This week in 1971, “You Are Everything” by the Stylistics moved into the Billboard Top 40. WLS had just started playing it, and it wouldn’t be long before I went to S&O TV, handed over my 95 cents, and took the single home. I would be a Stylistics fan forever after. “You Are Everything” has, well, everything—vintage 70s guitar noises, dreamy, ethereal production by the great Thom Bell, and a breathtaking performance by Russell Thompkins Jr., master of the falsetto.
For the next two-plus years, Bell, songwriting partner Linda Creed, and the Stylistics would deal out hit after hit, every one of them unique: the nursery-rhyme flavored “Betcha By Golly Wow” would have sounded stupid coming out of any mouth but Thompkins’, but one year later, “Break Up to Make Up” was the exact opposite—Thompkins convincingly conveys the frustration of a misfiring love affair. The 1974 hit “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” which featured a rare lead vocal by Airrion Love in addition to Thompkins, is one of the most powerful songs of devotion and gratitude you’re ever going to hear.
But none of them are on my Desert Island list. Two others are.
At the end of 1972, Bell and Creed dumped some extra sugar into their successful Stylistics recipe and produced their most powerful earworm to date, “I’m Stone in Love With You.” I was 12 years old at the time, in the seventh grade and in love with various unattainable girls, and I fantasized about them just like Thompkins did. But even before Thompkins started to sing, I’d already been seduced by Bell’s pretty music. The first nine seconds of “I’m Stone in Love With You” are pure AM-radio perfection, as is the last half-minute or so.
You might say that all I do is dream my life away
I guess it’s true, cuz I’m stone in love with you
At the end of 1973, after that string of love songs, the Stylistics tried something different—an uptempo number about life on the road, the kind of thing rock bands had been singing for years. Filtered through the Bell/Creed aesthetic, however, it came out exactly the way you’d expect it to.
If you do not dig “Rockin’ Roll Baby,” you and I shouldn’t see each other anymore.
“You Make Me Feel Brand New” followed “Rockin’ Roll Baby” up the charts, peaking at Number Two, becoming the biggest hit the group ever had—but they fell off the mountain rather quickly in 1974, after they quit working with Bell in favor of veteran impresarios Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore. “Let’s Put It All Together” would be their final Top-40 hit; “Heavy Fallin’ Out” would just miss the 40 that fall. Their last Hot 100 hit came in 1976, although they would continue to hit intermittently on the R&B charts and in the UK through 1992. But without Bell’s production and those Bell/Creed songs, the magic was gone.
The original lineup of the Stylistics—Thompkins, Love, Herb Murrell, James Dunn, and James Smith, soldiered on until 1980, when Dunn and Smith left and Raymond Johnson joined. The next major change of lineup came in 2000 when Thompkins left. Love and Murrell brought back Johnson, who had left in 1985, and recruited two new singers, Van Fields and Harold Brown; both had been in the Delfonics, and Brown had been with the Manhattans and Ray, Goodman, and Brown. (This is the edition that was ubiquitous on PBS pledge specials in the early ’00s.) Today, there are two editions of the Stylistics out on the road: Love, Murrell, Fields, and Brown are the Stylistics, while Thompkins, Johnson, and two other singers are the New Stylistics.
But back in the 70s, there was only one, and for all time, there will only be one.