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History of the Stylistics

History of the Stylistics

When we think of music in the 70s, most of us think about disco. But in the early 70s, R&B and soul were king. And among the hitmakers of the era are The Stylistics. At their peak, this 70s Philadelphia soul group was the most consistent hitmakers in soul music. They had the best producer in the business, the smoothest falsetto in a lead vocalist, and some of the most infectious material of the early 70s.

One of the defining Philly soul acts

The Stylistics is one of the most popular groups to come out of Philadelphia soul scene, along with The Delfonics, The Spinners and the O’Jays. All of those groups have been helmed by famed producer Thom Bell, who is considered one of the pioneers of Philly soul.

Two Philadelphia groups, The Percussions, and The Stylistics, joined forces to create a new act called The Stylistics. James Dunn and Herb Murrell came from The Percussions, while James Smith, Russell Thompkins Jr., and Airrion Love came from The Monarchs.

The group released their first single in 1970, “You’re a Big Girl Now” which was co-written by their manager Marty Bryant. It became a regional smash, and when the Stylistics signed to a bigger label Avco Records, the single was released nationally in early 1971. It went to #7 on the R&B singles charts, while it topped off at #73 on the pop charts.

The Stylistics under producer Thom Bell

Around that time The Stylistics encountered producer Thom Bell, who had just worked with The Delfonics. Avco gave Bell the creative control over the band’s vocal and musical style, especially focusing and making the most of Thompkins Jr.’s soaring falsetto, as Bell had believed in the singer’s vocal potential. As a result, most of The Stylistics’ hits were highlighted by Thompkins Jr.’s lofty falsetto, which would form the band’s trademark sound.

Bell began to team up with late lyricist Linda Creed to create some of the Stylistics’ famous ballads. The first Bell/Creed single for the group, “Stop, Look and Listen (To Your Heart)” reached #6 on the R&B charts and #39 on the Hot 100 in 1971.

More Bell/Creed-penned Stylistics hits followed: “You Are Everything” (#9 pop, #10 R&B), “Betcha By Golly Wow” (#3 pop, #2 R&B), “People Make the World Go Round” (#25 pop, #6 R&B), “I’m Stone in Love With You” (#10 pop, #4 R&B; co-written with Anthony Bell), “Break Up to Make Up” (#5 pop, #5 R&B; co-written with Kenny Gamble), “Rockin’ Roll Baby” (#14 pop, #3 R&B), and “You Make Me Feel Brand New” (#2 pop, #2 R&B).

The group during the McCoy/Hugo & Luigi era

In 1974, the Stylistics broke away from Bell and began collaborating with Van McCoy, who intended to apply a smoother, lighter and poppier approach to the group’s material. The group also started to work with a new stable of songwriters in the persons of Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore aka Hugo & Luigi. This new partnership was to become relatively less successful compared to the group’s working relationship with Bell and Creed, although their later records were increasingly becoming popular in the UK.

Some singles during the McCoy/Hugo & Luigi era included “Let’s Put It All Together,” “Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love),” “Na-Na Is The Saddest Word,” and “Funky Weekend,” all hit the UK top ten. “Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)” was The Stylistics’ only #1 hit on any charts, topping the UK singles rankings in 1975.

In 1976, The Stylistics ended their Avco contract, and signed to a new label H&L. By then their US sales had begun to drop, although they remained popular in Europe, especially in the UK.

Two Philadelphia groups, The Percussions, and The Stylistics, joined forces to create a new act called The Stylistics. James Dunn and Herb Murrell came from The Percussions, while James Smith, Russell Thompkins Jr., and Airrion Love came from The Monarchs.

The band started to struggle with weak material, and though the albums and singles came out like before, they did not reach the charts anymore. They even moved to Mercury in 1978 and released two albums produced by Teddy Randazzo, but it also failed to produce major success. Russel Thompkins Jr. noted in the re-issue of their 1976 album, Fabulous that the group started to feel that their music was becoming dated and not keeping with the famous disco sound of the late 70s.

In 1979, the band had a small part in the movie Hair, where they played conservative army officers. They also doubled Nell Carter in singing a song entitled “White Boys.”

The Stylistics in later years

The group reunited with Thom Bell and signed with Philadelphia International Records Subsidiary, TSOP Records, in 1980. There, they released the single “Hurry Up This Way Again,” bringing them to the R&B Top 20 (peaking at #18) again. Both James Dunn and James Smith departed from the band due to conflicts over the direction of the group. Dunn left before recording their 1980 album, Hurry Up This Way Again, and Smith followed after recording their 1981 album, “Closer than Close.”

Nevertheless, the group continued recruiting Raymond Johnson, but Johnson also left in 1985. Murrell, Thompkins, and Love continued the tour until 2000 when Thompkins Jr. left the group. He was replaced by Eban Brown as lead singer and later as a composer and jazz guitarist. Brown was formerly from R&B groups such as The Manhattans, Delfonics, Ray, Goodman, and Brown.

That same year, Van Fields, a tenor singer from the acapella group “A Perfect Blend, joined them, enabling the Stylistics to become a quartet again. The group was featured live on the DVD The Stylistics Live at the Convocation Center (2006) and with other artists of the 70s in the DVD 70s Soul Jam. In 2010, they released an album entitled, That Same Way by LAC Management.

After 11 years with the group, Van Fields departed from the group in 2011 due to creative differences and was replaced by Jason Sharp. In 2018, Brown also left the band to concentrate on his solo career. He was initially replaced by Michael Muse, a veteran vocalist from groups like First Touch, Little Benny & the Masters, and Rare Essence. But after a few months, he was replaced by Barrington “Bo” Henderson, former vocalist from The Temptations, The Dramatics, and Lakeside. Henderson was the group’s new lead singer.

The Stylistics celebrated its 50th anniversary in the music industry in 2018. Their milestone was acknowledged at venues throughout the year, and they toured in the States and overseas. They also received induction into The Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame in 1994 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004.

Their current lineup consists of Herb Murrell, Airrion Love, Jason Sharp, and Barrington “Bo” Henderson. As of 2020, the original members, Love and Murrell, were still performing and continuing the Stylistics’ legacy with their unit.

Interesting Facts about The Stylistics

Michael Muse, the lead vocalist who joined the band in 2018, has been a fan of The Stylistics ever since he was five years old. He said the group’s original lead singer, Russel Thompkins Jr., was the greatest falsetto ever to grace the stage.

Other artists have frequently covered the Stylistics’ catalog of hits in recent years. Notable examples include “You are Everything,” remade by Vanessa Williams, “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” covered by Prince, and “You Made Me Feel Brand New,” redone by Boys II Men, Roberta Flack, and Simply Red.

Mary J. Blige also used the chief line from the chorus of “You are Everything” in her 1997 hit “Everything.” Letoya Luckett used the same sample to the background track of “You Are Everything” for the music to her hit single “Torn.”

Producer and label executive Thomas Bell impacted the Stylistics and the sound of Philly soul. Many in the music industry believe that there would be no classic Philadelphia soul in the 70s if it weren’t for Bell. Russel Thompkins Jr. also said that Bell was a major influence on him, and the things that he learned from doing sessions with Bell lasted him his whole career.

Thompkins’ distinctive falsetto was the backbone of the original Stylistics, and it earned them eight platinum albums, 7 gold albums, 5 gold singles, 4 platinum singles, 2 double gold singles, and a double platinum album.

An R&B band, Tower of Power, referenced The Stylistics in their song “Sexy Soul” from their 1995 album, “Souled Out.”

The Luke Cage TV series used the Stylistics’ song “People Make the World Go Around” in the first season episode, “Suckas Need Bodyguards.”

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