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Betcha By Golly Wow: The Stylistics Go “Streetwise” On New Reissue

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“You Are Everything.”  “You Make Me Feel Brand New.”  “Betcha By Golly Wow.”    The songs of Philadelphia’s Stylistics are still prominent in the fabric of American music, largely thanks to a three-album run between 1971 and 1973 on the Avco label.  With Thom Bell as the producer, arranger and composer, and Linda Creed as lyricist, the group defined the sweetest strains of Philly soul.  Every single Bell produced for the group hit the Top 10 R&B chart, and many also went Top 10 pop.  When Thom Bell turned his attentions in 1973 to The Spinners, however, the group found itself somewhat adrift.  Of the group’s hits, only the 1970 single “You’re a Big Girl Now” had been produced without him.  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.

1974’s Let’s Put It All Together, with its strong title track from Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss (the trio responsible for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) continued the group’s winning streak, but subsequent efforts kept yielding diminishing returns.  Top-tier producers like Van McCoy and Teddy Randazzo attempted to recapture The Stylistics’ glory days, and 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.  Following that return to the City of Brotherly Love, The Stylistics soldiered on, signing to Maurice Starr’s Streetwise Records label.

The two albums recorded by The Stylistics at Streetwise, Some Things Never Change (1984) and A Special Style (1985) have just been released on CD for the very first time by Phase One Music and Streetwise Records as The Streetwise Recordings.  Though this CD brings more of the Stylistics’ catalogue to CD, the two-albums-on-one-CD package is oddly incomplete.  Hit the jump for more details!

The Stylistics’ Streetwise debut Some Things Never Change was supervised by one of the pioneers of the dance remix, Arthur Baker.  Starr, known for discovering New Edition and founding New Kids on the Block, produced and arranged the LP in addition to writing most tracks with Michael Jonzun.  Some tracks, including the title song, “Just the Two of Us” and “Give a Little Love,” have a pronounced Philly soul vibe, albeit with modern electronics replacing Bell’s lush orchestras.  “Hooked on Your Lovin’” is also a moderately catchy, melodic track, and Thompkins’ falsetto is as velvety as ever.  Other tracks attempt to update The Stylistics’ sound to an up-tempo eighties groove with sound effects, synthesizers and sequencers a-plenty.  “The Girl in Yellow” is notable for a nearly note-for-note “lift” from Neil Sedaka and Roger Atkins’ “Workin’ on a Groovy Thing,” cut by The 5th Dimension and others!

Starr returned as producer and arranger of the follow-up album, Special Style.  Co-produced by Gordon “Mega Bucks” Worthy, it too balances balladry with busy tracks aimed at the dance floor like “Let’s Go Rockin’ Tonight” and “O Sha Ma.”  Though the production hasn’t aged well, the quartet of Thompkins, Love, Johnson and Murrell sounds strong.  Both Streetwise albums were primarily recorded in Boston, with additional recording in New York.

The brief, uncredited liner notes for The Streetwise Recordings assert that “this collection includes the two full albums A Special Style and Some Things Never Change plus a cappella and piano versions previously only available on vinyl.”  Indeed, the piano-and-vocal mix of “Give a Little Love” which originally appeared on single SW-2237 is present on the new CD, but the a cappella mix is absent.  Even more troublingly, the song “Row Your Love” has been inexplicably omitted from Some Things Never Change.  (It was also the B-side of that album’s title song.)  Further adding to the mystery of the missing tracks, the credits indicate 21 tracks on the CD, but there are only 18!  (“Row Your Love” and the absent a cappella mix of “Give a Little Love” would have made 20!)  Though the new disc is listenable, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend the sound quality of this “remastered” collection, as well.  The omissions are particularly distressing as this could have been a definitive account of this overlooked period in the vocal group’s history.

The Stylistics have only made sporadic returns to the recording studio since the Streetwise days, though a version of the group continues to tour.  1991’s Love Talk, for Amherst Records, was notable for a couple of new Burt Bacharach songs; Bacharach’s “You’ll Never Get to Heaven” was, of course, one of the early, Thom Bell-produced hits.  Maurice Starr came back to Thom Bell, too, when his New Kids on the Block covered Bell’s Delfonics hit, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).”  The 1970 song made the charts all over again in the New Kids’ rendition!

Still, if you’re interested in these hard-to-find albums from The Stylistics, 18 tracks may be better than none, and you might just discover a lost gem.  The Streetwise Recordings is available now at the link below!

The Stylistics, The Streetwise Recordings (Streetwise WR-3075-2, 2012)

  1. Some Things Never Change
  2. Give a Little Love
  3. Don’t Change
  4. The Girl in Yellow
  5. Love is Not the Answer
  6. Hooked On Your Lovin’
  7. When I Will Learn
  8. Just the Two of Us
  9. Special
  10. I Believe (In You)
  11. Love is Serious
  12. Hungry (For Your Love)
  13. Honey
  14. Let’s Go Rockin’ (Tonight)
  15. Sad Girl
  16. O Sha Ma
  17. Only From the Heart
  18. Give a Little Love (Piano and Vocal Mix)

Tracks 1-8 from Some Things Never Change, Streetwise LP SW-3304, 1984
Tracks 9-17 from A Special Style, Streetwise LP SW-3305, 1985
Track 18 from Streetwise single SW-2237, 1984

Written by Joe Marchese

May 30, 2012 at 09:46

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