Sunday, May 02, 2010


"Break Up To Make Up" / The Stylistics

It was hard to pick just one Stylistics song to gush about. When the starry-eyed "Betcha By Golly Wow" came out in 1971, I wasn't sure what to think -- it teetered right on the verge of cheesy. But 1972's "I'm Stone in Love With You" sealed their sound, adding a gentle rollick to the beat that convinced us these guys were hip. (Ever sit in the back of a VW Beetle with half-a-dozen loopy teenage girls trying to match that octave jump on "you-oooo"?) And in 1974, the Stylistics hit their height with "You Make Me Feel Brand New," the most glorious melodic line ever written for Russell Thompkins' angelic falsetto.

But I realized I had to go with "Break Up To Make Up," a 1973 hit that sums up everything I feel about Philly soul. There's no question that it's schmaltzy and overproduced, with a stately waltz tempo that pours on the emotions even more. On top of that, it features the default Philly soul plot line, a romantic complaint song by an injured male -- a situation I really can't relate to. When I recall the song, it's like thinking about a rich pastry when you're not hungry. All that whipped cream! The custard filling! The chocolate drizzles on top! But play 30 seconds of the thing -- take just one bite -- and you remember all over again how beautiful it is.

That long lush intro may overstay its welcome, but remember, on the AM radio you'd never hear it all -- the DJ would always take advantage of it to cram in a little more chatter. That ooze of strings and vibes is there just to set the tempo and the mood -- a musical palate cleanser, wiping away whatever sassy trash you were listening to previously. And then Thompkins' voice sails in, stepping sorrowfully by thirds down the scale: "Tell me what's wrong with you now / Tell me why I / Never seem to make you happy / Though heaven knows I try." Two lines of straight time, followed by two lines of complicated syncopation, as if he's tripping over his own feelings. That gorgeous vocal doesn't need much of a setting -- a light tick of hi-hats, a whisper of vibes, that's all.

Then it gently slides into the chorus: "Break up to make up, that's all we do / First you love me, then you hate me / That's a game for fools." Maybe you've been lucky enough never to be in a love affair like this, but I know people who never have any other kind of relationship. Personally I run for the hills when the fights start, which may be why Thompkins' wistfulness strikes home with me. The arrangement is just brilliant (Thom Bell, I'm assuming, though Kenny Gamble also had a hand in this song, along with Bell's usual lyrics partner Linda Creed). Listen to how the other Stylistics cling to the rueful melody, while Thompkins' melismatic descant shimmers above it, as if his heart is running away with him.

Thom Bell -- who'd begun producing the Stylistics when Thompkins was barely out of high school -- vanished from their lives in 1974 and their career faltered in the States. They did have a second career in Europe, as evidenced by the Simply Red cover of "You Make Me Feel Brand New" (someone keep those guys from mucking around with the Philly classics!), but their sound never evolved significantly. The Stylistics were Philly soul's new kids on the block -- they hadn't previously toiled in the R&B backwaters for ages -- yet they still wore the matching suits, still did the hand motions and twirls behind the mic stands, stepping effortlessly into the mold that Bell and Gamble & Huff had laid down. In the end, even Russell Thompkins' extraordinary voice wasn't enough without the genius producers pulling the right strings. For better or worse, Philly Soul was a producer's genre. But who's to say that's a bad thing?


wwolfe said...

Boy, I love the Stylistics. Not the most cogent critical analysis, but there you go. My fave was "Betcha by Golly Wow," but I loved all the Thom Bell productions. (There's a good "shoulda been a hit" off their second album, called "Right As Rain," that I'd include on any "Best of" anthology.) Surprisingly, I think my second favorite would be "Rockin' Roll Baby," the fastest track they ever made. If nothing else, I have to admire the chutzpah of presenting "He was born in a theater/In Bluefield, West Virginia" as if there were no doubt it rhymed perfectly.

Holly A Hughes said...

It's amazing to me how young these guys were when they had their first hits -- young and probably malleable, which would have suited Thom Bell just fine. But you can't fake voices like that, or their innate sense of delivery. Gorgeous.

Rob said...

When I hear the Stylistics, I think of my summer as a fry cook at a fast food place in front of the State House In Columbus, Ohio. One of convicts on parole who worked next to me used to sing along with these tunes, and it was both hilarious and heartbreaking. Your blog is genius, Holly. Pure glowing genius.
Love, R