THE STYLISTICS: Sweet Harmony
With The Stylistics currently celebrating their 40th Anniversary, original group member Herb Murrell discusses with Pete Lewis their new ‘Souvenir Edition’ 2CD album ‘The Greatest Hits And More…’ and looks back on the four-decade career of Philadelphia’s premier sweet soul vocal group.
In the summer of 1972, the release of the shimmering sweet soul ballad ‘Betcha By Golly, Wow’ 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 ‘7000 Dollars And You’. Meanwhile, the then-quintet’s two ‘Best Of…’ 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 ‘Can’t Give You Anything ‘(But My Love)’.
Nevertheless, The Stylistics’ 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 group’s first local single - ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ - 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 Bell’s 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 (1972’s Gold-selling ‘The Stylistics’; 1973’s Gold-selling ‘Round 2’; and 1974’s ‘Rockin’ Roll Baby’) in particular firmly established lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr.’s distinctive bittersweet falsetto globally via a succession of international hit singles peaking with 1974’s majestic love ballad ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’.
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 Stylistics’ production themselves via a string of six albums (beginning with 1974’s ‘Let’s Put It All Together’ and ending with 1977’s “Once Upon A Jukebox’) 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 Luigi’s 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 1970’s 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 Stylistics’ original formation - Herb Murrell (one of the group’s two surviving original members, alongside baritone Airrion Love) speaks in-depth to ‘Blues &Soul’ from his Birmingham hotel room regarding the now-quartet’s past, present and future.
You’re currently celebrating your 40th anniversary as a group. Why do you feel you‘ve lasted so long?
“I think it’s 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 ‘I love you’, 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 wasn’t 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.”
So what’s behind the release of your ‘Souvenir Edition’ current 2CD package ‘The Greatest Hits and More…’?
“Well, what Universal Records have done is put 21 of the songs that we recorded over the years to make a ‘Best Of’ CD alongside our brand-new album ‘That Same Way’. 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 we’d 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 that’s what they came up with.”
Which songs have been selected for the “Greatest Hits’ compilation?
“Of course ‘Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)’ 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 it’s a combination of the songs that were produced and written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed - like ‘You Are Everything’, ‘Betcha By Golly, Wow’ - and the later ones that were produced by Hugo And Luigi, like ‘Sing Baby Sing’, ‘Na Na Is The Saddest Word’... You know, the list goes on.”
So what’s the significance of titling your new LP ‘That Same Way’?
“Well, the name ‘That Same Way’ 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 it’s 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 ‘That Same Way’. Because we felt that title in itself was basically telling everyone that we are the same Stylistics; that we’re doing things the way we’ve always done them in the past, but this time with a fresher approach.”
How did you hook up with Preston Glass as producer?
“We’d 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 he’d 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 ‘Ebony Eyes’. You know, we’d been thinking for a long time about doing over one of the songs from our earlier albums. And, because we’d been performing ‘Ebony Eyes’ in our show off and on as an acapella, we basically said to Preston ‘You know what? Let’s redo it, but not with that whole lush arrangement that we had back in ’72. Let’s just find a different direction’... 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.”
So how do you feel your latest LP differs from your classic Seventies recordings?
“It’s 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 we’ve tried to keep up with what’s 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, we’ve made sure we’ve not lost our identity and the sound we’re known for, while at the same time changing with the times.”
What difference have the two new members made to the group?
“There’s no question that, with Harold ‘Eban’ Brown being able to keep the same vocal sound that Russell Thompkins had, it’s 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, we’ve 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 we’re doing in our show today that we weren’t 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 didn’t have that privilege in the past. Because, with Russell singing everything, of course we didn’t 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.”
So what was ‘Eban’ Brown’s background, prior to him replacing Russell Thompkins Jr. as The Stylistics’ lead singer?
“The first time I saw ‘Eban’, 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 ‘Eban’, I was like ‘You know, listening to this guy, he sounds more like Russell Thompkins than he does William Hart!’. 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 ‘Eban’ up to see what he was doing. At the time, he wasn’t doing anything. So I just said ‘Hey man, let’s get together and let’s rehearse. Because we need your services as lead singer for the group!’. 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!”
What were the circumstances behind Russell Thompkins Jr.’s departure from the group in April 2000?
“Well, at that time Russell decided that he didn‘t 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 we’d 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 ‘Eban’ 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 ‘Eban’ leading and Van Fields as our new second tenor!”
Russell has since re-emerged with his own group Russell Thompkins Jr. & The New Stylistics. So what’s the story there?
“Like I said, when Russell brought it to our attention that he wasn’t gonna sing anymore, Airrion and I were like ‘Well look here, we’re still gonna go ON! There’s no need for US to stop! Because we still love what we do, and we still CARE about what we’re doing!’. But then, after about two years, Russell came back out doing a solo project. And, while I’m 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 ‘Stylistics’! But, because there was a conflict with him using the name, he then changed it to ‘Russell Thompkins Jr. & The NEW Stylistics’ 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, ‘Eban’ Brown and Van Fields - and on some occasions they end up seeing Russell and HIS group!”
So is there currently animosity between the two groups?
“Not from OUR standpoint! Because we know where we stand - especially Airrion and myself. We know how long we’ve been in this business; we know how long we’ve done what we’ve DONE; and we’ve always kept on doing what we’ve 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! I’m 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!”
You were recently invited to perform at chart-topping rapper Nas’ birthday party in Las Vegas…
“Yes, it was Nas’ birthday and his lady - Kelis - knowing that we were his favourite group, called the office and enquired as to whether we’d 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 ‘Oh yeah, we’d LOVE to!`! You know, in numerous radio and press interviews he’s done in the past, he’s 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.”
So how do you recall The Stylistics’ early days?
“The 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 - ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ - 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.”
What was your working relationship like with Thom Bell?
“We already knew of him from the previous hits he’d 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 weren’t 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!”
So why, in 1974, did you stop working with Thom Bell and start being produced by your then-record-label bosses Hugo And Luigi?
“Hugo 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 Stylistics’ producers. So, though there were stories going around at the time that we’d got big-headed and felt we didn’t 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.”
How do you feel the change of producers affected The Stylistics’ popularity?
“While 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 ‘Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)’, ‘Star On A TV Show’ and ‘Sing Baby Sing’, 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.”
How do you feel about the various producers you worked with after you parted company with Hugo And Luigi in 1978?
“We 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 Thompkins’ 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.”
So what of The Stylistics’ current and future plans?
“Well, while we’ve 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 we’re 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. It’s already out in the UK and Japan; while hopefully in the new year we’ll have a release date in The States. Which is the situation we’re working on right now. We’re currently talking to various US labels to see who understands the group’s 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 we’ll go with.”
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
Words PETE LEWIS