Soul Serenade: Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”

Harold Melvin and the BluenotesAlright, I admit it. There’s more Philly Soul covered in this column than music from any other soul capitol. There are a few reasons for that, the primary one being that when I was a kid in Atlantic City it was the music that the Philadelphia kids brought with them to the Jersey shore that made me love soul music in the first place. To this day, across all the years, it remains my favorite music. So this week I’m back with a Philly Soul record that was not only a huge hit but also represents all of the best aspects of the sound.

Great Philly Soul begins with the song and so many of them were the creations of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is one of them. The record was a smash for Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes but it wasn’t intended for them in the first place. Gamble and Huff had another Philadelphia group, Labelle, in mind when they wrote the song. For one reason or another, Labelle passed on the song and that’s when the writer/producers turned to Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes.

They were the Charlemagnes when they got together but by 1954 they were the Blue Notes and they had a long hard road ahead. They had some hits, albeit minor ones, with “My Hero” in 1960, and “Get Out (and Let Me Cry)” in 1965. The tide began to turn for the group when they recruited a drummer named Teddy Pendergrass to play in their backing band in 1970. The Bluenotes lead singer at the time was John Atkins but he left the group the same year the Pendergrass came on board. This led to Pendergrass, who had previously been a member of The Cadillacs (not the well-known Cadillacs from New York) being elevated to the lead singer role. That group, with Melvin, Pendergrass, Bernard Wilson, Lawrence Brown, and Lloyd Parks, was signed to Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1972. It was the same year that they released their breakout smash “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”

The record, which featured an unforgettable Pendergrass vocal, was released on September 11, 1972. It quickly moved up the charts until it was on top of the R&B chart and at #3 on the pop chart. As big a hit as it was for the Bluenotes, 17 years later the English band Simply Red took it even higher. Their version made it all the way to the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The RIAA named “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” one of the Songs of the Century.

Harold Melvin and the BluenotesThe Bluenotes had been together in one form or another for 20 years when they first had major success and it didn’t end there. They dropped one hit after another including “The Love I Lost,” “Wake Up Everybody,” “Bad Luck,” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Despite their success, the lineup continued to change and that situation went critical when Pendergrass, at the height of the Bluenotes success, left for a solo career. Melvin led them forward but the departure of Pendergrass was a blow from which they never really recovered. Still, Melvin led an ever-changing lineup until his death in 1997. Pendergrass had a. massively successful solo career until he was paralyzed in a car accident in 1982. Although he recovered enough to return to recording and performance, it was never really the same. Teddy Pendergrass died from respiratory failure in 2010.

No discussion of Philly Soul or the glory years of Philadelphia International Records will ever be complete without recognition of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes.

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Soul Serenade: Dee Dee Sharp, “Ride!”

Dee Dee SharpWhen we think of Philly Soul, we tend to think of Gamble & Huff and their work with the Intruders, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, the O’Jays, and many more. We also think of Thom Bell and his work with the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and the Spinners. And while those producers, songwriters, and artists certainly represent the peak of Philly Soul, the fact remains that there was great music coming out of Philadelphia before any of them arrived on the scene. Case in point, Dee Dee Sharp.

Dione LaRue was born in Philadelphia and when she was 16 years old she began her career as a background singer. It wasn’t long before the newly christened Dee Dee Sharp was stepping out on her own. Her first hit was a duet with Chubby Checker called “Slow Twistin’,” although Parkway Records failed to credit her on the record label. Her first hit on her own came with the smash “Mashed Potato Time” in 1962. The Cameo Records single ran all the way up the Billboard Hot 100 to #2.

“Mashed Potato Time” was followed by “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes),” and “Ride!,” both of which also reached the Top 10 that same year. Sharp’s final Top 10 hit was “Do the Bird” in 1963. She also released “Rock Me I the Cradle of Love” and “Wild!” that year and both singles made the charts but neither had the kind of success that the earlier hits did. Subsequent Cameo singles like “Where Did I Go Wrong,” “Willyam, Willyam,” “Never Pick a Pretty Boy,” “I Really Love You,” and “It’s a Funny Situation” also found only minor chart success.

A marriage made in Philly Soul heaven took place when Sharp married Kenny Gamble in 1967 and began recording as Dee Dee Sharp-Gamble. The disco era brought a bit of a career renewal for Sharp-Gamble as she released a moderately successful cover of the 10cc hit “I’m Not In Love” on her husband’s Philadelphia International label in 1976. Sharp and Gamble were divorced in 1980 and Sharp subsequently remarried. Her last chart single was “I Love You Anyway” which reached #62 on the R&B chart in 1981.

Soul Serenade: The Clovers “Love Potion No. 9”

The Clovers

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has been said that when the British Invasion bands appeared on these shores and on our radios they were bringing American music back to America. The British musicians were steeped in the knowledge of American blues, R&B, and soul in ways that most Americans just weren’t. Today’s record is a case in point; an American R&B hit that was brought back to these shores a few years later by a British Invasion band that turned the song into an even bigger hit.

The Clovers have had a long and distinguished career that began when they got together in Washington, D.C. in 1946 and goes on to this day in some fashion. The original lineup included Harold Lucas, Billy Shelton, and Thomas Woods. They were joined shortly after that by lead singer Buddy Bailey. There have been many lineup changes over the years and I won’t detail them all, but by 1948, Shelton and Woods were gone, replaced by Matthew McQuater and Harold Winsley.

The quartet released their first single, “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” for Rainbow Records in 1950 and soon after that became a quintet with the addition of guitarist Bill Harris. By 1951, the Clovers were signed to the fledgling Atlantic Records label. The first single for the label was “Don’t You Know I Love You,” a song written by Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, b/w the standard “Skylark.” It was the Clovers first Top 10 R&B hit and remained on the chart for five months.

The second Clovers release for Atlantic was “Fool, Fool, Fool,” and that one went all the way to the top of the R&B chart. Bailey was drafted and replaced by John Phillip but the hits kept coming. The Clovers hits the charts with songs like “One Mint Julep,” “Middle of the Night” (another Ertegun composition), “Ting-A-Ling,” “Hey Miss Fannie,” “Good Lovin’,” “Lovey Dovey,” “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash,” and several other singles.

The Clovers

Bailey eventually returned from the Army, rejoined the group, and shared vocal duties with Billy Mitchell who had replaced Charlie White, who had replaced Phillip. Whew! The thing is, the hits never stopped, no matter who the Clovers were. “Blue Velvet,” “Nip Sip,” “Devil or Angel,” “So Young” and “I I I Love You” (the latter two songs arranged by Quincy Jones) were all hits.

In 1957, the Clovers Atlantic contract expired and their manager, Lou Krefetz, got them signed to Poplar Records the following year. Poplar was subsumed by United Artists the following year and in June 1959, the Clovers entered the recording studio to record their signature hit “Love Potion No. 9.”

The song was written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. It was released in July and this time it not only raced up the R&B chart to #23 but found equivalent success on the pop chart. It was by far the biggest hit of the Clovers long career. It was also the last time that the Clovers ever hit the R&B or pop chart but it wasn’t for lack of trying. They kept recording up until 1968 with an ever-shifting lineup and a variety of record labels. At times there was more than one band using the Clovers name, there were breakups and reunions, and the deaths of various members over the years.

A British band, the Searchers, covered “Love Potion No. 9” in 1964. Their version reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Remember what I said about bringing our music back to us?

As of 2013, a legal agreement has allowed two different groups to perform under the Clovers name.

Soul Serenade: The Edwin Hawkins Singers, “Ooh Child”

Edwin Hawkins SingersOne of my favorite things about my adopted home state of Rhode Island is the state motto. It’s not really a motto at all in the expected sense of a phrase or a sentence. It is simply one word … Hope. The motto is thought to have been derived from the biblical verse that states that “we have this hope as an anchor for the soul.” This is borne out by the fact that Rhode Island’s symbol is an anchor.

It seems to me that hope is something that is in short supply these days, not only here in Rhode Island but throughout our divided country and the entire world for that matter. We arrive at Thanksgiving today at a dark time in our history when no one is really sure whether our democracy can survive. And that’s where that single word, hope, comes in.

So I set about to find a way to mark this holiday with a song about hope. There are many of course but the one that has always moved me the most is “Ooh Child.” The song was written by Stan Vincent and originally recorded by the Five Stairsteps in 1970. At the time, the A-side of the record was the Stairsteps cover of the Beatles “Dear Prudence” with “Ooh Child” on the flip side. But it was the B-side that broke out in several markets and by the summer of 1970, the record’s message of hope had reached the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Released by Buddha Records, “Ooh Child” was the only Top 40 pop record the Five Stairsteps ever had.

I’ve written about the Five Stairsteps version of the song previously in the column but the song has had many cover versions over the years. Among the other artists who have recorded “Ooh Child” are The Spinners, Nina Simone, New Birth, Richie Havens, Valerie Carter, Hall & Oates, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. I chose the Hawkins Singers version for today because out of all the fine covers of the song, the group’s gospel roots help to instill in an even greater sense of hope in me.

Ooh-oo child
Things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child
Things’ll get brighter
Ooh-oo child
Things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child
Things’ll get brighter
Some day, yeah
We’ll get it together and we’ll get it all done
Some day
When your head is much lighter
Some day, yeah
We’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Some day
When the world is much brighter

And there it is … hope.

My hope is that this Thanksgiving Day finds you in the warm embrace of family and friends. It is my strong belief that despite the darkness that sometimes seems to surround us, we have much to be thankful for.

Soul Serenade: Gene Chandler, “Groovy Situation”

Gene ChandlerHow many artists can you think of whose careers spanned the years from doo-wop to classic soul and into the disco era and had hits in all of them? The one that leaps to mind for me is Gene Chandler. There were landmarks along the way for Chandler, from his 1962 doo-wop smash “Duke of Earl,” to his 1964 soul classic “Just Be True,” to his 1978 disco hit “Get Down.”

Chandler is a Chicago guy, born and raised. He was a teenager when he joined his first band, the Gaytones. In 1957 he became a member of the Dukays. His career with that group was interrupted by a stint in the Army but he returned to them when he got out in 1960. The Dukays got a record deal with Nat Records and working with producers Carl Davis and Bunky Shepherd they released their first single, “The Girl is a Devil,” in 1961.

A subsequent session yielded four more songs. Nat Records chose “Nite Owl” to be the next Dukays single so Davis and Shepherd offered another song from the session, “Duke of Earl,” to a different local label. Vee-Jay released “Duke of Earl” as a single in 1962 but under the name Gene Chandler as opposed to the Dukays. The rest is pop music history. The single sold a million copies in its first month of release and spent three weeks atop the charts.

The following year, Chandler left Vee-Jay and signed with Constellation Records. In the three years he was with the label Chandler had one hit after another including “Just Be True” in 1964, and “Nothing Can Stop Me” in 1965. Both of those songs were written by Curtis Mayfield. After Constellation went belly-up, Chandler alternated releases with Chess Records and Brunswick Records.

Gene Chandler

In the late ’60s, Chandler got involved as a producer and started a couple of labels of his own. He produced his 1970 hit “Groovy Situation” which was released by Mercury Records. The song was written by Russell Lewis and Herman Davis and had been originally recorded by Mel & Tim. Earlier, Chandler had produced the Mel & Tim smash “Backfield in Motion.” Chandler’s version of “Groovy Situation” had the magic though and it reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and it was a Top 10 hit on the R&B chart while becoming a million-seller.

While it was nearly impossible to match the success that Chandler had with “Duke of Earl,” “Groovy Situation” became Chandler’s second biggest hit. Both songs have made numerous appearances in movies over the years. “Duke of Earl” is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

When disco was in its ascendancy Chandler adapted when many others couldn’t or wouldn’t. Toward the end of the 1970s, Chandler once again worked with producer Carl Davis and had disco hits like “Get Down,” “When You’re #1,” and “Does She Have a Friend.”

Gene Chandler has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and he has received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. In 1970 Chandler was named Producer of the Year by the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers and he has been inducted twice into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, once as a performer and again as an R&B Music Pioneer. From his first chart single in 1961 to his last in 1986, Gene Chandler has had a remarkable genre-spanning career.

Soul Serenade: Dobie Gray, “Drift Away”

Dobie GrayFor a pop songwriter, the gold standard is a song that has a chorus that people can sing along to. That kind of thing not only goes a long way toward having the song becoming a hit but also gives it longevity. If your chorus is catchy enough people are likely to still be singing it years later. Having spent some time in bars with jukeboxes and live bands I think it’s fair to say that “Drift Away” qualifies as one of those songs.

Lawrence Darrow Brown was born in 1940 into a family of sharecroppers in Texas. His grandfather was a Baptist minister which is how Brown first became inspired by gospel music. He moved to Los Angeles when he was in his early 20s with an eye on an acting career but it isn’t easy to break into the Hollywood scene so Brown turned to singing to make some money while he was waiting for his chance.

Brown recorded for several labels during this period, under several names. One of the people he encountered was a guy named Sonny Bono who thought the independent label Stripe Records would be a good fit for Brown. Once he signed on the people at the label suggested the name Dobie Gray which was inspired by the then-popular TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

He may have acquired his name at Stripe but he accomplished little else. Success didn’t come until 1963 when he was recording for Core-Dak and it was a modest success at that. The single “Look at Me” climbed to the not-too-lofty position of #91 on the Billboard Hot 100. Two years later, however, Gray struck gold with his #13 hit “The In Crowd.” With the legendary Wrecking Crew backing him up, Gray hit the Hot 100 again with the follow-up, “See You at the Go-Go.” But things dried up for a while, a long while, after that.

Gray kept recording for small labels and he even got some of that acting work he’d come to L.A. for in the first place. He spent 2 1/2 years in the cast of the L.A. production of the musical Hair.

Do you remember Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies? He was played by Max Baer, Jr. and after his acting career, Baer became quite a successful manager. One of his clients was a band called Pollution that had formed in 1970 and included Gray as the lead singer. The band recorded two albums that didn’t make much noise and by 1972 Gray had signed with Decca Records. He prepared to work on an album for the label to be recorded in Nashville with Mentor Williams as producer. Williams was the brother of the very successful songwriter Paul Williams with whom Gray had recorded some demos earlier.

Dobie Gray

One of the songs they recorded in Nashville was “Drift Away” which featured that indelible chorus as well as some fine guitar work from Reggie Young. The song was written by Mentor Williams and first recorded by John Henry Kurtz in 1972. The following year it became a #5 smash for Gray, selling a million copies and earning a Gold Record. Gray followed it up with his cover of “Loving Arms” which did respectable but not spectacular business, reaching #61.

By then Decca had been enfolded into MCA Records and Gray made three albums for the label. None of them was very successful, a problem Gray felt was caused by the fact that MCA “didn’t know where to place a black guy in country music.” Now a permanent Nashville resident, Gray signed with Capricorn records and had modest success with his last two solo singles, “If Love Must Go” (#78), and “You Can Do It” (#37). During this time, Gray toured in Australia, Europe, and after persuading the authorities to allow him to play to integrated audiences, South Africa.

Gray recorded for Capitol Records in the 1980s and had some success on the country charts. He continued to tour and release albums in the 1990s. Unexpectedly, “Drift Away” became a hit all over again when Gray recorded a new version of the song with the band Uncle Kracker in 2003. The new version made it all the way to #9 on the Hot 100 that year and spent an incredible 28 weeks at the top of the Adult Contemporary chart.

Dobie Gray died in Nashville in 2011. He was 71 years old. And we’re still singing that chorus.

Soul Serenade: The Delfonics, “Ready Or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)

The DelfonicsDo you remember when you first fell in love with Philly Soul? For me, it was in 1968 because that was the year when the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You” came pouring out of radio speakers everywhere to offer a balm in a very troubled time. There had certainly been great Philly Soul records before. Several of the Intruders hits come to mind but there was something so magical about the Delfonics sound that it transcended everything else.
I remember seeing the Delfonics on television around that time. Their stage presence was as unique and special as their sound. Into a world that was in love with the Motown way of performance, the powerful athletic movement embodied in the live appearance of the Temptations came this trio with slow angular moves that owed more to modern ballet than anything else. And there were no slick suits either. Instead, the Delfonics appeared in turtlenecks and bell bottoms. It was as if Philadelphia meant to announce, as if such an announcement was necessary, ‘hey, we ain’t Detroit.’

The Delfonics released two new singles in the wake of “La La.” Both of them did alright, “I’m Sorry” reaching #42 on the charts and “Break Your Promise” doing a little better at #35. Both songs had been written, just as “La La” had been, by producer Thom Bell along with William Hart, who sang lead on the hits. The original Delfonics trio also included Hart’s brother Wilbert and Randy Cain. That was the classic lineup.

The Delfonics

Next up came a single that wasn’t a hit any bigger than the previous two singles but, clocking in at just over two minutes, it made a lasting impression. “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” was again written by Bell and Hart. It was released by Philly Groove Records on October 22, 1968 (the record just celebrated its 50th anniversary) and rose to #35 on the pop chart and #14 on the R&B chart.

The Jackson 5 covered “Ready or Not” on their 1970 Third Album. Perhaps the biggest moment of afterlife for the song came when the Fugees interpolated it for their huge 1996 album The Score. The following year, Missy Elliott sampled “Ready or Not” for her song “Sock It 2 Me.” “Ready or Not” has also been sampled by Three 6 Mafia and Lil’ Kim among others.

Despite releasing some great records after “Ready or Not” the Delfonics only had big chart success one more time, that with “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” a Top 10 single in 1970. Randy Cain left the Delfonics the following year and was replaced by Major Harris. An even bigger set back came when Thom Bell, who had such an important role in the success of the Delfonics as producer and songwriter, moved on to work with the Stylistics and the Spinners.

The Delfonics split up in 1975 but there are groups touring with some variation of that name right up to today include William “Poogie” Hart & the Delfonics, and Wilbert Hart, formerly of the Delfonics. Randy Cain passed away in 2009.