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