The Stylistics Biography

The Stylistics were formed in 1968 from the fragments of two Philadelphia groups, the Monarchs and the Percussions, by Russell Thompkins Jnr. (21 March 1951, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA), Airrion Love (b. 8 August 1949, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA), James Smith (b. 16 June 1950, New York City, USA), Herbie Murrell (b. 27 April 1949, Lane, South Carolina, USA) and James Dunn (b. 4 February 1950, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA). The quintet’s debut single, ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ was initially issued on a local independent, but became a national hit following its acquisition by the Avco label. The Stylistics were then signed to this outlet directly and teamed with producer/composer Thom Bell. This skilful musician had already worked successfully with the Delfonics and his sculpted, sweet-soul arrangements proved ideal for his new charges. In partnership with lyricist Linda Creed, Bell fashioned a series of immaculate singles, including ‘You Are Everything’ (1971), ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’ and ‘I’m Stone In Love With You’ (both 1972), where Simpkins’ aching voice soared against the group’s sumptuous harmonies and a cool, yet inventive, accompaniment.

The style reached its apogee in 1974 with ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’, a number 2 single in both the USA and UK. This release marked the end of Bell’s collaboration with the group, who were now pushed towards the easy listening market. With arranger Van McCoy turning sweet into saccharine, the material grew increasingly bland, while Thompkins’ falsetto, once heartfelt, now seemed contrived. Although their American fortune waned, the Stylistics continued to enjoy success in Britain with ‘Sing Baby Sing’, ‘Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)’ (both 1975) and ‘16 Bars’ (1976), while a compilation album that same year, The Best Of The Stylistics, became one of the UK’s bestselling albums. Despite this remarkable popularity, purists labelled the group a parody of its former self. Ill health forced Dunn to retire in 1978, whereupon the remaining quartet left Avco for a brief spell with Mercury Records. Two years later they were signed to the TSOP/ Philadelphia International Records stable, which resulted in some crafted recordings reminiscent of their heyday, but problems within the company undermined the group’s progress. Subsequent singles for Streetwise took the Stylistics into the lower reaches of the R&B chart, but their halcyon days seem to be over even though they have continued to release new material.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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