Often an album fails to do as well as it should’ve commercially, because of a lack of promotion and advertising. This is almost becoming a recurring theme for readers of this blog. When Stax was heading towards insolvency, albums like Shirley Brown’s Woman To Woman suffered this fate, while DJ Rogers believed his three albums for RCA suffered from from a lack of advertising and promotion. Another group to suffer from this problem were The Chi-Lites, when they released their seventh studio album Toby.
By 1974 when, The Chi-Lites had recorded Toby, their record company Brunswick Records had started to experience financial problems, that would eventually see the company collapse. Having recorded Toby, with lead singer Eugene Record producing the album, it was ready for release in June 1974. The album featured ten songs, with Eugene writing the songs himself, and co-writing three other songs. Toby featured some great music, but the only thing that could derail the album’s success was Brunswick’s financial problems, and the lack of advertising and promotion. Would these problems break the group’s run of US R&B top ten albums?
On Toby’s release, it only reached number 181 in the US Billboard 200 and number twelve in the US R&B Charts. This was a disappointing result, with Toby becoming the first of The Chi-Lites albums since 1970s I Like Your Lovin’ (Do You Like Mine?), which had failed to chart. After this, the next four Chi-Lites albums had all reached US R&B top ten.
This started in July 1971 with (For God Sake) Give More Power To the People, which reached number three in the US R&B Charts and number twelve in the US Billboard 200. April 1972 saw the release of A Lonely Man, which reached number five in the US R&B Charts and number one in the US Billboard 200. Even their Greatest Hits album, released in October 1972, reached number four in the US R&B Charts and number fifty-five in the US Billboard 200. Their next studio album was A Letter To Myself in March 1973, which reached number four in the US R&B Charts and number fifty in the US Billboard 200. The album that preceded Toby was Chi-Lites, released August 1973. It kept up The Chi-Lites run of top ten US R&B albums, reaching number three in the US R&B Charts and number eighty-nine in the US Billboard 200. However, what was a remarkable run of chart success was ended with Toby, leaving the group no doubt disappointed and frustrated at what might have been.
Of the trio of singles released, only two of the trio reached the top ten in the US R&B charts. The first single was There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Is Seated At the Conference Table) which reached number eight in the US R&B Charts and number sixty-three in the US Billboard 100. This was followed by You Got To Be the One which only reached number fifteen in the US R&B Charts and number eighty three in the US Billboard 100. Making up for this was Toby, the third single which reached number seven in the US R&B Charts and number seventy-eight in the US Billboard 100. Although the album had been relatively successful and yielded two top ten US R&B singles, and features some fine music, which I’ll now tell you about.
Toby opens with the title track Toby, co-written by Eugene Record and Barbara Ackilin. With lush, swirling strings, a meandering bass line and rasping horns opening the track, the scene is set for Eugene’s gentle, tenor lead vocal. As Eugene tenderly and thoughtfully tells the story of a young child Toby, you wonder where the story is going. However, nothing prepares you for the ending, when with sadness and emotion, he sings about the child dying. His vocal is enveloped by harmonies from the rest of the group, swathes of slow and sad strings and subtly rasping horns. A combination of Eugene’s beautiful, tender and sympathetic delivery of the lyrics and an equally beautiful arrangement result in one of the album’s highlights.
There’s a change of style on You Got To Be the One, a much more uplifting and slightly funky track. With the other Chi-Lites singing short, sharp, backing vocals, accompanied by percussion, rhythm section, guitar and sweeping strings. They give way to Eugene’s joyful vocal, with braying horns joining him, as the track swings along. It’s a very different sounding track to it’s predecessor, catchy, full of hooks and quicker. The track sweeps and swings along, with strings, horns and a harp playing important parts in the arrangement. Similarly, the interplay between Eugene and the rest of the group, working perfectly, especially against a joyous and melodic sounding arrangement. By the end of the track, this track is guaranteed to leave a good memory and a smile on your face.
The tempo drops again on the sad sounding The Sound of Lonely, written by Eugene and Marshall Arrington. Again, there’s some clever interplay between Eugene and the other Chi-Lites, with the lead vocal changing hands several times. This contrast in styles adds to impact of the song, as well as adding to the drama of the arrangement. Lush, sad strings, blazing horns and a slow and thoughtful rhythm section provide a perfect backdrop for this sad, emotive and quite beautiful song, which has some thoughtful lyrics about loneliness.
Never before will you have heard The First Time (I Ever Saw Your Face) sung like this. Here The Chi-Lites give an old song a new twist, and the result is irresistible. When the track opens, there’s a dramatic combination of punchy rhythm section, chiming guitars and shimmering, quivering strings, that give way to tight harmonies, and Eugene’s spoken word introduction. Rasping horns signal the start of a heartfelt vocal from Eugene, accompanied by piano and harmonies. This combination is stunning, made all the better by the addition of piano, lush strings occasional horns and brief bursts of drama from the drums. Combine all this together, and the result is an irresistible and stunningly, soulful version of Ewan McColl’s song.
Side one of Toby closes with one of the trio of singles released from There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Is Seated At the Conference Table). Again, it features some clever interplay between Eugene and the rest of the group, their voices a perfect fit for each other. With a slow, but dramatic combination of sweeping strings, rasping horns, chiming guitars and rhythm section accompanying them, The Chi-Lites surpass themselves. With a heartfelt and sincere pleading lead vocal accompanied by sweet, yet dramatic soaring vocals combining with Eugene’s drama drenched arrangement, it’s no wonder the song reached number eight in the US R&B Charts. Adding just the finishing touch is a saxophone drifting above the arrangement, adding to the beauty, emotion and sincerity of the track.
Side two of Toby opens with That’s How Long that’s laden with drama and features a hugely emotive and powerful vocal from Eugene. It’s accompanied by a full arrangement, and some equally emotive, soaring harmonies from the other Chi-Lites. With a powerful and combination of rhythm section, guitars and blazing horns opening the track, before swirling, shivering strings enter. As if on cue, Eugene’s emotive and heartfelt vocal enters, as he swears to love his partner “until the end of time.” The lead vocal changes hands, before returning to Eugene. Behind him, the a sympathetic, yet powerful and dramatic arrangement has unfolded, with flourishes of strings adding to the combination of strings, horns and rhythm section. Together, they provide the perfect backdrop for The Chi-Lites heartfelt and dramatic deliver of the lyrics.
Eugene Record wrote three of the songs on Toby himself, including Happiness Is Your Middle Name. Again, a dramatic and powerful combination that includes lush, swirling strings, chiming guitars and rhythm section open the track. After this, the arrangement levels out, as Eugene’s tender, gentle vocal enters. With blazing horns and swirling strings combining, the rest of the group provide bassy sounding backing vocals, a total contrast to Eugene’s vocal. The drama grows, when backing female vocalists join The Chi-Lites, as swathes of vocals, join the pounding drums, swirling strings and braying horns. Somehow, this neither overpowers, nor overwhelms the tenderness of Eugene’s vocal as he delivers the lyrics about love, towards the woman he loves.
I Lied is the second Eugene Record penned track in a row. After an impressive, drama laden introduction where Eugene’s vocal is enveloped by harmonies, strings and rhythm section, a pensive and desperate vocal from Eugene follows. Bereft at his partner leaving him, over the lies he told, he’s helpless and lonely, which you can hear in his delivery. The sympathetic, yet dramatic arrangement is perfect for this slow ballad, adding to the sense of emotion, loss and despair in the vocal. As Eugene delivers the lead, the rest of the group add harmonies, which is just the finishing touch to a song full of sadness, despair and regret.
On I Like To Live That Love (I Sing About), Marshall Thompson takes over the lead vocal duties. He even adds a similar spoken word introduction to Eugene’s on The First Time (I Ever Saw Your Face), against a backdrop of keyboards, rhythm section, sweeping strings and blazing horns. Marshall even name-checks BB King during his his introduction, who had previously recorded the song. Once his vocal enters, you realize how talented a vocalist Marshall was, his vocal slightly throaty, but full of emotion and feeling. Behind him, the other Chi-Lites contribute lush harmonies, which combine well with the strings which are at the heart of the arrangement. Horns blaze, while punchy drums occasionally punctuate the track as it swings along, catchy and full of hooks.
Toby closes with Gettin’ Outtta Town, another mid-tempo track, with Eugene singing the lead vocal. With rasping horns, sweeping strings and punchy rhythm section combining, they provide the perfect backdrop for Eugene’s vocal. The rest of the group sing occasional lush harmonies, not playing as big a part in this track as on other tracks. However, when required, their contribution adds to the track, just like the strings, horns and drums which are key to the track’s success. Like the previous track, it’s, really catchy and isn’t short of hooks. Part of the track’s beauty is the way it sweeps along with the strings and vocal at the heart of its uplifting sound, lifting your spirits, and ending the album on high.
Although Toby suffered from a lack of advertising and promotion, because of Bruswick’s financial woes, it was a really good album from The Chi-Lites that deserved to do much better than number 181 in the US Billboard 200 and number twelve in the US R&B Charts. One wonders how the album would have fared on another label, maybe Philadelphia International, who were entering their most productive and commercially successful time. Toby deserved to do much better commercially, as it’s an album full of some majestic music, from one of the most talented soul groups of the seventies. Of the ten tracks, there isn’t a poor track. The album flows along, with one great song following its predecessor. Whether it’s the saddest of ballads or faster, uptempo joyous tracks, The Chi-Lites delivered each with aplomb. Sadly, after Toby, The Chi-Lites never found the same commercial success of the early seventies. Amongst changes in personnel, they continued to make music, but eventually split-up around 1976. They reformed in 1980, but sadly, their music was never as successful. Toby was the last of the great Chi-Lites albums, and is a fitting testament to one of the best and most successful, soul groups of the seventies. Between 1971s (For God Sake) Give More Power To the People and Toby in 1976, The Chi-Lites were at the top of the game, with one stunning album following the other. With Eugene Record at the helm, singing lead vocal, writing and producing the albums, they produced some hugely memorable albums including (For God Sake) Give More Power To the People and A Lonely Man. Like these classic albums, Toby is full of some great music, from one of the greatest soul groups of the seventies, The Chi-Lites. Standout Tracks: Toby, The First Time (I Ever Saw Your Face), There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Is Seated At the Conference Table) and I Lied.