By MIKE CHAIKEN
You could say Russell Thompkins, Jr. was the voice of the Philadelphia Sound.
As lead singer of the Stylistics, Thompkins’ led the group through 12 soul top 10 hits, and five top 10 pop hits, such as “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” “I’m Stone in Love with You,” “Break Up to Make Up,” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Flip on any radio station that plays classic soul now, you’re bound to hear one of those tracks on any given day.
The Stylistics were part of a soul movement, which also included groups like the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, The Spinners, and the Delfonics. It was a sound as well-defined as Motown.
Russell Thompkins, Jr. and the New Stylistics will be one of the featured performers at the Muzzy Field centennial celebration in Bristol on Saturday, July 5.
Calling from his home in Philadelphia, where he still lives after all this time, (“My people are here,” he explained), Thompkins was asked how it felt to still hear his music on the radio 40 years after it was first given to the world.
“I feel good about it,” said Thompkins. “I don’t go crazy. But I’m very thankful.” He said whenever he runs into the songwriters and producers who helped make those hits, such as Kenny Gamble (who founded Philadelphia International records) or Thom Bell (who produced the Stylistics, as well as the Spinners and the Delfonics) Thompkins said he makes it a point to say to them, “Thank you very much.”
For many people who grew up on the music of The Stylistics, the opening notes of any of their big hits will elicit a grin and spark a memory or two… or three or four.
“One of the reasons I’m still around are the memories people have (of the music by The Stylistics),” said Thompkins.
Philadelphia’s music scene generated plenty of memories in the 1970s. This was especially so if you were a fan of soul music.
Thompkins was asked what was it about Philadelphia in those days that fostered so much creativity and so much music.
Thompkins said it all began with the rise in popularity of artists on the Cameo-Parkway record label and Philadelphia-based singers like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and James Darren. Music became big time in Philadelphia. Eventually Gamble and Huff set up Philadelphia International records and producer Thom Bell put his magic touch on everything.
The music generated in the immediate Philadelphia area is what inspired him to try his hand at music, Thompkins said. A group from New Jersey, however, put performing music on the career radar for the singer.
Thompkins said when he heard the Four Seasons, especially Frankie Valli’s high falsetto, he told himself, “I can sing like that.”
And Thompkins’ falsetto became a trademark of the Stylistics’ sound.
With all of the hits the group had, Thompkins was asked if he had a favorite. Without hesitation, he cited, “Betcha By Golly, Wow.”
“I never have to mentally prepare myself to perform that song,” said Thompkins, “It’s been that way since I first heard it.”
Although the group’s biggest hits are from the 1970s, said Thompkin, what he’s singing on stage is “happening to my life.” If you want to hear his story, now or then, he said, just listen to his music.
Although Thompkins’ musical career reaches back several decades, he’s still an active performer. Asked why he doesn’t sit back and enjoy retirement like some of his peers from the 1970s, Thompkins replied performing is his job. “And I enjoy the communication between me and my fans… It’s really great.”
But Thompkins did take a break from music at the beginning of the 21st century.
Thompkins said he had been singing with the original Stylistics (which included Herb Murrell, Airrion Love, James Smith, and James Dunn) for 35 years. But in 2000, he said he had to give up performing. “I couldn’t take it any more. There was a lot of bad blood in the organization and it made me sick.” He physically couldn’t sing any more so he decided to step back and live life.
Over the next three years, he said he went back and finished high school. He then went to school to study music.
After all those years on the road and recording, Thompkins said he had time at last to appreciate the little things in life.
In time, however, his health returned. His voice returned. He made the decision to return to performing. He pulled together the group known as Russell Thompksins, Jr. and the New Stylistics and he’s been performing ever since.
Now, Thompkins said, he appreciates performing more than ever. And being on stage now makes him the most happy.
When Thompkins and the New Stylistics come to town, they will be helping Bristol celebrate the 100th anniversary of Muzzy Field. The storied field was and is home to numerous decades of baseball, including appearances by the likes of such historic sports figures as Babe Ruth and Casey Stengal.
But, although Thompkins is a Philadelphia resident, he said he isn’t a big fan of his hometown Phillies and, in fact, doesn’t really have a favorite team in Major League Baseball. “I just look at it,” he said of the sport. (Although he lives in the home of the NBA’s 76ers, he also said he actually prefers the Los Angeles Lakers.)
However, Thompkins was glad to be part of a historic moment in the Mum City to celebrate the centennial of Muzzy.
“I think it’s going to be wonderful… It’s going to be a good time and a good event.”
And he advised those coming out, “If (fans) have any records, cassettes, or 45s back from the early 1970s, put them on and be prepared to hear (those songs) again.”
Russell Thompkins Jr. and the New Stylistics perform at Muzzy Field in Bristol on Saturday, July 5. Also on the bill is Steve Augeri, the former leader singer of Journey. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. The concert begins at 5:30 p.m. Fireworks will follow the performances.
For tickets, go to Ticketmaster.com.
For more information, go to TheReach Foundation.org or RussellThompkinsJr.com
By MIKE CHAIKEN