A sweet soul landmark that’s not exactly what you think it is.
Daryl Easlea 2010-11-30
The Stylistics were formed in 1968 from a union of two Philadelphia groups, The Monarchs and The Percussions. After being well received regionally, they signed to Avco and were put under the artistic control of producer Thom Bell, who had recently enjoyed great success with The Delfonics. With his writing partner Linda Creed, Bell fashioned a remarkable set of high-soul dramas for the group, all built around lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr’s unmistakable falsetto vocals.
Their debut album set a benchmark for sugary soul in the 70s, yet it is not a straightforward cavort around the bedroom. Portraying the group in long grass on the cover in their casual threads, this is a million miles removed from their incarnation as frilly-shirted, dinner-suited soulsters who became so popular in the UK a handful of years later.
The album was an opportunity for Bell to experiment. Recording at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia with the crack session players soon to be known as MFSB, the nine ballads demonstrated how accomplished a producer and arranger Bell was becoming.
The only non-Bell song was the group’s debut single, the vaguely cringe-worthy You’re a Big Girl Now, which has its roots in street corner doo-wop. Bell set about removing the clichés from their performances and created the beautiful, meandering soul of Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart), You Are Everything and Betcha by Golly Wow!.
But the album dealt with some of the big themes of the day as well – Country Living espoused a return to basics as capitalism ran out of control. The album’s epic, People Make the World Go Round, was a six-and-a-half minute showcase for the vocal skills of Thompkins, the writing of Bell and Creed and the musicianship of MFSB. Over its wind chimes, strings and vibraphones, Thomkins delivers one of the deftest protest songs of all time.
Lead single Betcha by Golly Wow! was The Stylistics’ first chart success in the UK, reaching number 13 in July 1972. Albums wise, the group didn’t make a ripple until 1974. Considering how well-known most of these tracks are, you would have thought this would have instantly been big news. Unlike their later material, this has stood the test of time very well indeed.