THE STYLISTICS-CLOSER THAN CLOSE.

THE STYLISTICS-CLOSER THAN CLOSE.

What never ceases to amaze me is how sometimes, a group can go from being one of the biggest and most successful groups in soul music, to almost the forgotten men of soul music. It seems that fame is indeed temporary. Some people may say that form is also temporary, and that a group can easily go from having top ten US R&B albums that are certified silver and gold to albums that fail to even trouble the lower reaches of the charts. However, there are any amount of explanation for a loss of form, much of which is out-with the artists control. It can be something simple, like losing a key member, like Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes lost Teddy Pendergrass. Other possible causes are changing record labels or producers which can result in a group’s fortunes changing quickly. To back up my argument, various groups left Philadelphia International Records, and in doing so, lost access to some of the best musicians, songwriters, arrangers and producers, including the legendary Gamble and Huff. One group who experienced this was The Stylistics, who had a run of hugely successful albums on Avco Records, with Thom Bell producing their albums. This included three US gold discs, one UK gold discs and four silver discs in the UK. After The Stylistics changed labels so did their fortunes, until Gamble and Huff resurrected their career briefly.

This run of successful albums started with their eponymous titled album The Stylistics, produced by Thom Bell and released in November 1971. It reached number twenty-three in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts, resulting in the album being certified gold.

Their next album Round 2, release in October 1972, was also produced by Thom Bell. It reached number thirty-two in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts, resulting in gold disc number two. 

By their third album Rockin’ Roll Baby released in November 1973, The Stylistics were becoming hugely popular in the UK, as well as the US. Although it only reached number sixty-six in the US Billboard 200, but number five in the US R&B Charts, the album proved popular in the UK. This lead to their first silver disc in the UK, where the album reached number forty-two. This would be the last Stylistics album produced by Thom Bell alone, as Hugo and Luigi, who produced albums for Sam Cooke would co-produce their next album with Thom.

With Hugo and Luigi co-producing Let’s Put It All Together with Thom Bell, The Stylistics fourth album was released in May 1974. This album saw an upturn in their fortunes, reaching number fourteen in in US Billboard 200 and number four in the US R&B Charts, giving The Stylistics a trio of gold discs. With their popularity growing in the UK, the album reached number twenty-six, giving them their second silver disc in the UK. Heavy was The Stylistics second album of 1974, reaching number forty-three in the US Billboard 200 and number eight in the US R&B Charts. Meanwhile it proved popular in the UK reaching number twenty-six and resulting in their third silver disc.

1975 saw The Stylistics release two albums, the second of which was their final album for Avco. Thank You Baby reached number seventy-two in the US Billboard 200 and number nine in the US R&B Charts. However, it proved to be their most popular UK album, reaching number five in the UK, giving The Stylistics their only UK gold disc. The final album released by The Stylistics on Avco was You Are Beautiful, which reached number ninety-nine in the US Billboard 200 and number twelve in the US R&B Charts. Again, the album proved popular in the UK, reaching number twenty-six, giving the group their fourth silver disc in the UK.

Having left Avco, The Stylistics headed for the H&L label. Quickly, The Stylistics run of successful albums dried up. Dyring 1976 and 1977, the group released a quartet of albums, with only 1976s Fabulous and Once Upon A Jukebox charting. Even then, Fabulous only reached number 117 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-two in the US R&B Charts, while Once Upon A Jukebox only reached number 209 in the US R&B Charts and number forty-five in the US R&B Charts. The two albums released in 1977 Sun and Soul and Wonder Woman both failed to chart. After this disappointment, The Stylistics headed for Mercury Records.

Even then, they didn’t trouble the upper reaches of the charts. Then in 1978, The Stylistics changed labels again, heading for Mercury where they released just two albums. These were In Fashion, released in 1978, which reached number forty-three in the US R&B Charts and 1979s Love Spell which failed to chart. After this, The Stylistics headed to Philadelphia International Records where Gamble and Huff would briefly resurrect their career.

Now signed to Philadelphia International Records, Gamble and Huff set about resurrecting The Stylistics career. The first Stylistics album released on Philadelphia International was Hurry Up This Way Again, released in 1980. It reached number 127 in the US Billboard 200 and number eleven in the US R&B Charts. This was the group’s most successful album since 1976s’ Fabulous. Could their next album Closer Than Close build on this success?

Closer Than Close was released in 1981, and was The Stylistics fourteenth album in ten years. Eights songs were recored at the legendary Sigma Sound Studios, with the usual stellar cast of musicians, arrangers and producers trying to continue the revival of The Stylistics career. Of the eight songs on Closer Than Close four were produced by Thom Bell, who also cowrote them with Linda Creed his songwriting partner. This saw The Stylistics reunited with their old producer, who was with the group during their most successful period. Dexter Wansel arranged and produced three tracks, and co-wrote three songs with his songwriting partner Cynthia Biggs. He also co-produced a track with Darnell Jordan and Joel Bryant. Gamble and Huff didn’t write or produce any of the tracks, instead, leaving this their most successful songwriters, arrangers and producers. With the eight tracks that would become Closer Than Close recorded, then the album was ready for release later in 1981.

On Closer Than Close’s release, the album failed to match the success of its predecessor Hurry Up This Way Again, reaching just number 210 in the US R&B Charts and number forty-four in the US R&B Charts. This was a disappointment for both The Stylistics and everyone at Philadelphia International, who’d tried so hard to make this the next step on The Stylistics rehabilitation into the soul superstars that they previously were. However, the album’s lowly chart position is no reflection on the quality of music on offer on Closer Than Close. Of the eight tracks, although the four Thom Bell and Linda Creed tracks standout, that’s doing the other tracks a disservice. They too, are good quality songs, well written, arranged and produced. Maybe, however, the problem was that soul groups like The Stylistics were out of fashion. Times and tastes had changed musically in the past ten years, and although the music was still good quality. Although Closer Than Close wasn’t a hugely successful album, it still features some great music that I’ll now tell you about.

Closer Than Close opens with the first of a trio of Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs penned tracks What’s Your Name?, which Dexter arranged and produced. Straight away, I can tell this is a Dexter Wansel arrangement and production because of the use of synths and drum sound. There’s a real disco sound to the track, with a funky rhythm section combining with synths and guitars, augmented by handclaps. As the arrangement speeds along at 119 beats per minute, Russell Thompkins Jr.’s sweet lead vocal enters. With the rest of the group singing harmonies, this disco style track unfolds, with sweeping strings and chiming guitars joining the funk laden bass and synths. Although it’s very different from vintage Stylistics, Russell’s vocal is still quality, and the Dexter’s funky disco arrangement is catchy.

It’s a very different sound on the Thom Bell and Linda Creed penned I’ve Got This Feeling. Reunited with their mentor, The Stylistics try to roll back the years on this beautiful track. With shivering string, a slow rhythm section and percussion combining to produce a lovely slow arrangement. This is the perfect backdrop for Russell’s beautiful, thoughtful vocal. It’s track that’s much better suited to The Stylistics’, allowing them to demonstrate just what made them one of the best soul groups of the seventies. As this string drenched song progresses, the arrangement and vocal gets so much better. Strings sweep in combining with the rhythm section and Russell’s soaring lead vocal, and  of course, those gorgeous harmonies.  Together, a combination of emotion and drama results in one of the album’s highlights from The Stylistics and producer Thom Bell.

Mine All Mine sees Dexter Wansel arrange and produce the track. What’s noticeable is the way the two producers and arrangements styles differs. Dexter seems to use a lot of synths, which is okay, but can sound a bit dated sometimes. He also seems to prefer a more “bouncy” drum sound.  Both find their way into his mid-tempo arrangement, along with chiming guitars and keyboards. This arrangement is better than his previous one, and is more suited to The Stylistics music and style, than the disco of I’ve Got This Feeling. The slower arrangement allows Russell’s vocal to shine, as it soars above the arrangement. Sometimes, the synths do sound somewhat dated, but this can be forgiven because of the quality of Russell’s powerful and emotional vocal. With the other Stylistics contributing subtle backing vocals, the track has the same catchy quality of I’ve Got This Feeling, but altogether sounds much better. Much of this is down to Russell’s vocal and the slower arrangement, which is more suited to their style of music.

Closing Side One of Closer Than Close is the second of a quartet of Thom Bell and Linda Creed tracks Habit. Here, the track has a real Philly Sound arrangement as the track opens. It’s a big introduction where sweeping, swirling strings, a punchy rhythm section and guitars are augmented by subtle harmonies, before Russell’s thoughtful lead vocal. With the rest of the group contributing swooning harmonies, and the arrangement sweeping along, with swathes of strings and punchy drums adding a touch of drama, Russell sings of the habit he needs to break. This habit is the relationship he’s in and can’t break. Like the other Thom Bell and Linda Creed song, I’ve Got This Feeling, this is another of the album’s highlights, with this track having a stunning, drama laden and emotive arrangement from Thom Bell. With his help, The Stylistics prove that they still were capable of producing some great music.

Side two of Closer Than Close opens with Searchin’ which features an excellent Jack Faith arrangement. The track has a really uptempo and uplifting sound, which demonstrated that The Stylistics were very definitely still a musical force. Jack Faith deploys plenty of sweeping, swirling strings, augments this with bursts of blazing horns and a rhythm section that drive the track along. This is the quickest track on the album, and features some great interplay between Russell and the other Stylistics. As Russell’s vocal soars joyously, it’s accompanied by some equally joyful harmonies. Although the track maybe wasn’t purposely arranged or produced for a dance-floor, this track with its quick tempo, strings laden sound and bursts of drama would fill any dance-floor. Not only that, but it has a real Philly Sound, proving that that the Philly Sound lived on into the eighties. Much of the credit for the track goes to Jack Faith, whose arrangement is flawless and stunning. 

The last Dexter Wansel produced track is It’s Only Love, a much slower track, that he cowrote with Cynthia Biggs. It opens with chiming guitars combining with keyboards and the rhythm section, who play slowly and carefully. When Russell’s vocal enters, it’s full of emotion and sadness, at the sudden break up of his relationship. As the arrangement meanders behind him his voice soars high, full of sadness and regret. An organ cuts in adding to the sense of sadness and regret. Of the trio of tracks arranged by Dexter Wansel this is by far the best. Here, he plays to The Stylistics strengths, the understated slow arrangement combining perfectly with Russell’s beautiful and heartfelt vocal. The result is a gorgeous track, demonstrating Dexter’s talent as an arranger and producer. 

Two Thom Bell and Linda Creed close the album, with the title track Closer Than Close, the first of them. Again, Thom uses a a fuller, dramatic arrangement, with quivering strings and a punchy, rhythm section adding drama, before Russell’s vocal enters. It’s almost as if the strings are shivering as his vocal grows in strength and emotion, while the other Stylistics add subtle harmonies. Meanwhile, the punchy, string laden arrangement grows, bursts of drama punctuating the lush mid-tempo arrangement. Like Thom Bell’s two previous arrangements, this arrangement has all the similar qualities. He combines emotion of the vocal with the drama of the arrangement, and when taken together, the result is a fantastic track, that rolls back the years for The Stylistics to their seventies heyday.

Closing Closer Than Close is Almost There, the last of the four Thom Bell and Linda Creed tracks. It’s a slower track than the previous one, with shimmering strings, combining with a piano, rhythm section and woodwind, before a lovely vocal from Russell. The lead vocal changes hands, with each of The Stylistics taking the over the lead vocal, against the string drenched arrangement. Augmenting the arrangement which grows in drama as the track progresses, is a piano which plays an important part in the arrangement. When the drama increases, sweet harmonies enter, before the lead vocal changes hands again. The Stylistics seem to raise their game on this track, as if trying to prove that they’re still a force to be reckoned with. With music of the quality of this track, they should’ve been, but sadly, the album wasn’t a commercial success. What’s ironic about this, is that people missed out on some great music, including a beautiful love song Almost There, which closes album number fourteen for The Stylistics.

In what seems a recurring theme for me, quality music doesn’t always equate to commercial success. Closer Than Close proves this. On the album were some fantastic tracks, including the quartet of Thom Bell and Linda Creed tracks. Add to this, the Jack Faith arranged Searchin,’ and the Dexter Wansel produced tracks Mine All Mine and It’s Only Love, and you’ve got six quality tracks. That’s not to say that the opening track the disco tinged What’s Your Name? is a poor track, just very different from what you’d expect from The Stylistics. However, overall Closer Than Close is an album full of some great music. Being reunited with Thom Bell seemed to bring out the best in The Stylistics, like he did during the early seventies. Dexter Wansel also played his part in the album, although his music has a very different sound to that of Thom Bell’s. An example of this is his preference for using synths on a couple of his tracks. Sometimes, this synth sound doesn’t age well. Proof of this is Mine All Mine, but thankfully, the quality of the vocal makes up for this dated synth sound. Jack Faith, one of Philadelphia International’s best arrangers plays his part on the excellent Searchin’, the quickest track on the album, and one that’s very definitely dance-floor friendly. This is an example of how the Philly Sound wasn’t just about songs for the heart, but songs for the dance-floor. Some of the tracks on the album are vintage Philly Sound, thanks to Thom Bell and Jack Faith, proving that the Philly Sound was still going strong into a new decade, the eighties. Why Closer Than Close wasn’t a commercial success seems strange, as there’s some excellent music on the album. If you’re a fan of either The Stylistics or the Philly Sound, then Closer Than Close is an album that’s really underrated and proves that The Stylistics were still a creative force, capable of producing some great music long after the commercial success of the early to mid-seventies heyday. Standout Tracks: I’ve Got This Feeling, Habit, Searchin’ and Closer Than Close.

THE STYLISTICS-CLOSER THAN CLOSE.

 

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