Formation and early career phase
Despite the group’s name carrying founder (and sometime lead singer) Harold Melvin’s name, it was lead vocalist Teddy Pendergrass who brought the R&B/soul vocal group Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes to its peak years in the early 1970s. They are considered one of the most influential Philadelphia soul groups.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Harold Melvin (born 1939 – died in 1997) formed a vocal group known as the Charlemagnes, in 1954. He was the lead singer, joined by other members Bernard Williams, Roosevelt Brodie, Jesse Gillis Jr. and Franklin Peaker. Melvin also acted as the group’s songwriter, arranger and even choreographer.
The group went on to record and release singles for various labels — Dot, Val Ue (where the group released their first charting single “My Hero” in 1960), Arctic, Checker and Uni — without much success.
Their lineup at that time was also constantly shifting. In the mid-1960s, Williams quit to form his own group which was to be called The Original Blue Notes. Melvin recruited John Atkins who brought the group back to the R&B charts with 1966’s “Get Out (And Let Me Cry)” which released on Landa label.
The Teddy Pendergrass era
The group toured frequently with another soul group The Cadillacs, whose drummer Teddy Pendergrass was hired by Melvin in 1970. Pendergrass, however, slowly emerged also with his distinct vocal talent that Melvin elevated him to the position of a lead vocalist following Atkins’ departure.
It seemed the inclusion of Pendergrass brought the band good fortune. Melvin Harold & The Blue Notes scored a deal with Philadelphia International label which was owned by songwriters/producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, also known as Gamble & Huff.
During the period, the group’s lineup consisted of Melvin, Pendergrass and new members Bernard Wilson, Lawrence Brown and Lloyd Parks. Now assured of a top-quality songwriting and production from Gamble & Huff and armed with Pendergrass’ unique vocal talent, Harold Melvin and Blue Notes (as they were called by now) were poised to score a major hit.
And score a major hit they did. The Blue Notes achieved their first major hit with 1972’s “I Miss You” which reached the Top 10 R&B for the first time. The follow-up “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” was even much more successful. It topped the R&B singles charts, and #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 that same year. The hit featured vocals by Pendergrass.
The Blue Notes hit the charts again in 1973 with “The Love I Lost,” (from the album Black & Blue) which became their second Top 10 pop smash at #7, and second #1 R&B. The track is a proto-disco, and is considered by many as one of the earliest forms of the genre. A few more charting singles followed, including 1975’s “Bad Luck” which peaked at #15 on the Hot 100 and topped the dance singles charts.
A song from the Blue Notes “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” was later covered by Thelma Houston in 1976. It gave her a #1 pop hit that year. Their socially-conscious song “Wake Up Everybody” in 1975 peaked at #12 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart.
Despite their success, their lineup still kept on changing. Melvin hired Jerry Cummings in place of Parks, as well as a female singer Sharon Paige.
Pendergrass was getting much of the spotlight, despite the band being named after Melvin. In 1976, Pendergrass quit after arguments over his earnings as well as Melvin’s refusal to allow the former get the top billing; he went on to establish a successful solo career.
After the peak years
The departure of Pendergrass signaled the end of The Blue Notes’ peak years. Their relationship with Philadelphia International ended, and the group went on to record on different labels. They continued to roam the charts but the hits were now only minor. The lineup continued to change, with members coming and going. Nevertheless, Melvin still soldiered on and continued to lead his group until a stroke in 1996 brought him down. He never recovered, and passed away the following year.
Atkins, who preceded Pendergress, died in 1998. Brown died in 2008, and Pendergrass succumbed to colon cancer two years later. In 2013 the surviving members reunited for the Soul Train Cruise event, which was presented by the African-American music cable TV channel Centric.