The Stylistics - Biography

By Nick Castro


The Stylistics are widely considered one of the best vocal soul groups of the 70's. Hailing from Philadelphia, in many ways the band was the brainchild of famed Jamaican born producer Thom Bell, who is also famous for his work with The Delfonics, The Spinners and Johnny Mathis. The band enjoyed the success of a string of top ten hits, including the songs, "You're a Big Girl Now", "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)", and "You Make Me Feel Brand New". The sound of The Stylistics was just as much reliant of the powerful falsetto of Russell Thompkins, which is instantly recognizable, as the production skill of Bell. Their music has been heavily sampled by the rap generation, including by some of the rap world's biggest luminaries, such as Jay Z, Madlib and Ghostface Killah.


The roots of The Stylistics can be traced back to the late 60's, in Philadelphia. The various members of the groups were brought together by the mutual disintegration of their respective groups at the time, The Percussions and The Monarchs. The original lineup consisted of Thompkins, alongside James Smith, Airrion Love, James Dunn and Herbie Murrell. After a few years of rehearsal and performance in the Philadelphia area, the group recorded their first single, "You're a Big Girl Now", in 1970, which scored high on the local music charts. At the time, the group was signed to the Avco subsidiary, Sebring Records, but after their initial success, they were quickly moved to the parent label. It was when the band rereleased the single with the larger label, the next year, that they had their first national success and top ten hit on the r&b charts. The song was later certified as gold.


Their deal with Avco brought the group into the studio again, this time with producer Bell, who was developing a slick, lush and intricately arranged production style, which he was already gaining a reputation for due to his previous work with the soul supergroup The Delfonics. Bell brought this same aesthetic sense to The Stylistics, and to this day, newcomers often have trouble identifying the groups apart from each other. Ironically, it would be nearly 40 years later that members of the two groups would join forces to perform and record as one unit under The Stylistics' name.


The first song that Bell released with the group was, "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)", which was written by the young songwriter Linda Creed, who has written for artists as diverse as Dusty Springfield, The Spinners and George Benson. The song went to number 6 on the r&b charts and crept into the top 40 on the national charts. The group then scored with the song, "You Are Everything", which finally tapped into the top ten on the national charts and the r&b charts. This would their second song to go gold. Their next single, "Betcha by Golly Wow!", was their biggest hit of this period, coming in just shy of the number 1 slot.


The first album by The Stylistics set the template for their sound and set the bar for slick soul production of the early 70's. In 1971 they released their self titled The Stylistics (1971 - Avco). This album is often considered to be one of the highlights of the genre and a must have for collectors of soul music. Bell and Creed wrote almost every song on the album, and together with Thompkins vocals, became on of the biggest names in soul music. They had 4 hits in 1971 alone, and by the next year were working on their new album, Round 2 (1972 - Avco), which was just as much a groundbreaking success as their intial effort. The band scored a huge hit with the opening track, "I'm Stone in Love With You", which once again went to the top ten in both national and r&b charts. The song would later become their fourth gold single. Their other big hit from the album was the song, "Break Up to Make Up", which was one of their biggest hits of the day and went to number 5 on the national charts. The Stylistics had become a household name and highly influential in the soul music scene. Round 2 is still considered essential listening and arguably a more solid statement than the band's initial release, which can feel at times like more of a collection of songs rather than a unified album. Though Bell and Creed handle most of the writing duties for the band, they do manage to make a few well selected covers their own, including Carole King's "It's Too Late" and Burt Bacharach's "You'll Never Get to Heaven".


The Stylistics' third album, Rockin' Roll Baby (1973 - Avco) was the last to be produced by Bell, and it produced the hit single, "You Make Me Feel Brand New", which would prove to be their most successful single of all time, reaching number 2 on the national charts and going gold shortly after its release. Around this time, the band was receiving a lot of attention in Europe and making headway on the charts there as well. Unfortunately, the band made a split from the Bell/Creed songwriting and production team and their popularity quickly began to wane. It can be argued that changing tastes by music buyers may have played a role, and surely were a factor, in their decline, but it is generally agreed upon that their output from this post-Bell period was inferior to the stellar work that they accomplished on their first three albums. Though the band would continue to chart for some years to come, they never again attained top ten status.


By the late 70's, The Stylistics were moving into a more smooth style of soul, often compared to elevator music and their personnel began to change. They would manage to remain a working band, even up until today, in various formats. Most recently they have had a lot of success in Japan, where they have begun writing and performing songs as endorsements and product placements.





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