HOW SWEET IT WAS (A Connoisseur’s Guide To Sweet Soul)
Most long-term music listeners readily identify that period which was their favorite – it was always better back in the day. For me, it was the time-frame of the late 60s/early 70s when sweet soul music ruled the airwaves. Street corner sweet soul was an evolution. It began with the doo-woppers, and then proceeded though Stax/Volt & Motown. The sound was then fully digested & refined before the finished product was unleashed to the world through the portal of Philadelphia. Strings, tympani, oboes & full orchestration were blended with vocal harmony arrangements & falsetto lead vocals to create the most luscious of dishes. It was fit to be served to royalty. Fortunately, discerning AM soul disc jockeys were kind enough to award the finalized platter to the commoner – all one had to do was listen in (free of charge).
There are those who consider sweet soul to be relatively synonymous with the Philly Sound. This is simply not accurate. Yes, sweet soul was headquartered in Philly, but Philly acts such as the O’Jays & Spinners were not sweet soul. They had the faster-tempo dance drive that was outside of, and contrary to, this genre. No, sweet soul was slow, romantic & sugary stories of innocent love – love gained, love yearned for & love lost. These songs were meant to be shared body-tight-against-body. They all told a complete little story within 2 to 4 minutes. Amazing when you think about it. Also, the contributions of the Impressions and the Manhattans shouldn’t be overlooked in creating the groundwork.
In further describing sweet soul, it might be easier to give some Motown-related examples before moving on to those purveyors most treasured by aficionados of the genre. The Temptation’s Beauty’s Only Skin Deep or Ain’t Too Proud To Beg aren’t sweet soul – but Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) & I Wish It Would Rain most assuredly point there. The Miracles often come close with Smokey, but their nearest sweet soul classics are The Tracks Of My Tears & The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage. The more I think about it, Smokey actually nails it quite well here & the themes of these two tunes are square on topic (with nice strings).
Another fallacy is reliance on the geographic location of the groups. Yeah, Philly & the Northeast was the capital, but the groups could come from anywhere. Sometimes labels didn’t fully appreciate what they had in their own backyard. The two best examples of this were the Mad Lads & the Fantastic Four. Stax/Volt released singles & LPs by the Mad Lads, but never really gave then the promotional push given others. Motown seemingly treated the Fantastic Four with disdain – only to have AM jocks pick up on a series of great singles consisting of left over material deemed unworthy of their main acts.
But let’s get to it. Just what stuff should someone building a library of sweet soul own? Here’s a list of names followed by a short summary of each group: Intruders, Delfonics, Moments, Ethics, Continental IV, Brenda & The Tabulations, Unifics, Mad Lads, Fantastic Four, Chi-Lites, Five Stairsteps, Artistics, Escorts, Blue Magic & the Stylistics.
The genesis of the Philly-ized version of sweet soul germinated at Sigma Sound Studios. Individuals like Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell & Stan Watson began experimenting by fooling around with sounds they heard on the street corner & adding full arrangements with a working orchestra and core session players. (Bobby Martin & Norman Harris were doing something similar). Almost contemporaneously, others such as Sylvia Robinson in Northern Jersey & Chicago’s Curtis Mayfield took a similar direction. Roots were being sown for the new thing. Listeners who were lucky enough to get in from the beginning had many delicious treats in store. As tends to happen, the early product was quite often the most inspired. (Sorta like the first take of a jazz tune – it has more energy & feel to it – even if a later take is ultimately selected).
So, how did the Intruders start out? Well, they took their street corner harmonizing & practiced it in a local barber shop. Pretty cool, huh? >From there, Gamble & Huff polished it up. They produced two local hits, United & Together, before breaking nationally with Cowboys To Girls. In many ways, the Intruders introduced the innocent romance of Philly sweet soul and they had a nice string of terrific songs during their heyday.
Another group that brought Philly sweet soul to prominence was the Delfonics. Along with the Moments & Stylistics, they were the epitome of the genre. A pleading falsetto set against full strings & things arrangements & group harmony. Thom Bell & Stan Watson had sort of split from Gamble/Huff with their own concepts. They established Moon Shot Records & released He Don’t Really Love You & You’ve Been Untrue – both relative regional hits. As they went along, their vision was perfected while forming the Philly Groove label. Then the monster really hit! La La Means I Love You was truly the clarion call for this new sound & served to open up the floodgates. They followed it up with dozens of beauties, including I’m Sorry, Break Your Promise & others before hitting it huge again with Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time). The Delfonics were simply masters of sweet soul. Nowadays, I don’t know whether it’s any longer a good thing that Michael Jackson always declared them to be his favorite group.
Undeniably, the actual world-champion pleaders were the Sylvia Robinson-produced Moments from Jersey. This trio’s love-songs were so heart-wrenching as to be pathetic (in the best sense of the word). Their early material suffered from so-so studio values, but this was certainly not as vital when listened to on AM radio. They had a string of northeast urban hits & garnered a huge amount of airplay. Their 45s such as Not On The Outside, Sunday & Lovely Way She Loves led to their massive national hit Love On A Two Way Street. All the hip soul aficionados were into these guys big time. Also, an excellent way to impress the ladies with one’s sensitivity. Due to legal disputes, the Moments as a performing name was lost to them, but they later re-emerged as Ray, Goodman & Brown continuing in a similar vein. Man, the Moments were under-rated city.
It’s time to swing a little out of the core, but still remaining in Pennsylvania. Now we hit the Ethics & the Continental IV. The Ethics probably were the most proficient at recreating the Delfonic’s sound. Actually, at times one could readily mix them up. Four songs in particular held their own against the other sweet soul aces: Sad Sad Story, Tell Me, Think About Tomorrow & Farewell. A classy, polished & under appreciated act. Another falsetto-driven group hailing from central Pa was the Continental IV. Under producer Bobby Martin, they cut some killers. They had three 45s that particularly stood out & received well earned airplay: I Don’t Have You, Day By Day& You’re Living In A Dream World. The Ethics & Continental IV might be two of the more obscure sweet soul groups, but they most definitely show what this glorious movement was all about.
There was one notable exception to the male-dominated lead falsetto/group harmonizing strict definition, but who still fall squarely in the genre. In the latter half of the 60s, Brenda & The Tabulations emerged from the Bob Finiz-guided Philly Jamie/Guyden studios. Brenda Payton led this fabulous quartet, while also penning some of the tunes. Oddly enough, the two principles (Payton & Maurice Coates) hung out as kids at the playground just blocks from the studios. These sublime performers had five charting singles in 1967-68: Dry Your Eyes, Who’s Loving You?, Stay Together Young Lovers, When You’re Gone & Just Once In A Lifetime. The latter has miraculous group vocal interplay, along with a combination of two supremely catchy hooks in one tune. A second album yielded more fine singles & they attained deservedly legendary status among insiders.
Up from the nation’s capitol came the white-gloved Unifics. Yeah, they might have lifted the gloves from the Manhattans, but their style was most certainly their own. Their two charting 45s, Court of Love & The Beginning Of My End, addressed both love unfairly taken away (as described to the jury) and the devastating loss of a lover in a car crash following an argument. No way the AM jocks could have ignored this material! The Unifics were well known & admired for their stage presence.
We’re going to remain out of the Northeast geographically for awhile to chronologically cover the contributions of acts located elsewhere. Any piece on the genre of sweet soul would be sorely remiss if it didn’t cover the contributions of the Mad Lads, Fantastic Four, Artistics, Five Stairsteps or Chi-Lites. As earlier stated, sweet soul was a song delivery method unfettered by geography.
Stax/Volt simply never gave the Mad Lads their just due. Many aficionados (myself included), place this quartet very close to the top. Another top-flight stage act as well. The Mad Lads had a string of noteworthy (and lovely) 45s to their credit – each one played to death by those-in-the-know. It began with the gorgeous ballad Don’t Have To Shop Around, and continued through Come Closer To Me, Whatever Hurts You, I Want Someone, I Want A Girl, So Nice& Seeing Is Believing, among others. Their stately remakes of Cry Baby & By The Time I Get To Phoenix were completely spellbinding! They suffered through changing members, but never let listeners down. Their amount of AM soul jock airplay was right up there with the mighty Moments & everyone was much better off for it.
One of the true tragedies wrought by the Motown machine was their deplorable treatment of the Fantastic Four. These guys flat out earned much more support, given what they did with the leftover material supplied. It was unfair, I tell ya! (Sorry, I got carried away for a second there). These guys put out a series of magnificent singles in the latter 60s. A sampling includes I Love You Madly, The Whole World Is A Stage, You Gave Me Something (And Everything’s Alright), IŒve Got To Have You, To Share Your Love & Goddess Of Love. They didn’t possess the classic falsetto, but they were oh-so-sweet. If one doesn’t believe my ecstasy over this group, be aware that the long out-of-print CD The Best Of The Fantastic Four has garnered well over $40 on e-Bay auctions as a prized collector’s item.
Chicago’s Artistics were a short-lived foursome, but had two absolute killers before internal squabbling doomed their career. The ultra smooth I’m Gonna Miss You from 1966 charted high seemingly forever, followed by Girl I Need You. Oh well, the longevity just wasn’t to be.
There are those who say the Jackson Five were the first major family of song. But what about Chicago’s Five Stairsteps? Curtis Mayfield directed the Burke household to sweet soul acclaim well before the Jacksons. Beginning in 1966, they charted tune after tune: You’ve Waited Too Long, World Of Fantasy, Come Back, Danger! She’s A Stranger & Ooh Baby, Baby. Beginning in 1968, they enlisted five year old Cubie Burke & became more of a purist sweet soul act. Baby Make Me Feel So Good was downright erethral , while Don’t Change Your Love & We Must Be In Love marched on. The tenor-driven 5 Stairsteps always straddled the sweet soul fence, but ultimately they just gotta be included. Their arrangements & harmonies can’t be overlooked.
Alright, we’re heading into the homestretch. One last Chicago act & then back to the Philly area. The Eugene Record-led Chi-Lites were the bomb. The precise group harmonies & wonderful arrangements around Mr. Record’s tenor falsetto particularly graced Have You Seen Her, Oh Girl & Letter To Myself. These guys changed styles with the times, but their pure sweet soul period was decadently sugared.
We end up where Philly-ized sweet soul all started. Yup, Philly & Jersey. The Escorts, Blue Magic & the Stylistics were the last survivors before the advent of the dreaded DISCO. As much as I hate to say it, Gamble & Huff’s Philly International label did little to ward off this atrocity. They actually promoted the end of sweet soul with their danceable (vs. grindable) up tempo productions for the O’Jays, Spinners, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, MFSB, etc. I guess nothing (no matter how seemingly timeless) can really last forever – a true shame.
The seven member Escorts were serving extended jail time in Jersey’s Rahway State Prison when they hooked up with George Kerr to cut a series of rather crude (but soulfully harmonized & sweet) numbers during the early 1970s. Perhaps their spiritualized effort resulted from some kind of renewed hope. Again, they sounded better on AM radio as they lacked sophisticated production values. Three superb singles hit: Look Over Your Shoulder, I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow & Let’s Make Love (At Home Sometime). The irony of the last title cannot be underestimated. Just a neat overall concept, with the proceeds supporting families of fellow prisoners. Well done!
Blue Magic was aptly named, as their material was definitely magical. Heart-driven falsetto leads set against great harmonies & arrangements. These Philly performers had a rabid following. Who could blame them when the Magic Men delivered such surprises as Sideshow, Three Ring Circus, Spell, Stop To Start & What’s Come Over Me. These classics & others most likely would have been appreciated even more if one knew the end was approaching.
It is bitter-sweet to address the Stylistics. Thom Bell had left the Delfonics and, along with Linda Creed, became the main songwriters while guiding the Stylistic’s career. Russell Thompkins Jr’s falsetto is up there with the Delfonics’ William Hart as the very, very best. The Stylistics had an incredible run of singles, which also made a huge splash in Britain. Hang on to your seats: Betcha By Golly, Wow, I’m Stone In Love With You, Break Up To Make Up, You Make Me Feel Brand New &Let’s Put It All Together. Actually, there are many others also deserving of mention as the Stylistics had great fortitude & staying power. But unfortunately things do have to stop somewhere, you know.
Want to Spin Some Now?
There’s one really cool thing about soul groups. One can often get by with well selected greatest hits type compilations as many albums did contain filler. So, basically seek out such packages for all these groups. Quality remasterings obviously help. Some of the performers, however, either have no compilations out or merit further or specific purchase. Here’s one man’s take on this subject:
– Well-chosen greatest hits: Stylistics, Chi-Lites, 5 Stairsteps, Intruders, Blue Magic, Fantastic Four (if you can find it), Moments & Artistics.
– Collectables CD issues of The Ethics Golden Classics & The Unifics Sittin’ In The Court Of Love. The sonics of this label are not state-of-the-art, but at least they’ve released the material.
– Special situation #1: Get both The Mad Lads Greatest Hits on Collectables & Best Of The Mad Lads on Stax to acquire all their (so necessary) material.
– Special situation #2: Get Brenda & The Tabulations’ Dry Your Eyes. It includes the five charting singles mentioned, along with other fine tunes.
– Special situation #3: Seek out Essential Old School Harmony Vol 1 on the English Deep Beats label. This sweet soul disc has almost all the required tracks by the Continental IV & the Escorts. As a bonus, its 21 tracks includes material from the Carstairs, Black Ivory & others.
– Special situation #4: If possible, find the Delfonics Italian Ring Of Stars greatest hits package entitled La La Means I Love You. This is the only compilation containing He Don’t Really Love You, You’ve Been Untrue, Can You Remember & I Gave To You. It can be found with effort & all four of these songs burn. The first two clearly show the growth of sweet soul. In this particular instance, I’d even suggest also getting the Definitive Collection-along with any other reissue material available. The Delfonics did, in fact, reign supreme and no one package offers it all with a correspondingly high level of remastered sonics.
— Bimey K. Brown