Often, when people mention the Philly Sound, they immediately think of Gamble and Huff. That’s doing a huge disservice to another of the architects of the Philly Sound, Thom Bell. He worked with some of the most successful groups of the Philly Sound. The Detroit Spinners, The Delfonics and The Stylistics were just some of Thom Bell’s early successes. It was with The Delfonics that Thom Bell made his name, producing them between 1967 and 1971. This proved to the most successful period of their career. Then when Thom stopped working with The Delfonics, he’d guide another legendary Philly Soul group to fame..The Stylistics. Thom Bell produced their debut album The Stylistics, which would feature five top ten US R&B singles. Before I tell you about the music on The Stylistics, I’ll tell you about the background to the album.

The Stylistics formed in 1968, when two Philly groups The Percussions and The Monarchs became one. Lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr, James Smith and Airron Love had been members of The Monarchs, while James Dunn and Herbie Murrell were members of The Percussions. Little did they realize that when they joined forces, they’d be one of the most successful soul groups of the early seventies. 

Marty Bryant, The Stylistics road-manager had penned You’re A Big Girl Now with Robert Douglas. He was a member of The Stylistics’ backing band, Slim and The Boys. The Stylistics recorded the song, which was released on Sebring Records. It became a regional hit and resulted in The Stylistics signing with Avco Records. They were fortunate that when they signed to Avco, that Thom Bell had become available and would produce their debut album The Stylistics.

Thom Bell realized when he first heard The Stylistics that in Russell Thompkins Jr, here was a singer with potential, Potentially, he could be a soul legend, replicating or even surpassing the success of The Delfonics. So Thom Bell and his songwriting partner Linda Creed started writing songs for The Stylistics’ debut album The Stylistics. They wrote eight of the nine tracks. The other tracks was the Marty Bryant and Robert Douglas penned You’re A Big Girl Now. With the material for The Stylistics written, The Stylistics and a group Philly’s top session musicians and backing singers headed to Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios.

At Sigma Sound Studios, Thom Bell would produce The Stylistics. Joining them were the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section and guitarist Roland Chambers. They were joined by vibes virtuoso and percussionist Vince Montana Jr and organist and pianist Lenny Pakula. There was also a full string, horn section and woodwind section, including Jack Faith on flute. Barbara Ingram, who’d later become one of the legendary Sweethearts of Sigma backing vocalists was joined by Linda Creed on backing vocals. Once The Stylistics was recorded, it was ready for release in 1971.

You’re A Big Girl Now was the lead single, released in 1971. It reached number seventy-three and number seven in the US R&B Charts. Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart) then reached number thirty-nine and number six in the US R&B Charts. You Are Everything was the last single released in 1971, reaching number nine and number ten in the US R&B Charts. Then when The Stylistics was released, it reache number twenty-three and number three in the US R&B Charts, resulting in a gold album for The Stylistics. Betcha By Golly, Wow became the most successful single, when it reached number three and number two in the US R&B Charts in 1972. People Make the World Go Round then reached number twenty-five and number six in the US R&B Charts. Even the most optimistic member of The Stylistics couldn’t have imagined that The Stylistics would result in a gold disc and five top ten US R&B Charts. However, that’s what happened. Given how successful The Stylistics was, it must be a Philly classic. Is that the case? That’s what I’ll now tell you, when I tell you about the music on The Stylistics.

Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart) opens The Stylistics. The arrangement has an understated sound, with just a plucked harp, subtle rhythm section, wistful horns and lush strings combining. When Russell’s heartfelt falsetto enters, Vince Montana Jr’s vibes play gently. They merge beautifully with the lushest of strings and tenderest of harmonies. Thom Bell’s arrangement is masterful, subtle and beautiful. Similarly, Russell soul-baring vocal is beautiful and impassioned. Later, a melancholy horn, with Thom’s signature sound proves to be just the finishing touch. When all this is combine, the result is one of the most beautiful, timeless songs The Stylistics recorded.

Point of No Return opens with the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section providing the track’s pounding beat. Earl Young’s drums help drive the track along, with Ron Baker’s bass matching him beat for beat. Norman Harris lays down a searing guitar solo while strings dance and Lenny Pakula adds a pounding piano. Russell’s falsetto soars, taking on a punchy style, with the other Stylistics, Barbara Ingram and Linda Creed adding tight harmonies. The harmonies drift in and out, while Earl’s drums give the track its heartbeat and Russell delivers what can only be described as vocal tour de force that’s the icing on this delicious musical cake. Cut a slice, and it says Philly made.

Betcha By Golly, Wow was the most successful of the five singles released from The Stylistics. It’s another Thom Bell and Linda Creed composition, with Thom’s arrangement a mixture of subtlety and drama. Wistful horns, quivering strings and Earl Young’s confident drums combine, before Russell’s tender vocal enters. Percussion, piano, flourishes of harp and rasping horns accompany his vocal. Harmonies sweep in, with the other Stylistics and backing vocalists combining. Later, the unmistakable sound of Norman Harris’ guitar enters. Norman’s guitar takes centre-stage, before Russell’s heartfelt vocal returns. He delivers one of his best vocals on The Stylistics, with a little help from some of Philly’s greatest musicians and backing vocalists.

Country Living is a a much more uptempo track. From the get-go, the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section provide the track’s heartbeat. Punchy, rasping horns and swirling strings give way to Russell’s punchy, dramatic heartfelt vocal. He’s looking forward to going back to the simplicity of Country Living. It’s almost as of this brings back memories. Russell’s paints pictures, while the rest of The Stylistics add harmonies. The arrangement grows. Horns, strings and a pounding rhythm section combine, as the arrangement becomes choppy and dramatic. It’s really effective. So are the harmonies accompanying Russell’s lead vocal. Here, the rest of The Stylistics show that there was more to the group than Russell Thompkins Jr. Without their contribution, the song would be same. Similarly, without Thom Bell’s production skills, this wouldn’t be the same. He had the uncanny knack of dropping instruments in just where it makes sense.

Like the other singles on The Stylistics, You’re A Big Girl Now has a timeless sound.  Chiming guitars, drums and heartfelt harmonies sweep in as Russell’s soaring falsetto enters. His tender vocal unites with the harmonies, before taking centre-stage. When they unite, their voices become one. The Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section provide the track’s heartbeat, while The Stylistics showcase their vocal prowess. Russell’s vocal soars above a half-spoken vocal, while Lenny Pakula’s Hammond organ provides an atmospheric and beautiful backdrop.

Although many groups have recorded You Are Everything, The Stylistics version is the definitive version. Guitars swathed in filter are joined by the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, piano, Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and shimmering strings. Russell’s vocal is tinged with sadness and emotion. He’s joined by the other Stylistics plus Barbara Ingram and Linda Creed’s backing vocals. Wistful horns with Thom Bell’s trademark sound join layers of cascading strings, as the arrangement grows in drama, emotion and sadness. So too does Russell’s vocal, with the song becoming an emotional roller-coaster, where drama, heartache and emotion unite. That’s why this is The Stylistics version is the definitive version and will never, even be better. One listen proves this.

Just a sprinkling of vibes and percussion from Vince Montana Jr, opens People Make the World Go Round. Cinematic strings, Hammond organ, Earl Young’s hissing hi-hats and percussion give the track a broody, moody backdrop. When Russell’s vocal enters, his reading of Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s socially conscious lyrics is full of emotion, sadness, and even resignation. He delivers his vocal against a backdrop that’s moody and cinematic. He paints pictures in your mind of a video that was never shot. Wistful, melancholy horns, flourishes of harp, percussion and vibes aplenty and bursts of dramatic drums combine. They provide a fitting backdrop for Russell’s vocal, as describes troubled times, as this six minute Magnus Opus unfolds. Forty-one years later, this musical masterpiece of a Philly Classic is just as relevant, and as a result, is a truly timeless track, one of the highlights of The Stylistics.

Ebony Eyes opens with Norman Harris’ jazz-tinged, chiming, Vince Montana Jr’s percussion and Earl Young’s pounding drums uniting. Russell’s tender falsetto joins, soaring and growing in power. The other Stylistics add harmonies that compliment his vocal. Their vocal interplay is peerless. They seem to feed off each other, pushing each other to greater heights of soulfulness. Later, Lenny Pakula lays down a melancholy sounding Hammond organ, that’s the finishing touch to a track that’s a perfect showcase for The Stylistics plentiful vocal talents.

Closing The Stylistics is If I Love You. Earl Young’s pounding drums join growling horns, sweeping, swirling strings and Russell’s impassioned vocal. Sweeping, elegant harmonies answer and accompany Russell’s vocal. Vince Montana Jr, adds vibes, horns rasp, strings cascade and harmonies sweep as the arrangement waltzs along like a carousel ride, bringing their debut album The Stylistics to a joyous, dramatic conclusion.

From the moment Thom Bell clapped eyes on The Stylistics, he said he saw potential in Russell Thompkins Jr. He was proved correct, but probably in his wildest dreams, never thought that their debut album The Stylistics would prove as successful. Not only was The Stylistics certified gold in America, but featured five top ten singles in the US R&B Charts. That’s not forgetting Betcha By Golly, Wow was the most successful single, reaching number two in the US Billboard 100 and number three in the US R&B Charts. It seemed Thom Bell was a man with the Midas touch. He’d enjoyed success with The Delfonics, and now that he’d finished working with them, hooked up with The Stylistics. This was the start of the most successful period of both Thom Bell, and The Stylistics’ career. 

Thom Bell’s success with The Stylistics lasted for three albums. After their debut album The Stylistics, Round 2 followed in 1972 and then Rockin’ Roll Baby in 1973. After that, Thom Bell would enjoy commercial success and critical acclaim with The Detroit Spinners. 

Similarly, The Stylistics were about to embark on the most successful part of their career. Following the success of The Stylistics, they’d release six further albums between 1971 and 1975. Three of these were certified gold in America, one was certified gold in the UK and four were certified silver in the UK. During this period, The Stylistics were one of the most successful purveyors of the Philly Sound. However, it would take a lot to surpass the success of The Stylistics, their critically acclaimed debut album. It brought The Stylistics to the attention of soul fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Forty-one years after its release, The Stylistics is a totally timeless album, where each of the nine songs is a like a mini, musical masterpiece, thanks to the songwriting team of Thom Bell and Linda Creed. Although The Stylistics was just the first step in The Stylistics musical journey, it was a huge step. Together, The Stylistics and Thom Bell would prove a potent musical partnership. While further critical acclaim and commercial success would follow, the album that started this musical journey, The Stylistics would prove to be one of the best albums of The Stylistics long and illustrious career. Standout Tracks: Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart), Point of No Return, You Are Everything and People Make the World Go Round.


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