PHILLY SOUL WEEK
"If You Don't Know Me By Now" /
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
I must have heard this song a million times without ever knowing who sang it. That name, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes has such a vintage ring to it, and not by accident -- Harold Melvin formed his first version of the Blue Notes way back in the mid-1950s, the doo-wop era, which explains those multilayered vocal harmonies. But the sound is so modern, with that sexy slow tempo and the rich production, that I'd never have associated this song with an ancient doo-wop group. If you'd asked me a week ago if I'd ever heard of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, I'd have said no. But the songs? Oh, yes, I know them very well.
And now that I've read up on them, I'm convinced that somebody oughta make a movie about this band -- it's like Dream Girls all over again. From 1954 on, Harold Melvin steered his band through numerous personnel changes and label shifts, scoring a handful of regional R&B hits. Melvin had gradually ceded lead vocal duties; in the late '60s his lead singer was a guy called John Atkins. On tour with a band called the Cadillacs, however, Melvin was impressed with the Cadillacs' young drummer, Teddy Pendergrass -- so impressed that he lured him over to join the Blue Notes' backing band, and when Atkins left in 1970, Melvin swiftly promoted Pendergrass to the job. With his soulful baritone, Pendergrass was a natural star. It wasn't long before the kingmakers of Philadelphia, Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble, came a-calling.
A string of hits followed -- "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "Don't Leave Me This Way," the uptempo "The Love I Lost" (often cited as the first true disco recording) -- finally bringing crossover acclaim to Melvin's band. And of course -- anybody see this coming? -- eventually Teddy Pendergrass got tired of being in a band with another guy's name at the top and went solo in 1976. Harold Melvin & the Blues Notes left the Gamble-Huff empire and continued to record and tour for years, but their heyday was over, while Teddy Pendergrass became a genuine sex symbol and crossover music star.
I never liked "The Love I Lost" -- to me, that was heading into Commodores territory, and the clicking beat seemed at odds with the stated subject of the song. Or maybe it was just too much of an earworm, and I hated having my brain taken over by that hooky refrain. But "If You Don't Know Me By Now" stays on the sweet side of soul, and I love it.
It's actually a brilliant formula, the way the backing vocalists keep repeating that title line over and over, while Pendergrass croons and emotes over it. He's practically rapping here, if you think about it. Drenched in a shimmer of strings, the doowop chorus is like the part of his brain that just can't get past this heartbreaking thought, that maybe his woman really never will trust him. Counterpointed against that is his freeform lead vocal line, the agitated conversation he's having with his woman, pleading, admonishing, protesting.
It's the tried-and-true Philly combo of the sensitive male with his leonine masculinity and wounded male pride. Listen to the outrage and despair encoded in Pendergrass's voice, that little rasp at the edge. Wowie.