My Pop Life #193 : People Make The World Go Round – The Stylistics


People Make The World Go Round – The Stylistics

But that’s what makes the world go ’round
The up and downs, a carousel
Changing people’s heads around
Go underground young man…

Every Thursday morning I get woken by the trash collectors outside the front yard. Making slow progress up Carlton Avenue, throwing black bin liners full of crap into the back of the truck, chatting, making scraping sounds, thuds, following the slowly moving truck up the street.  There’s something calming about how this happens with clockwork regularity, and this morning I woke after a marvellous night’s sleep – the best for some weeks indeed – and retired to the back room where the sunlight hadn’t quite reached thanks to the giant church edifice at the bottom of the garden.  Cats came to join me in contemplation as I felt gratitude for the simple regular domestic details of life without fear, without stress (pretending!) without debt (hmmm).   My brain was calm, wandering through the concept of exotics pets (wow I hate this trend SO MUCH, please leave them where they are);  the human appetite which must be tempered at every turn – no sugar, no meat, no fat, no smoking, no adultery, no gambling, no fighting, no envy, no stealing the same old story told and retold generation after generation in every culture every religion every century as the world turns and the trash man collects every Thursday.

Russell Thompkins Jr in the early 70s

This song begins with the line “Trash man didn’t get the trash today…. and why because they want more pay”.  The rhythm of life has been disturbed.  But the rhythm of the song has already been established as a 4/4 interrupted by a 2/4 every now and again (I haven’t counted it out).  A beautiful arrangement reminiscent of Bacharach, but emanating from the minds of Thom Bell and Linda Creed in early 1970s Philadelphia.  The song opens with the wind blowing through wind chimes as the bass and the keys gives out an urgent pulse, the strings and drums arrive together with the off-beat marimba and vibraphone as the exquisite voice of Russell Thompkins Jr tells us the tale of urban life – pollution, strikes, shares tumbling, long hair gets a mention, rich v poor, it’s a classic social snapshot which was in vogue at this time – think Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Wake Up Everybody, What’s Going On and so on.  Black music had worn a social conscience on its sleeve since the riots of the late 60s, the murder of Martin Luther King, the fact that many artists had fulfilled their contracts and demanded more control (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder), and were writing about what they saw around them – Marvin Gaye’s brother had come back from Vietnam and they’d spent days talking together before he wrote his magnum opus.

Thom Bell

It’s easier to define things (incorrectly) in decade generalisations – 60s soul vs 70s soul but actually the break comes in 1968 with James Brown’s I’m Black & I’m Proud. Soul music had started to introduce the orchestra in the late 1960s at Motown with Diana Ross’ Someday We’ll Be Together and Reach Out And Touch, Isaac Hayes had broken it all down with the LP Hot Buttered Soul in 1969, drenched in orchestration and stretched out to glory on every song and opening the door of soul music to anyone who had bigger ideas for the sound.  Cellos !  Violas !  Orchestration became the name of the game and over the next five years and large number of extremely good soul records were produced – largely, I have to admit, in Philadelphia PA.  A studio run by Thom Bell alongside Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff who created the Philly Sound – Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes with the outstanding vocals of Mr Teddy Pendergrass who would go on to be the soundtrack for a million conceptions, The O-Jays in their Love Train, still playing today (I saw them in Brooklyn a couple of years ago with Rita Wolf my ex-girlfriend from the 80s), Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, The Intruders, MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother) the houseband with their huge orchestrated instrumental hit TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia), McFadden & Whitehead and of course The Stylistics – who were actually on another Philly label Avco Records.  

Leon Huff, Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble – TSOP

Later we would get the great Barry White from Los Angeles, Wattstax where Isaac Hayes ruled, The Three Degrees, The Detroit Emeralds, The Jacksons, all utilising the full orchestra for their sound, all fantastic.  I’m working off the top of my head here because the internet is down, but I think that the first soul hit to use strings in such a featured way is The Delfonics’ La La Means I Love You, again from 1968 (the watershed year when the world turned a little more sharply: Street Fighting Man. Vietnam. And so on and so forth.)  But the first ?? No this must be mistaken.  It was however and anyway one of the first productions from Thom Bell for the Philly Groove label (previously Cameo/Parkway) in Philadelphia, and set the template for The Stylistics and The Spinners, and indeed Philadelphia International.  Massively influential, it all led, of course, to disco, which dominated the music scene at the close of the decade.

The Delfonics with Thom Bell in 1970

The Stylistics had an incredibly lush sound and their first LP – called, with predictable and satisfyingly clockwork regularity – “The Stylistics”,  yielded an embarrassment of riches – every song is superb, and five or six of them were hit singles : Stop Look Listen To Your Heart, Betcha By Golly Wow, You Are Everything (also a hit for Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross), You’re A Big Girl Now and People Make The World Go Round.   All but one written by Creed and Bell it was a perfect marriage of melody, voice, arrangement and soul.  Their second LP a year later was equally fecund – Stone In Love With You, Break Up To Make Up, Peek-A-Boo, You’ll Never Get To Heaven – all with the same signature slow groove lush orchestration and extraordinary voice of Thompkins.  The 3rd LP gives us Rockin’ Roll Baby the title track and the magnificent You Make Me Feel Brand New.  Then Thom Bell moved on and they floundered somewhat. On their 4th record they harnessed the power of Van McCoy to create Can’t Give You Anything, a song which hit the charts in England in 1975 and which I wrote about in My Pop Life #70 .   It’s a magnificent run of music.

That incredible first Stylistics album : “The Stylistics

When I was driving bandmates Glen Richardson and Tom White up to Liverpool last month (a prestigious gig for us, performing the Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour albums for their 50th anniversary at the wonderful Philharmonic Hall) we chatted music most of the way up – it was a pre-Bank Holiday Friday and the journey took 10 monster hours, frying our brains.  But we had a half-decent soundtrack so everything was all right.  Glen asked at one point “in a perfect world, which tribute band would you want to play in?”  Tom, being a young 30-something fella (previously produced 4 LPs with his brother Alex as Electric Soft Parade, a couple with British Sea Power members as Brakes, many solo LPs now with The Fiction Aisle) chose American indie band Guided By Voices.  Although I’d heard of them I couldn’t name you a single song, and neither could Glen.  Such are generation gaps.  I cannot for the life of me remember what Glen chose (how odd), but I said ‘orchestral soul from the early 1970s‘ – at which point the iPod, which had been listening closely to this verbal duel, proceeded to play a number of these  songs such as If You Don’t Know Me By Now and Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, including this one from those Stylistics, plus Love TKO from Teddy Pendergrass and we wondered whether Me & Mrs Jones was about adultery or cocaine, and how iPods can do this kind of thing.

The song worked its magic again last week, driving around Guadeloupe with Adjoa Andoh, Roz Eleazar and her sister Sai not even two weeks ago.  We needed some healing and escape for on the previous Saturday Roz, her boyfriend Gabe and sister Sai, Larrington Walker and I had gone to the beach down in Malendure to explore the Jaques Cousteau Reserve.  We’d got separated (2 persons per kayak) and my boat had inexplicably swerved off to the Jardin Japonais an underwater coral reserve which was stupendously beautiful, but not Pigeon Island where the others had gone.  I lost my friends, swam with the turtles for a bit and then upon returning to the hotel found out that Larrington had died face down snorkelling off Pigeon Island.  I’d seen the ambulances and Gendarmerie Plongeuse but hadn’t asked what was up.  The girls were calm that evening, relating how they’d seen Larrington lying on the beach as if asleep.  Someone else had pulled him out of the water.  They’d given statements to the police, and traded versions over the whisky and beer.  The rest of the cast and crew – guest suspect (like Roz, Adjoa and I) Osy Ikhile, Marc Elson boom, director Sarah were in shock too.  It is a notoriously difficult place to shoot – the heat, the humidity, the mosquitos, but this was another level.  Death in Paradise.  He was 70 years old, but Jo Martin told me on the Sunday that he was fit and swam a kilometre every day.  That’s like an hour of swimming.  We vowed not to speak to the press if somehow it leaked out and they wanted a story for their headline.  We drank ourselves into a stupor that night.  The following day was numb.  We stayed in the hotel, perched on the side of the mountain, a decision was made not to shoot on the Monday out of respect.  So we had a weird day off and by now Adjoa had arrived to the news that her colleague had passed on.  Monday came and I rented a car after breakfast and set up the ipod with a recently created playlist called simply PHILLY.  It played us all the way around to Port Louis and back – two 90-minute drives to a small community on the low-lying sister island Grand Terre and a ghost town with but one restaurant open – Dominican – with tremendous fish (and lentil stew for the vegans) and an almost-deserted beach just past the old cemetery with pure white golden sand and trees right down to the water line.

Adjoa, Roz, Sai in Port Louis, Guadeloupe

We swim in the warm Caribbean water and Adjoa and I both step on sea urchins, receiving a little parting gift in the soles of our feet which the intrepid Saireeta pulls out the following day with tweezer and unerring eye.  It is on the way home that The Stylistics record comes on People Make The World Go Round, and Adjoa swoons and sings along – it reminds her of her youth in the 1970s – we immediately chop it back and play it twice.  And although Roz and Sai are both way younger than us and not fully indulging in the nostalgia-fest of Philly, like we are in the front seats, nevertheless they are enjoying the sweet soul sounds of the seventies and healing along with us for we are in mourning after all.   And by the time we return people are preparing for Hurricane Irma which MAY OR MAY NOT make landfall on Guadeloupe on Wednesday morning.  Someone asks me if I’ve ever worked on a show before where someone has died, and although my memory is unreliable I think in fact that I have not.   And clearly I wasn’t supposed to experience this death fully either, for despite spending breakfast with Larrington and meeting him on the beach, I was swerved away by the captain of my boat (speaking French not English) and thus was not a material witness either to the police or to Larrington’s son Alandro who arrived later that same day.  I did in fact speak to Alandro briefly and gave him the photograph below which was the last picture of Larrington, sitting in the kayak paddling toward his ultimate destiny.

Larrington Walker, rest in peace

But People do actually make the world go round don’t they?  The news will always be full of despair.  Now and again the trash man will not collect the trash.  But world will not crumble (Gibraltar may crumble the Rockies may tumble – they’re only made of clay..) because people will continue to make the world go round, and my love is here to stay.  This morning I rediscovered the simple joy of doing nothing as the sun cracked through the window and lit a splinter of floor which Roxy examined and found to be good. BoyBoy was on my lap looking at me with such love in his eyes as I stroked his tummy.  I could hear the odd car horn from the street outside, but they disturbed me not for I had found my life.    These moments of peace have a variety of names – smell the roses, breathe, gratitude, but how wonderful that they tend to arrive in moments of pressure to remind me that stuff happens and life goes on.

I always loved this song.  It’s on The Stylistics Greatest Hits which I had at college on vinyl.  I’ve never seen them live, and now there are two versions doing the rounds (there’s only one with Russell Thompkins Jr though called The New Stylistics).  But then we went to see Stevie Wonder in 2008 at the O2 in London, just after we’d come back from our intrepid China trip, seeing my brother Paul in Shanghai and catching some asian flu bug in a river near Yangshuo (not Jenny, just me since she didn’t jump into the river.  It looked nice.  To me).  I was knocked out.  Various blood tests were coming back negative – you can only ask a yes/no question to a blood test : Is It Pneumonia ?  NO.  We eventually asked nine questions and they were all no.  By then the shadow on my lungs had gone.  But for Stevie Wonder it was touch and go.  I’d been bedridden since getting back, weak as a kitten.  Had to see Stevie though. Non-negotiable lifetime moment.  So I asked dear Rory Cameron, guitarist with the Brighton Beach Boys if he would be chauffeur for the night for a fee and drive my car up to Greenwich for the gig.  Rory’s tale is still a fresh scar on the band since he is no longer with us and lives in Bury St Edmunds.  I may get around to telling it one day.  In 2008 all was well and there was nothing we wouldn’t do for each other.  Inside the arena we found we were in the 12th row, which is pretty damn good.  Stevie had no support and opened with Miles Davis All Blues from A Kind Of Blue.  It was going to be a slightly different kind of gig !  He also played some Herbie Hancock, some Michael Jackson and this song by The Stylistics, in among his own treasures – and he could’ve played for 25 hours only singing his own songs…and so it only remains for me to note that the song has also been covered by a young Michael Jackson in 1972 (with different lyrics!) on his marvellous 2nd album ‘Ben’.

I just said to Jenny – if that day comes when I cannot move my hands and my voice is gone and you can only rely on guesswork to establish what it is I need.  You know.  That day.  (No. Never that day will come ! )  C’mon now people.  We all gonna die.  Some will fade away others will Snap !  done.  Anywaze – I said to Jenny, said I to her : When That Day Comes, then Just Know that Chocolate Raisins and The Stylistics will always be the correct choice.

 

 

 

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: My Pop Life #223 : Overjoyed – Stevie Wonder | Magicmenagerie's Blog

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