Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Stylistics debut LP's "Sales Power" Ad

African American pop music in the early '70s was like the month of March, coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. The politically-charged, pulse-raising material that was mostly quarantined to soul radio playlists in 1970 gave way to ballads with broader appeal by 1975. This Stylistics ad from a 1971 Billboard really zeroes in on the metamorphosis, with enough marketing crisscross happening that I'm honestly not sure what the prevailing message of the ad is (if there even is one, other than "listen to the Stylistics").

But let's consider some possibilities: The most luscious sounding balladeers of the early '70s are relaxing in a meadow in a bubble - safe from society. They are inviting you into their blissful existence. But this doesn't mean they're out of touch. Black Power (see fist) ultimately drives them, and this association should appeal to their soul music base. Or is the "sales power" heading intended to soften or poke fun at Black Power, acknowledging that a new sound, embodied by the Stylistics, is on the horizon? Any of the above interpretations, actually, would fit the spirit of the times just fine.

All this aside, the Stylistics' eponymous first LP was a beauty, launching five singles into the Hot 100. It showcased the sweet lead vocals of Russell Thompkins Jr. and the formidable songwriting chops of Thom Bell and lyricist Linda Creed (except for "You're a Big Girl Now," which is consequently its weakest track). Bell's opulent song structures and string arrangements glimmer like city lights while Creed's lyrics are little humanistic wonders.

Here are the 5 charting singles released from their debut LP. When gathered together, all 9 tracks on the album are represented:

The Stylistics - "You're a Big Girl Now" (Billboard #73, entered 1/9/71; soul #7). Written by Marty Bryant and Robert Douglas. Produced by Marty Bryant and Bill Perry. 45: "You're a Big Girl Now"/"Let the Junkie Bust the Pusher" (AVCO Embassy 1970). LP: The Stylistics (AVCO Embassy 1971).

This first single, co-written and co-produced by the group's road manager Marty Bryant, got them signed to the AVCO label, after which Thom Bell took over their sound. Side B is a gritty non-album rarity that makes minimal use of Russell Thompkins, Jr.

The Stylistics - "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)" (Billboard #39, entered 6/5/71; soul #6). Written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed. Produced by Thom Bell. 45: "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)"/"If I Love You" (AVCO Embassy 1971). LP: The Stylistics (AVCO Embassy 1971).

The Stylistics - "You Are Everything" (Billboard #9, entered 11/6/71; soul #10). Written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed. Produced by Thom Bell. 45: "You Are Everything"/"Country Living" (AVCO Embassy 1971). LP: The Stylistics (AVCO Embassy 1971).

The intro to "You Are Everything" features one of the era's memorable electric sitar riffs.

The Stylistics featuring Russell Thompkins, Jr. - "Betcha By Golly Wow" (Billboard #3, entered 2/26/72; soul #2). Written by Kenny Gamble, Linda Creed, and Thom Bell. Produced by Thom Bell. 45: "Betcha By Golly Wow"/"Ebony Eyes" (AVCO Embassy 1972). LP: The Stylistics (AVCO Embassy 1972).

Prince, who knew songcraft when he heard it, covered "Betcha By Golly Wow" in 1996.

The Stylistics - "People Make the World Go Round" (Billboard #25, entered 6/3/72; soul #6). Written by Linda Creed and Thom Bell Produced by Thom Bell. 45: "People Make the World Go Round"/"Point of No Return" (AVCO Embassy 1972). LP: The Stylistics (AVCO Embassy 1972).

"People Make the World Go Round" is a particular masterpiece, expressing the "ups and downs" and contradictions of urban life against a backdrop of music that's at once sullen and seductive.