At their peak, the Stylistics were perhaps the most consistent hitmakers in Soul Music. They had the best producer in the business in Thom Bell, some of the most infectious material of the early 70s and perhaps the smoothest falsetto lead vocalist in Russell Thompkins, Jr.
Formed in the late 60s in Philadelphia, the Stylistics were the combination of two local groups, The Monarchs (from which Herb Murrell and James Dunn came) and The Percussions (from which Airrion Love, James Smith and lead singer Russell Thompkins, Jr. came). They first achieved some regional attention in with the simplistic "You're A Big Girl Now," most notable for its contrast to the luscious work they would record later with Bell.
The group was signed to the Avco Records label and was teamed with rising songwriter, producer and arranger Thom Bell. Their 1971 Avco Records eponymous debut was a Philly Soul masterpiece, containing a treasure trove 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."
Bell decided to stop working with the Stylistics in 1974, and the impact on the group's fortunes was immediate and dramatic. They eeked out one more moderate US hit ("Heavy Fallin Out"), then virtually disappeared from the US 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, three album stint with PIR that included a number of fantastic cuts with Gamble & Huff, Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs, and even a few cuts 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 release, 1982.
They scored one more minor hit ("Some Things Never Change") on the Streetwise label with New Kids On the Block producer Maurice Starr, and continued to record on smaller labels into the 90s. In 2000, lead singer Thompkins suffered vocal problems from overuse and left the group. He was replaced by Eban Brown, who joined original members Airrion Love and Herb Murrell and new group member Van Fields. The new lineup meshed quickly and impressed both longtime fans and new ones. In 2002, Thompkins released his first solo LP, A Matter of Style, andin 2004 he formed and began touring with a new group, Russell Thompkins Jr and the New Stylistics. He has continued to perform successfully ever since, and in 2007 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.
The Stylistics teamed with veteran producer Preston Glass in 2009 and recorded the new album That Same Way, which was released in Europe and Asia in late 2009 and in the US in 2011. It was a great return to form and the group's best album in a quarter century. It also won the Stylistics a nomination for the 2011 SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards.
In 2012, Van Fields left the group and was replaced by Jason Sharp, a latter day member of Heatwave, and Eban Brown was replaced by former Rare Essence singer Michael Muse. Last year, Barrington “Bo” Henderson, noted for his years with the Tempations, took over as the lead singer for The Stylistics, and the group continues to tour regularly and actively around the world.
By Chris Rizik