In just three albums recorded between 1971 and 1973, The Stylistics positioned themselves at the vanguard of Philadelphia soul, introducing future pop and R&B standards such as “You Are Everything,” “People Make the World Go Round” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New” with multi-hyphenate Thom Bell (serving as producer, arranger, conductor, and composer!) and lyricist Linda Creed. Though Bell parted ways with the group to turn his attentions to The Spinners, ending their hit streak, The Stylistics have endured to this very day. The Japanese Victor label has recently celebrated the vocal greats’ legacy with a new volume in the Free Soul series, which itself is marking its 20th anniversary this year. Free Soul: The Classic of the Stylistics (that’s not a typo, “Classic” is singular) is a rare compilation for the group to span many years (1971-2013) and multiple labels including Avco, Philadelphia International, Amherst and Victor. Following the usual Free Soul format, the anthology blends familiar hits and deeper cuts.
It’s unsurprising that the lion’s share of this Free Soul volume is dedicated to Thom Bell’s sublime productions. His work with The Stylistics defined the sweetest strains of Philly soul, but these sumptuously melodic grooves crossed over to pop in a major way. In fact, every single release Bell produced for the group hit the Top 10 R&B chart, and many also went Top 10 pop. Bell and lyricist Creed recorded The Stylistics at his home base of Sigma Sound, featuring MFSB’s best on all three albums: Norman Harris and Bobby Eli on guitar, Ronnie Baker on bass, Larry Washington on percussion, Vince Montana on vibes, Earl Young on drums, Jack Faith on flute, Don Renaldo’s Horns and Strings, The Sweethearts of Sigma on background vocals, and Bell himself on piano/keyboards.
All but one of Bell’s productions from the group’s 1971 Avco debut The Stylistics appear here, including “Betcha by Golly Wow” (introduced by Connie Stevens as “Keep Growing Strong”), “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” “You Are Everything” and the haunting “People Make the World Go Round.” (The “missing” song is “Point of No Return.”) From follow-up Round 2 (1972), Free Soul reprises “You’re as Right as Rain,” “Break Up to Make Up” and “You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart).” The latter, of course, is the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song introduced by Dionne Warwick; Bell’s arrangement was the rare orchestration of a Bacharach song to best the composer’s own. (“I’m Stone in Love with You” from Round 2 is absent.) Bell and Creed’s farewell to the group was 1973’s Rockin’ Roll Baby, from which “Let Them Work It Out,” “Love Comes Easy,” “Rockin’ Roll Baby” and the immortal “You Make Me Feel Brand New” have all been included.
When Bell moved on, The Stylistics found themselves somewhat adrift. Bell instinctively knew how to deploy Russell Thompkins Jr.’s soaring falsetto with the group harmonies of Airrion Love, James Smith, Herb Murrell and James Dunn; other producers (including luminaries Van McCoy and Teddy Randazzo) failed to channel the magic as successfully. Free Soul overlooks much of the post-Bell period during which the group remained at Avco, but the strong title cut of 1974’s Let’s Put It All Together (by the “Lion Sleeps Tonight” team of Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss) has made the cut. It continued the group’s winning streak, but subsequent efforts yielded diminishing returns stateside. U.K. fans were more loyal; 1975’s “I Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)” went to No. 1 there, The Stylistics’ first ever chart-topper. From their brief period at H&L Records, Free Soul taps “Shame and Scandal in the Family,” produced by the Hugo and Luigi team for the 1977 Sun and Soul album.
After a short stint at Mercury, the group (sans Dunn and Smith, who departed in 1980, and with new member Raymond Johnson) even reunited with Bell, among other producers, for a three-album stint at Philadelphia International Records between 1980 and 1982. Two tracks have been taken from 1980’s Hurry Up This Way Again: the Top 20 R&B title song written by producer Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs, and “Found a Love You Couldn’t Handle,” produced by its co-writer Sherman Marshall.
There’s much more after the jump, including the complete track listing with discography and order links!
The Stylistics soldiered on, signing to Maurice Starr’s Streetwise Records label for a couple of LPs in the mid-1980s, and since then, the group has returned sporadically for new releases on labels such as Amherst (successor to Avco), Bellmark and Victor Japan. (Russell Thompkins, Jr., for many the voice of The Stylistics, departed the ranks in 2000 and now leads his own version of the group.) From 1992’s Stylistics Christmas, Free Soul features the smooth take on Donny Hathaway’s modern-day holiday standard “This Christmas.” The latter-day Stylistics can be heard on “Easy Loving You,” co-written by founding member Herb Murrell, from 2008’s That Same Way, and on a rendition of the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature” from 2013’s Japan-only Victor release Cover with Stylistics.
Blending stone-cold classics with enough rarities and lesser-known gems to put the hits in fresh new context, Free Soul – The Classic of the Stylistics sums up the career of the harmony soul purveyors. Compiled by Toru Hashimoto, it includes liner notes (in Japanese) and full lyrics (in English). You can check out the track listing and order links just below!
- Hurry Up This Way Again
- People Make the World Go Round
- Love Comes Easy
- Ebony Eyes
- Let Them Work It Out
- If I Love You
- You Make Me Feel Brand New
- You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart)
- Country Living
- Shame and Scandal in the Family
- Rockin’ Roll Baby
- Found a Love You Couldn’t Handle
- Betcha by Golly Wow
- Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)
- Break Up to Make Up
- You Are Everything
- You’re as Right as Rain
- Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)
- Easy Loving You
- Human Nature
- This Christmas
Tracks 1 & 12 from Hurry Up This Way Again, TSOP JZ 36470, 1980
Tracks 2, 4, 6, 9, 13-14 & 16 from The Stylistics, Avco AV 33023, 1971
Tracks 3, 5, 7 & 11 from Rockin’ Roll Baby, Avco AV 11010, 1973
Tracks 8, 15 & 17 from Round 2, Avco AV 11006, 1972
Track 10 from Sun and Soul, H&L HL 69019, 1977
Track 18 from Thank You, Baby, Avco AV 69008, 1975
Track 19 from That Same Way, Amherst, 2008
Track 20 from Cover with Stylistics, Victor Japan VICP-65175, 2013
Track 21 from Stylistics Christmas, Amherst, 1992