original members, alongside baritone Airrion Love) speaks in-depth to âBlues &Soulâ from his Birmingham hotel room regarding the now-quartetâs past, present and future.

Youâre currently celebrating your 40th anniversary as a group. Why do you feel youâve lasted so long?

âI think itâs a combination of many things. One important factor was being associated from the beginning with great producers and writers like Thom Bell and the late Linda Creed, who penned most of the lyrics for all those songs we did back then and was simply one of the greatest lyricists out there. You know, she could take very simple words like âI love youâ, turn them around and make them into a fantastic story - to where the lyrical content of those songs would say all those things a shy person in love wanted to say, but wasnât able to. Which led to young, old, male and female fans across the board all loving our songs and holding onto them over the years. And I think that in particular has sustained The Stylistics and allowed us - even in those lean years when there was no recordings coming from the group - to still go on world tours and still work.â

So whatâs behind the release of your âSouvenir Editionâ current 2CD package âThe Greatest Hits and Moreâ¦â?

âWell, what Universal Records have done is put 21 of the songs that we recorded over the years to make a âBest Ofâ CD alongside our brand-new album âThat Same Wayâ. So folks who know The Stylistics not only will get new product, but also a collection of all the old Seventies hits on a two-set CD collection. I guess ideally weâd have liked to have released just the new CD by itself. But, you know, record companies have their own ideas of how they wanna do things in terms of marketing a product. And thatâs what they came up with.â

Which songs have been selected for the âGreatest Hitsâ compilation?

âOf course âCanât Give You Anything (But My Love)â stands out as the opening track, because back in 1975 it became a Number One song here in the UK for The Stylistics for three weeks. And overall itâs a combination of the songs that were produced and written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed - like âYou Are Everythingâ, âBetcha By Golly, Wowâ - and the later ones that were produced by Hugo And Luigi, like âSing Baby Singâ, âNa Na Is The Saddest Wordâ... You know, the list goes on.â

So whatâs the significance of titling your new LP âThat Same Wayâ?

âWell, the name âThat Same Wayâ came about when we were finishing off the album. We were talking to the producer Preston Glass about different songs on it, and trying to come up with a title. And, because we came to the conclusion that the songs were basically the type of songs The Stylistics have always been noted for - songs covering the whole spectrum of love, whether itâs about being in love, being out of love, being hurt by love, or falling in love again - we decided to name the album after the track âThat Same Wayâ. Because we felt that title in itself was basically telling everyone that we are the same Stylistics; that weâre doing things the way weâve always done them in the past, but this time with a fresher approach.â

How did you hook up with Preston Glass as producer?

âWeâd worked with Preston Glass in the late Eighties/early Nineties, when Russell (Thompkins) was still in the group. We had a good working relationship with him back then and, because heâd first started out as like a protege of Thom Bell, we knew that Preston would bring some of the flavour that Thom had to the table. So, with the direction he was going in and what he was doing musically, we felt he was the right person to get back with for this latest album project. And he brought some great ideas, like our remake of âEbony Eyesâ. You know, weâd been thinking for a long time about doing over one of the songs from our earlier albums. And, because weâd been performing âEbony Eyesâ in our show off and on as an acapella, we basically said to Preston âYou know what? Letâs redo it, but not with that whole lush arrangement that we had back in â72. Letâs just find a different directionâ... And he was the one who came up with idea of us just singing with a conga player and Ray Parker Jr. on acoustic guitar.â

So how do you feel your latest LP differs from your classic Seventies recordings?

âItâs a fresher sound. Because, when you think back to everything we did in the studio in the early days, all the backing tracks had those lush horns and strings. Whereas music nowadays is more synthesized. So weâve tried to keep up with whatâs going on musically, while also incorporating what we were about during the early Seventies. You know, by going back to using live strings on a few songs for this album, weâve made sure weâve not lost our identity and the sound weâre known for, while at the same time changing with the times.â

What difference have the two new members made to the group?

âThereâs no question that, with Harold âEbanâ Brown being able to keep the same vocal sound that Russell Thompkins had, itâs given us the chance to let people know that - despite the loss of Russell - we still do retain that distinctive Stylistics sound. Plus, with the addition of Van Fields to the group too as second tenor, weâve also been able to inject a new, different flavour into that same sound. While vocally the whole thing has gone to another level in terms of live performances. You know, there are things that weâre doing in our show today that we werenât able to do with the old line-up. Because, with the addition of the two new tenors, at any given time we can do whatever songs folks call OUT for us to do onstage. Whereas we didnât have that privilege in the past. Because, with Russell singing everything, of course we didnât wanna burn him out during the long tours. So I think with all that - along with the maturity that comes from being in the business as long as Airrion (Love) and I have - the group has definitely been able to grow and strengthen itself since the new members came on board.â

So what was âEbanâ Brownâs background, prior to him replacing Russell Thompkins Jr. as The Stylisticsâ lead singer?

âThe first time I saw âEbanâ, he was singing lead for (fellow Philly sweet soul pioneers) The Delfonics. Because at that time their original lead singer - William Hart - had retired, but his brother Wilbur Hart had kept the group going. And, when I heard âEbanâ, I was like âYou know, listening to this guy, he sounds more like Russell Thompkins than he does William Hart!â. So we just struck up a conversation, and we stayed in contact for about seven years prior to his coming on board. And, once Russell announced his departure from The Stylistics, I just called âEbanâ up to see what he was doing. At the time, he wasnât doing anything. So I just said âHey man, letâs get together and letâs rehearse. Because we need your services as lead singer for the group!â. And, though at first he thought I was kidding, it turned out to be a serious matter. So, he stepped right in and fitted like hand-in-glove!â

What were the circumstances behind Russell Thompkins Jr.âs departure from the group in April 2000?

âWell, at that time Russell decided that he didnât want to be on the road any longer; that he was gonna leave the group, just take it easy, relax, and do whatever he wanted to do as an individual. Which we had no problem with. Because, you know, after being in any situation for a period of time, sometimes you DO get fed up in doing what you do. But, while he initially told us he was intending to leave once weâd finished a tour of California we had scheduled for June 2000, his departure actually happened in the April. So, as soon as Russell decided to leave earlier than expected, I straightway contacted âEbanâ Brown. And I actually think we were very blessed. In that, literally 10 days after Russell left, we were all rehearsed, choreographed and back on tour - with âEbanâ leading and Van Fields as our new second tenor!â

Russell has since re-emerged with his own group Russell Thompkins Jr. & The New Stylistics. So whatâs the story there?

âLike I said, when Russell brought it to our attention that he wasnât gonna sing anymore, Airrion and I were like âWell look here, weâre still gonna go ON! Thereâs no need for US to stop! Because we still love what we do, and we still CARE about what weâre doing!â. But then, after about two years, Russell came back out doing a solo project. And, while Iâm not sure how successful or unsuccessful that turned out, the next thing you know is he comes out with a group and wants to use the name âStylisticsâ! But, because there was a conflict with him using the name, he then changed it to âRussell Thompkins Jr. & The NEW Stylisticsâ to differentiate the two groups. But the problem with that is that it still causes confusion to this day! Because people sometimes come out expecting to see The Stylistics - which is me, Airrion Love, âEbanâ Brown and Van Fields - and on some occasions they end up seeing Russell and HIS group!â

So is there currently animosity between the two groups?

âNot from OUR standpoint! Because we know where we stand - especially Airrion and myself. We know how long weâve been in this business; we know how long weâve done what weâve DONE; and weâve always kept on doing what weâve been noted FOR doing! Whereas Russell is the one who made the change, and he is the one who then wanted to come back out. So, if there is any animosity at all in all this, it does not come from us! Iâm not taking anything away from Mr, Thompkins, and we do wish him well in doing whatever he wants to do. BUT, one thing he must remember and understand is that WE are The Stylistics, and that he is just Russell Thompkins Jr. & The NEW Stylistics!â

You were recently invited to perform at chart-topping rapper Nasâ birthday party in Las Vegasâ¦

âYes, it was Nasâ birthday and his lady - Kelis - knowing that we were his favourite group, called the office and enquired as to whether weâd be interested in singing at his party. So, being as we listen to his records on the radio and admire what he does, we were like âOh yeah, weâd LOVE to!`! You know, in numerous radio and press interviews heâs done in the past, heâs publicly mentioned how much he loves our records. So we considered it a real pleasure and an honour to be asked to do that. And we had a great time there.â

So how do you recall The Stylisticsâ early days?

âThe Stylistics were originally formed from two groups. Russell Thompkins, Airrion Love and James Smith came from The Monarchs; while myself and James Dunn came from The Percussions. And what happened was, we were performing at a local club in Philadelphia when this guy named Bill Perry came in and, after the show, said he was interested in recording us. The session actually cost him $500. The song - âYouâre A Big Girl Nowâ - was written by our then-road manager Lamar Bryant and our then-guitarist Robert Douglas. It was just released locally at first, and became Number One in Philadelphia. So from there Bill managed to get it released in New York and Washington DC, and then went to Avco Records for a national release. They bought the record from him for $10,000, released it on a national basis, and then, right after the Top 10 success of that first single in 1971, Avco suggested we try to do something with (then-red-hot Philly soul producer/writer) Thom Bell.â

What was your working relationship like with Thom Bell?

âWe already knew of him from the previous hits heâd had with The Delfonics. And, as this was our first time working with someone of that calibre, at first we were very nervous! I remember, when we first went into the studio with him, Thommy being very cordial but professional. He had us all sing, to get an idea of our voices, and then started playing a couple of songs that he wanted us to record. And, when we heard the melodies, we instantly fell in love with them - even though some of the lyrics werenât totally finished! We were actually in there working on the songs while Linda (Creed) was still coming in with different words she had! So it was a great marriage from the beginning. But, with us being so caught up in what we were doing at the time, what none of us realised was that during those sessions Thom and Linda were creating a standard for songs that would be around for all TIME!â

So why, in 1974, did you stop working with Thom Bell and start being produced by your then-record-label bosses Hugo And Luigi?

âHugo And Luigi - who were the presidents of Avco Records at the time - wanted two albums per year from the group. But, with Thom being so busy doing other projects, he was only able to produce ONE album per year for us. So Hugo And Luigi decided they were going to take over the reins of being The Stylisticsâ producers. So, though there were stories going around at the time that weâd got big-headed and felt we didnât need Thom Bell any more, that was not the case! It was not our doing! It was a decision totally made by the record label! And fortunately, though the songs being written by Hugo and Luigi took us more into a poppy direction, from the offset they were smart enough to bring Van McCoy in as arranger. Which meant he kinda kept an R&B edge to the things he was involved with.â

How do you feel the change of producers affected The Stylisticsâ popularity?

âWhile the change of producers unquestionably caused the popularity of the group to go downhill in The States, at the same time it created an OVERSEAS market for us that we could never have bought with a million DOLLARS! Because, once they started releasing Hugo And Luigi tracks like âCanât Give You Anything (But My Love)â, âStar On A TV Showâ and âSing Baby Singâ, surprisingly those songs started taking off big-time throughout the UK and Europe! So, what we lost on one hand, we gained on ANOTHER! And, looking back on the whole transition, overall I think it can be seen as a blessing for the group. Because it actually gave us longevity in the music business throughout the WORLD.â

How do you feel about the various producers you worked with after you parted company with Hugo And Luigi in 1978?

âWe had some trying times. Because, other than the stuff we did with Van McCoy/Hugo And Luigi, up until this new album it seemed like every producer that we ever worked with after Thom Bell always tried to emulate what Thom Bell had done! And that kinda hurt the group, because what Thom and Linda did was something that can never be duplicated. Plus it also stifled the Stylistics recording-wise. Because, once again, they tried to emphasise everything around Russell Thompkinsâ voice, as opposed to expanding and extending the OTHER vocal capabilities within the group. So, as a result of all those other producers being so caught up in trying to follow Thom Bell, things just started falling by the wayside for us.â

So what of The Stylisticsâ current and future plans?

âWell, while weâve regularly been doing the Seventies Soul Jam - that takes us all across the United States on tour - plus worldwide tours throughout the UK, Europe, Japan and The Phillipines, the one question people everywhere have been asking is when weâre going to come out with something NEW! So because we finally - after all these years - now have a new CD out, our immediate concentration is definitely going to go on the album. Itâs already out in the UK and Japan; while hopefully in the new year weâll have a release date in The States. Which is the situation weâre working on right now. Weâre currently talking to various US labels to see who understands the groupâs track record and where our market lies. And, whoever comes up with the best marketing plan for The Stylistics in 2009, is definitely the company weâll go with.â

The Stylistics international 40th Anniversary Tour continues through The Far East to December 28. The 2CD album 'The Greatest Hits And More...' is out now through Universal Music TV/Mercury Records

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