arts entertainment feature

Legendary Soul Music Great Russell Thompkins Jr. : “I’ve Been Singing All My Life..”

                                                        RUSSELL THOMPKINS JR.

                                                        RUSSELL THOMPKINS JR.

Interview by Matt Bauer

His voice is unforgettable. Whether you first encountered it four and a half decades ago on those magical sides of vinyl with the purple and orange labels or you’re experiencing its aural delight for the first time in the digital age, the falsetto is timeless. As the lead singer of the original incarnation of The Stylistics and currently fronting The New Stylistics, Russell Thompkins Jr. is one of the key vocalists to emerge from the storied  Philly soul movement of the 1970s. 

The list of hits is long and impressive “You’re A Big Girl Now,” “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” “You Are Everything,”  “Break Up To Make Up,” and that’s just to name a few of the classics that Thompkins has graced with his creamy vocals; providing a lush, soulful soundtrack  for romance that’s left an unforgettable influence on the soul music landscape. Thompkins will be bringing those classic hits and more to The Tralf for two shows on October 31, with The New Stylistics. 

“I’ve been singing all my life,” explains Thompkins when asked how he developed his signature vocal style. “I grew up singing in a natural voice and most of the time I still do. In my teenage years, when I heard Motown and before that Frankie Valli,  I knew I had the ability to sing falsetto.” 

Formed in 1968 from the remnants of two Philadelphia based-vocal groups named The Monarchs and The Percussions, The Stylistics originally consisted  of Thompkins, Airrion Love, James Smith, Herb Murell and James Dunn. The quintet recorded their first single “You’re A Big Girl Now,” leading to a contract  with Avco Records tapping  legendary Philly Soul producer Thom Bell for production duties. 

Released in 1971, the Bell-produced The Stylistics  was the first of seven gold and eight platinum albums, yet the tranquil cover on that debut with the five members reflecting in the summer grass belied that Thompkins (save for Love on “You Are Everything“ ) was the only vocalist featured on it or any of Bell’s subsequent  landmark 1970’s productions for the group, which helped define the innovative Philadelphia soul sound of that decade. 

Prompted for his thoughts on why the City of Brotherly Love became a soul music Mecca, Thompson says, “I think one reason was business. Everything was formed here in Philadelphia, the way that Motown was and it was on the tails of Motown and Stax. The musical reason is because it was done well; the recording, the musicians and the producers came up with a very good studio product. But the messages said everything that people wanted to hear at that time. The love songs we were coming out with hit  the love portion of that while Philadelphia International had their message songs. Like Kenny Gamble said, ‘There’s a message in the music.’”

While the emerging disco scene of the mid-1970s  threatened to make the group’s romantic balladry obsolete in the States, its success had spread internationally to the UK, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong but dissension was growing in the ranks.  “I didn’t get along with the other members of The Stylistics. It was a job, other than getting up on stage with  a microphone and singing, because there was a lot of trouble which stemmed from when Thom Bell didn’t use them. And for 35 years everything fell on my shoulders and I stayed there  at least 37 years  more then I wanted to. I was going to leave the group but Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations talked me into staying. And to this day I hope that I go to the same place that Eddie went to so I can talk to him later.” (laughs)

Later records like 1974’s Hugo & Luigi-produced “Let’s Put It All Together” (which included the Van McCoy arranged smash “You Make Me Feel Brand New”) and  1975’s “Thank You Baby,” showcased more vocal contributions from group members. Yet with the exception of their 1980 reunion with Thom Bell’s “Hurry Up This Way Again” on the TSOP label, The Stylistics were unable to return to their former commercial glory. 

Thompkins would eventually leave the group in 1999 to study music, with no plans of working with The Stylistics again and emerging from a three year hiatus with  his solo debut A Matter of Style on the Rochester-based Forevermore records in 2002. At the urging of the label’s Christopher Bieler, Russell Thompkins Jr. and  The New Stylistics formed shortly thereafter with Raymond Johnson and Jonathan Buxton. 

The trio has just released their first live album The Very Best Of The Stylistics Hits, a 23-track collection recorded with the 50-piece Long Bay Symphony which has been in the works for years.  “I’m the kind of person that can never listen to myself because all I hear is the faults. I’ve been listening to it and I like it. For the first time I like something that I did,” he confesses with a laugh. 

As he approaches age 65,Thompkins sums up the current state of his career: “Basically right now I feel that I’ve built a new family around myself that I feel about in that same way. They’re younger than me; they still want to make music and they’re building their lives around me so I’m here to work with them. And I still like to do it. I still like to sing.  I don’t  care if I retire now, I’m going to sing somewhere.”