The New Stylistics to Bring Classic Soul Sound to SOPAC Benefit Concert June 1
Friday, May 25, 2012 • 7:24am
You probably grew up with Russell Thompkins, Jr.
Not literally, of course, unless you were a kid in Philadelphia in the 1950s. But Thompkins’ soulful, soaring tenor as lead singer of The Stylistics during the 1970s may well have been what you were slow-grooving to at dances…
God bless you… you make me feel brand new…
Or on dates...
You are everything … and everything is you…
Or sniffling to after a failed romance…
Break up to make up, that's all we do … First you love me then you hate me, that's a game for fools…
While The Stylistics, who had 12 consecutive R&B top 10 hits and five pop hits in the U.S. between 1971 and 1974, were ruling the airwaves, Thompkins was longing to leave the group. He stayed, however, until 2000 when he left, went back to school to study music, learned to play the piano and began to spread his musical wings in a way he’d never been able to before.
In 2004, Thompkins formed the group Russell Thompkins’ Jr. and The New Stylistics, who will be performing at a concert to benefit the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Friday, June 1 at 8 p.m.
Thompkins said he is so much happier, personally and creatively, with his new group than he was with The Stylistics.
“When you’re not happy, you can’t make music right, and people can feel it,” he said. “I used to go on stage and I would put myself in my own head and shut out everything else so I could give my heart and soul to my music when I was performing.”
That was then. Now Thompkins said his group has fun on stage.
“We listen to teach other, we look at each other, we laugh,” he said.
Thompkins was born and raised in Philadelphia, where he sang in the choir at Benjamin Franklin High School. He and some of his friends formed a group called the Monarchs, and in 1968, they sang in a talent show against a group of fellow students who called themselves the Percussions. The Monarchs defeated the Percussions, and shortly after that, both groups disbanded. That’s when Thompkins, James Smith and Airrion Love from the Monarchs, and James Dunn and Herbie Murrell from the Percussions, started The Stylistics.
In 1970, the Stylistics recorded “You're a Big Girl Now,” which became a hit for Sebring Records. A larger label, Avco Records, soon signed The Stylistics, and by early 1971, the song had climbed to number seven on the R&B charts. At that point, Avco executives asked record producer Thom Bell to work with the group. He was reportedly unimpressed with their audition, but was taken with Thompkins’ voice.
Thompkins calls working with Bell “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” The producer built The Stylistics’ sound around Thompkins’ voice and distinctive falsetto. The string of hits that followed included “Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart),” “You Are Everything,” “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” “Break Up to Make Up” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New.”
What should have been a fairy tale-like time of reveling in musical success for Thompkins was overshadowed by problems within the group.
“I stayed with them, reluctantly, for 30 years,” he said. “There were a lot of problems, a lot of dissent. I finally couldn’t take it anymore.”
He went back to school to formally study music, where he learned to read music and play the piano. The feeling he brings to his performances now is what he says he was missing in those first three decades of performing with The Stylistics.
“The first 35 years was just working, singing, on the road… come home, get married, take your wife on the road with you,” he said. “It was really hectic.” He says he only stayed with the group when his friend Eddie Kendricks, lead singer for The Temptations, told him he should. “He said ‘Do you know how many people you’re feeding?’ So I stayed. I stayed as long as I could.”
He doesn’t feel The New Stylistics is a fresh start, as he’s just doing what he’s been doing all along.
“To me, it was just getting back on stage and being myself – my real self,” he said. His real self still includes that remarkable falsetto, fans will be glad to hear, and Thompkins said it is still “right where my voice is supposed to be.”
“I actually grew into the key,” he said. “I can sing falsetto every day as long as I get the right amount of rest and exercise.” He also sings in a baritone.
Thompkins’ favorite of all his hits is “Betcha By Golly, Wow.”
“So many songs become routine, but I love that one,” he said. “I can sing it every day. All I have to do is think about love and other wonderful things.”
The last time he sang that song was on Mother’s Day, and his mind was on his mother, who died on March 8.
“My mind was on her when I sang it on Mother’s Day,” Thompkins said. “She was in my heart, but I didn’t feel sad, I actually felt happy. We partied at her memorial, because that’s what she would have wanted. That’s the kind of person she was.”
For tickets to The New Stylistics benefit concert at SOPAC, call 973-313-ARTS (2787) or visit http://sopacnow.org/436/benefit.