Russell Thompkins, Jr
Russell Thompkins, Jr
While perhaps not a household name, as the lead singer of the Stylistics, Russell Thompkins, Jr. displayed arguably the sweetest falsetto voice of his generation, creating one beautiful love song after another under the production of the legendary Thom Bell and leading the act to supergroup status.
Formed in the late 60s in Philadelphia , the Stylistics first achieved some regional attention in 1971 with the simplistic "You're A Big Girl Now," most notable for its contrast to the luscious work they would record a year later with Bell . Their Avco Records eponymous debut was a Philly Soul masterpiece, containing a basketful of marvelous compositions by Bell and co-writer Linda Creed that would become soul standards covered by other artists for the next 30 years. "You Are Everything," "Betcha By Golly Wow," "Stop Look Listen" and "People Make the World Go Round" all rocketed up the Pop and Soul charts, and immediately made the Stylistics the most sought after Soul balladeers. The group's seamless harmonies and Thompkins silky falsetto blended magically with Bell's lush production.
Their next album, Round Two, was just as memorable, and included the instant classics "Break Up To Make Up," "Children of the Night" and "You'll Never Get to Heaven." But it was their third album, Rockin Roll Baby, that would give the group it's first number 1 crossover hit, the breathtaking ballad "You Make Me Feel Brand New."
When Bell decided to stop working with the Stylistics in 1974, and the impact on the group's fortunes was immediate and dramatic. The act eeked out one more moderate US hit ("Heavy Fallin Out"), then virtually disappeared from the charts for the remainder of the decade, as a string of lesser producers, particularly Hugo & Luigi, unsuccessfully struggled to come up with material and production tailored to the group's talents. Ironically, it was at this point that their work received increased attention in Europe, and a number of songs that stiffed in the US ("Na Na is the Saddest Word," "Can't Give You Anything," "Can't Help Falling In Love") moved near the top of the European charts.
In 1981 the Stylistics came back to their Philadelphia roots, joining Gamble & Huff's Philadelphia International Records and scoring their first US hit in years with the haunting "Hurry Up This Way Again." This began a wonderful, but underappreciated, 3 album stint with PIR that included a number of fantastic cuts with Gamble & Huff, Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs, and even a few tracks with Thom Bell and Linda Creed (including "I've Got This Feeling," the group's best song in a decade). Unfortunately, the albums didn't sell well, and the group departed PIR after their virtually ignored 1982. They scored one more minor hit ("Some Things Never Change") with New Kids On the Block producer Maurice Starr (on the Streetwise label) and continued to record on smaller labels into the 90s.
Long after their commercial peak, their strong musical legacy kept the Stylistics working regularly - perhaps too regularly. Approaching age 50 and singing night after night in falsetto without sufficient rest created vocal problems for Thompkins, and in 2000 he left the group. Fortunately, initial rest and a more reasonable performance schedule brought his soaring falsetto back, and in 2002 Thompkins released his first solo LP, A Matter of Style. Two years later he formed and began touring with a new group, Russell Thompkins Jr and the New Stylistics, singing the songs he had made famous over his career. He has continued to perform successfully ever since.
In 2007, at the request of legendary Philadelphia guitarist/songwriter/producer Bobbi Eli, Thompkins joined with Will Hart of the Delfonics and Ted Mills of Blue Magic to form 3 Tenors of Soul, and released an album on Shanachie Records. Thompkins also performs year round with his Stylistics group and is currently readying a "live" CD/DVD with them. He is also working on his second solo album, due for release on Forevermore Records in 2008. Now in his mid-50s, Thompkins has focused even more on keeping in shape for grueling travel schedule, developing into a long distance runner. He's already completed a half marathon in early 2007.
In late 2007, Thompkins was awarded the SoulTracks Lifetime Achievement Award in a ceremony in Detroit. His gracious acceptance speech and words of wisdom to the young audience of singers and musicians were well accepted.
If Russell Thompkins, Jr. never sings another note, his legacy as one of the greatest sweet soul singers ever will be preserved. Fortunately, it appears that there is much more to come.
By Chris Rizik