Chairmen of the Board - Words Left Unsaid (2017)

Chairmen of the Board
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Chairmen of the Board (feat. Ken Knox) - Words Left Unsaid

"The Chairmen of the Board" and "The Sound of Philadelphia" are two familiar names from 1970s soul music, but they were not identities that were connected. As Gamble and Huff, Thom Bell and a legion of other musical greats were establishing Philly as the center of the soul music world via a new, orchestral version of R&B music with a four-on-the-floor beat that presaged the disco era, the Chairmen of the Board were still in Detroit, working with legendary Motown writers Holland/Dozier/Holland after their defection from the mothership and subsequent formation of the Invictus label. 

Chairmen of the Board (feat. Ken Knox) - Words Left Unsaid

"The Chairmen of the Board" and "The Sound of Philadelphia" are two familiar names from 1970s soul music, but they were not identities that were connected. As Gamble and Huff, Thom Bell and a legion of other musical greats were establishing Philly as the center of the soul music world via a new, orchestral version of R&B music with a four-on-the-floor beat that presaged the disco era, the Chairmen of the Board were still in Detroit, working with legendary Motown writers Holland/Dozier/Holland after their defection from the mothership and subsequent formation of the Invictus label. 

The Chairmen were the spotlight act for Invictus, as group leader General Johnson not only penned a string of hits for his own act, but also provided a basketful of smashes for his labelmates. However, financial problems at Invictus and the changing musical landscape led to a too short period at the top for the Chairmen, and by the end of the decade, even as Philly was rising, the Chairmen were fading from view as a major national recording act. Happily, after leaving Invictus, the Chairmen of the Board went on to establish a surprising second career in the Carolina Beach Music scene, a niche of upbeat party music that fit them like a glove and one that made them regional stars for another three decades.

When General Johnson died in 2010, vocalist and musician Ken Knox was left to carry the mantle for the Chairmen of the Board. And now, eight years after the final General Johnson-led album, Knox and new members Thomas Hunter and Brandon Stevens have taken a surprising step in creating the new album, Words Left Unsaid. For his first album as group leader, Knox has not targeted the sounds of Carolina or even Detroit, but rather has set his sight on Philadelphia, and in the process has delivered what may be the first true classic Philly soul album in two decades.

For this foray, Knox enlisted a legendary group of collaborators, including songwriters Melvin & Mervin Steals (known best for The Spinners’ “Could It Be Im Fallin' In  Love”) and producer/arranger McKinley Jackson (now music director for the Temptations), as well as top tier musicians The Detroit Horns, bass player Jimmie Williams (The O’Jays), pianist Alfie Pollitt (Teddy Pendergrass), guitarist Robert "Wawa" LeGrand, drummer Lonnie Berry, and percussionist Greg Moore -- and the results are sonically stunning. From the first beat of "Each Morning I Wake Up," the album opener, listeners are reminded of lush orchestration and powerful horn and string sections that were a staple of the classic albums by Philly stalwarts like The O'Jays, Blue Magic, The Stylistics and Patti LaBelle. Jackson has delivered the goods for the group, with the kind of full bodied arrangements that would have been at home during the golden age of soul music -- and that are rarely heard today on major label releases, much less independent projects like this MoPhilly label release. Just as impressive are the vocals, with the group's fine work being supplemented by a virtual chorus of background singers -- sounding like the Sweethearts of Sigma of back in the day.

At six songs plus one remix, Words Left Unsaid more resembles an EP than a full album, but the limited song selection, mostly from the Steals brothers' catalog, is strong. The Chairmen have dug deep into the rare soul archives for songs like the first single, "All I Need Is You Tonight," originally recorded by Arthur Prysock, but here sounding like a classic Spinners smash, circa 1974. Just as good are other upbeat numbers, "I'm Ready, Willing and Able" (the lone composition from Knox), and "Each Morning I Wake Up" (a one time Major Harris recording). A couple of ballads also shine, especially the title track, a gentle, understated song of love's regret: "Morning is breaking / and so is my heart / it ain't stopped aching since we've been apart / I can't stand waking in this empty bed / constantly thinking of words left unsaid."

There isn't a bad cut on the album, and the performances are terrific. But most surprising is that this album was made at all. Stylistically, it is unlike anything else being released in 2017, and both the band and the meticulously chosen songs are fantastic. To say this album sounds like a long lost Baker/Harris/Young produced album by The Trammps or Blue Magic -- while true -- would be to fail to give The Chairmen, the Steals Brothers and McKinley Jackson sufficient credit for making something so traditional sound so fresh. This is a triumph for all, and one of the most unlikely releases of the year. Classic soulheads will absolutely adore this glorious return of a legendary soul group...I know I do.  Highly Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 
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