Often, when a group decide to change producer, this can mark a change in their fortunes. This is even more risky when the producer has co-written some of your biggest hits. Forty years ago, The Stylistics were about to release their third album Rockin’ Roll Baby. Their two previous albums, 1971s The Stylistics and 1972s Round 2 had both been certified gold. Much of their success had been down to Thom Bell, who produced these two albums. However, was much more than a songwriter. With Linda Creed, Thom had written much of The Stylistics two previous albums. So if The Stylistics, or their management decided to change producer, not only were they risking losing one of the best producers of the time, but access to one of the hottest songwriting teams. That however, was what happened after the release of Rockin’ Roll Baby. Granted, Rockin’ Roll Baby didn’t match the success of The Stylistics two previous albums, but was certified silver in the UK and featured a million selling single. Quite simply, the story of Rockin’ Roll Baby is a compelling one, as you’ll realize.

After back-to-back gold albums, The Stylistics must have felt under pressure to match the success of their first two albums. So, Thom Bell and Linda Creed got to work, writing six of the ten tracks. They were, Only For The Children, Let Them Work It Out, Make It Last, Love Comes Easy, Rockin’ Roll Baby and The Stylistics’ classic You Make Me Feel Brand New. Thom Bell and Kenneth Gamble penned Payback Is A Dog. Bruce Hawkes and Joseph B. Jefferson cowrote There’s No Reason and with Charles Simmons, penned Could This Be The End and I Won’t Give You Up. These ten track became Rockin’ Roll Baby, which, like The Stylistics first two albums, would be recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in Philly.

For recording of Rockin’ Roll Baby, the five members of The Stylistics Russell Tompkins Jr, James Dunn, Herb Murrell, James Smith, James Smith and Airrion Love headed to the familiar surroundings Sigma Sound Studios in Philly. Accompanying them, were Philadelphia International Records’ legendary house-band M.F.S.B. They included some of Philadelphia’s best musicians. This included a rhythm section of Baker, Harris, Young. Guitarist included Bobby “Electronic” Eli, keyboardist Thom Bell, percussionist Vince Montana Jr, Larry Washington on timbales, bongos and congas. Don Renaldo and His Swinging Strings were joined by a full horn section that included John Davis on tenor and baritone saxophone. Jack Faith played alto saxophone and flute.Adding backing vocals were legendary backing vocalists the Sweethearts of Sigma, Carla Benson, Evette Benton and Barbara Ingram. Thom Bell arranged and produced Rockin’ Roll Baby, and once the album was finished, it which was released in November 1973.

On the release of Rockin’ Roll Baby in November 1973, it reached number sixty-six in the US Billboard 200 and number five in the US R&B Charts. Over in the UK, Rockin’ Roll Baby reached number forty-two. The title-track Rockin’ Roll Baby was released as a single, reaching number fourteen in the US Billboard 100 and number three in the US R&B Charts. Ironically,You Make Me Feel Brand New wasn’t released as a single. It also features on The Stylistics fourth album, Let’s Put It All Together. This single became a stonewall Philly Soul classic, reaching number two in the US Billboard 100, number five in the US R&B Charts and number two in the UK. Eventually,You Make Me Feel Brand New sold over a million copies worldwide, and was certified gold. By then, Thom Bell and The Stylistics had parted company. I’ll tell you about that, after I’ve told you about the music on Rockin’ Roll Baby.

Rockin’ Roll Baby opens with the Thom Bell  and Linda Creed penned Only For The Children. For an opening track, it’s perfect. The choppy arrangement grabs your attention. Stabs of piano, growling horns, searing guitars and cascading strings unite with percussion, building the drama. Having set the scene, Russell Tompkins Jr’s vocal enters. It’s delivered dramatically, but with sincerity and tenderness. Meanwhile, the arrangement is growing in drama, with harp, flourishes of strings, wistful horns and tender harmonies. Russell seems determined to get across the lyrics meaning. His delivery is deliberate, while the dramatic arrangement is almost saying: “listen.” Powerful, moving and dramatic best describes this opening track.

Could This Be The End is one of the most beautiful, melancholy songs on Rockin’ Roll Baby. Just Earl Young’s drums and hi-hats join Thom Bell’s piano. Then Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and Norman Harris’ guitar enter. Soon, the track decides to give up its melancholy secrets. Russell’s falsetto is tender and thoughtful. Gradually, lush strings, wistful horns and an understated Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section combine. Ron Baker’s bass prowls along the arrangement while tight, soulful harmonies sweep above the arrangement. What follows is one an incredibly beautiful, pensive song, that’s something of a hidden gem in The Stylistics’ back-catalogue.

Let Them Work It Out is another of the slower songs on Rockin’ Roll Baby. It’s another Thom Bell  and Linda Creed composition. Here, Russell delivers one of his most heartfelt, tender vocals. His vocal is slow, with harmonies accompanying him. Thom Bell’s keyboards are crucial to the slow, spacious arrangement. Jack Faith’s flute and Ron Baker’s meandering bass add to the thoughtful sound of the arrangement, as Russell, emotively advices: “if you can, Let Them Work It Out.” This he sings with hope and feeling.

Make It Last is quite different in sound to previous tracks. There’s a Latin sound to the shuffling arrangement. M.F.S.B. get the chance to showcase their skills. Percussion, flute, sweeping strings and melancholy horns join Baker, Harris, Young. Then comes Russell’s joyous vocal. He’s in love, found someone he loves. With hope and tenderness he sings: “Make It Last.” Taking their lead from him, strings dance, quiver and shiver, horns rejoice and harmonies sweep in. For their part, the rhythm section and percussion add a shuffling beat. However, it’s Russell’s vocal and Don Renaldo and His Swinging Strings’ that make this one of the highlights of Rockin’ Roll Baby.

Payback Is A Dog, which Thom Bell and Kenny Gamble penned. It’s one of those songs where the maxim what goes around, comes around is put to music. In this case, beautiful music, tinged with heartache and pain. Russell’s vocal is filled with hurt and sadness, while swathes of lush strings sweep slowly. The strings are at the heart of the song’s success. Harmonies sweep in, while Baker, Harris, Young provide the song’s hurt-filled heartbeat. Brief bursts of wistful horns and drama from Earl Young’s drums join Vince Montana Jr’s vibes. They add to the emotion, sadness and pain, as Russell delivers a heartbroken vocal, that closes Side One of Rockin’ Roll Baby.

Side Two of Rockin’ Roll Baby opens with Love Comes Easy. The unmistakable sound of Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and Norman Harris’ jazz tinged guitar are joined by Thom Bell’s keyboards. Horns rasp and Baker, Harris, Young provide the backdrop for Russell’s tender, blissful vocal. He reminisces, thinks back, to the time his relationship started. After that, “Love Comes Easy.” Harmonies accompany him, while Norman’s guitar chimes, strings quiver as Russell offers hope. He almost assures, promises that one day, “Love Comes Easy.” If only life and love were that simple.

There’s No Reason was written by Bruce Hawkes and Joseph B. Jefferson, and is very different to the Thom Bell and Linda Creed tracks. That’s not a criticism, merely an observation. Just hissing hi-hats, pizzicato strings and Norman Harris’ guitar joins cascading strings. Gradually, the arrangement unfolds. Earl Young’s drums signal the arrangement to reveal its secrets. Baker, Harris, Young drive the arrangement along, while deliberate stabs of keyboards, dancing strings and tender, cooing, soaring harmonies accompany Russell’s vocal. He’s given the opportunity to unleash his vocal, his falsetto soaring high and powerfully above the arrangement. Then Thom Bell drops the horns in at the perfect time. Suddenly, as Thom Bell does so well, everything makes sense.

Rockin’ Roll Baby was the lead single from Rockin’ Roll Baby. Horns growl as bongos and the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section combine. After teasing the listener, M.F.S.B. and The Stylistics kick loose. Baker, Harris, Young drive the arrangement along, with punchy, growling horns and harmonies from the other Stylistics and The Sweethearts of Sigma accompanying Russell’s vocal. Soon, rock and roll, R&B, Philly Soul and jazz combine. By then, M.F.S.B. and The Stylistics have hit their stride, creating an irresistibly catchy fusion of musical genres, where hooks are plentiful.

The Stylistics’ classic You Make Me Feel Brand New sold over one million copies worldwide and was certified gold in the US. Quite simply, this is a stonewall Phlly Soul classic. With Norman Harris’ guitar, layers of lushest strings cascading, stabs of keyboards and rasping horns combine. Once they’ve reached a crescendo Airrion Love takes charge of the lead vocal. His delivery is impassioned and heartfelt. Then he passes the baton to Russell. As if spurred on, he delivers a vocal that surpasses everything that’s gone before. Power, emotion and beauty combine. Meanwhile, M.F.S.B. create the most beautiful backdrop on Rockin’ Roll Baby. Baker, Harris, Young provide the heartbeat, while layers of lush strings from Don Renaldo and His Swinging Strings join Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and tight, soaring harmonies. The result is a five minute Philly Soul Magnus Opus from The Stylistics.

Closing Rockin’ Roll Baby is I Won’t Give You Up. It was written by Bruce Hawkes , Joseph B. Jefferson and Charles Simmons, who previously, had written many hits for The Detroit Spinners. This is another bold, uptempo track, that sometimes, is dramatic and always emotive. With Baker, Harris, Young providing the song’s pulse, strings sweep and swirl, Vince Montana Jr adds vibes and Thom Bell keyboards. Russell’s vocal is deliberate, sincere and filled with emotion. It’s as if he means every word when he sings: “I Won’t Give You Up.” His delivery is heartfelt and impassioned, with harmonies and strings adding the finishing touch, and closing Rockin’ Roll Baby on an emotive high.

In many ways, Rockin’ Roll Baby marked an era for The Stylistics. Rockin’ Roll Baby was Thom Bell’s last album as The Stylistics’ producer. Maybe if Rockin’ Roll Baby had matched the success of The Stylistics and Round 2, then Thom Bell might have produced their fourth album. There was nothing wrong with the music on Rockin’ Roll Baby. Like their two previous albums, The Stylistics, M.F.S.B. and Thom Bell proved a potent partnership. Sadly, that was the end of this dream team. The Stylistics next album, would see a change of producer.

For The Stylistics fourth album, Put It All Together, Hugo and Luigi, who owned Avco Records, The Stylistics’ record label took over production duties. Although Put It All Together proved a commercial success, they had Thom Bell and Linda Creed to thank for that. You Make Me Feel Brand New featured on Put It All Together, and sold over a million copies when released as a single. Following Thom Bell’s exit,The Stylistics never had access to the same quality of songs. If it hadn’t been for Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s Philly Soul classic, You Make Me Feel Brand New, might not have been nearly as successful an album. Thom Bell must have found that quite ironic. After all, he’d supplied the most successful track on Put It All Together.

Sadly, Rockin’ Roll Baby was the last Stylistics album recorded in Philly. After that, their success waned in the US, although they remained popular in the UK. For three albums, The Stylistics were one of Philly Soul’s greatest groups. Following Rockin’ Roll Baby, The Stylistics star never shawn as bright. Different producers and songwriters worked with The Stylistics. They moved label in search of that elusive missing link. That missing link was Thom Bell. He was their producer and mentor, and his songwriting partnership with Linda Creed provided the best material of The Stylistics’ career. What Thom Bell also brought, was M.F.S.B. Philadelphia International Records’ legendary house-band. These three things were irreplaceable. Rockin’ Roll Baby marked the end of an era as far as The Stylistics were concerned. The Stylistics best albums proved to be the three they recorded with Thom Bell. After The Stylistics, Round 2 and Rockin’ Roll Baby, sadly, nothing else came close. Standout Tracks: Only For The Children, Let Them Work It Out, Love Comes Easy and You Make Me Feel Brand New.


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