The Stylistics' Airrion Love is recalling Linda Creed, who in her early 20s penned many of the group's biggest hits, from "Break Up to Make Up" to "La La Means I Love You." "She was a beautiful girl," says the soft-spoken tenor. "She had a uniqueness for lyrics. And that's a lot of the reason that the Stylistics are alive and doing well today because she wrote those simple I love you' lyrics that cross all borders."
But simple lyrics rarely sink under the skin the way those of the Stylistics do, along with those of so many other vocal groups who shaped the sound of '70s soul. If you've ever sighed at the stratospheric grace of the tunes these groups produced, namely between 1972 and 1977, you have to admit that when it comes to mixing candor and class, not all genres are created equal. Sure, there must have been a few deluded strivers in matching get-ups howling at the Howard Johnson lounge, but some mysterious triumph of the marketplace seems to have kept them out of recording studios. So at worst, there's the bubbly formula of lesser acts at best, the essential romantic soundtracks of groups like the Manhattans, the Stylistics, the Chi-Lites, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
Maybe this music was just an equal and opposite spiritual reaction to the political turmoil of the times. But that can't explain why those "smooth" soul sounds still move so deeply, while their era's other musical tonic the singer-songwriter confessional survives as little more than a sedative.
Blue Lovett isn't about to clear up the music's mystery. Bass vocalist and chief songwriter for the Manhattans perhaps one of the most underrated groups of the '70s he wrote some of the era's classic tunes literally in his sleep. "Kiss and Say Goodbye," which topped virtually every chart, certainly isn't the least of them. "I woke up from a deep sleep and the song was there," says Lovett. "I got up, got on the keyboards and sort of sketched it out so I could remember it the next morning."
But could it be that the key to the simple grace of songs like "Kiss and Say Goodbye" isn't in the lyrics, but in the ingredients of the sound? The producers of the day, often considered the auteurs of their artists' records, directed diverse arrangements of doo-wop roots, Motown harmonies, classical orchestration, the melodic grace of British pop and too many subtle dashes of other styles to list.
"He was, I thought, a musical genius," recalls Love of producer Thom Bell. "When we heard his music, you just got a chill automatically." Then a teenager, Love remembers being impressed by Bell's eclecticism: "Even though we didn't know what his intentions were at the time, I was amazed when we went in to work with him that he had a two-inch-thick book of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David."
Lovett, who worked with Philadelphia-based producer Bobby Martin, attributes the success of "Kiss and Say Goodbye," as well as the Manhattans' 1980 comeback "Shining Star," to the tinge of country music in the arrangements. He likens the approach to Lionel Richie's later "Penny Lover": "We, as a group, did the same thing to make ourselves a little different from everybody else."
But Martin and Bell aren't known mainly as aficionados of chamber pop or country both worked with renowned pioneers of the "Philly sound," producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Much ink has been dedicated to Philly soul over the years, as the epitome of '70s soul, and with good reason. Says Lovett, "Back then, Signal Sound Studios in Philadelphia were recording with everyone, and everybody had that sound. Your music may have had different writers, but with the MFSB band playing your music, it was basically that Philadelphia sound."
While Gamble and Huff and their soul orchestra, MFSB are often credited with defining '70s soul, their productions include some of the most danceable sounds of the era, contrasting with the leisurely ballads that dominate the work of the vocal groups. And Gamble and Huff's sound birthed a phenomenon that, ironically, threatened the very existence of groups like the Manhattans: disco.
Lovett recalls 1976 and the uncertainty introduced by dance-floor fever: "To keep up with the Joneses, we felt we had to have one strong up-tempo tune as a single. . . . When Sony released Kiss and Say Goodbye,' we thought they were trying to put a noose around our necks," he remembers. "There's no way you could tell me that a song like that could climb the charts and stay at No. 1 as long as it did in the heart of the disco era."
And the soul spirit of the '70s vocal groups not only survived mechanical disco, but gimmicky New Wave, the icy R&B of the '80s, militant hip-hop and misogynistic gangsta rap. The Manhattans' "Wish That You Were Mine" is still perhaps the most stunning forbidden-love song on radio, oldies or otherwise. The Chi-Lites' "Oh Girl" is a timelessly haunting and infectious lover's plea. If you're looking for three minutes of romantic insight more valuable than a hundred squishy self-help books, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' gorgeous "If You Don't Know Me By Now" won't let you down. Linda Creed died at 37 of breast cancer, but the tunes she created with Thom Bell and the Stylistics including "Betcha By Golly Wow" and "Stone in Love With You" survive on soundtracks, airwaves, satellite transmissions and in the heart of anyone ever captured by their sweet, elegant spirit. All four groups perform this week at the Celebrity Theatre.
While it may be tough to grasp the exact power of this music, or the reasons for the ingathering of the people who created it, its appeal is far from mysterious. "The general public, I think they wanna hear those I love you' songs," says Love. "They just want that simple I love you and you love me.'" Somehow, the soulful vocal groups of the early and mid-'70s just seem to have said it best.
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