Gary James' Interview With
Russell Thompkins Jr. Of
The New Stylistics
There's The Stylistics and then there's The New Stylistics. Russell Thompkins Jr. is the original lead singer of The Stylistics on all their biggest hits, including "Betcha By Golly Wow", "Stoned In Love With You", "You Make Me Feel Brand New" and so many more! The Stylistics racked up seven Gold albums, five Gold singles, two Double Gold singles, eight Platinum albums, one Double Platinum album, four Platinum singles, along with a Grammy nomination in 1974 for "You Make Me Feel Brand New" and a plaque on the Walk Of Fame in 1994, in Center City, Philadelphia. In May 2004, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame. Russell left The Stylistics in April 2000 and went on to form The New Stylistics. We talked to Russell about that decision as well as the history of the group.
Q - Russell, not The Stylistics, but The New Stylistics? Is it because the members are not the same? Why'd you go with that name?
A - Well, all the way up to the year 2000 I was with the original group, The Stylistics. After that I left the group. Then three years later I wanted to come back out, but I did not want to work with the same guys I worked with before. So, I was going to use The Stylistics' name. Then there was a big argument and we decided they would not use my voice or my image on anything else that they would do, which they still do to promote themselves, and I would use the name Russell Thompkins Jr. And The New Stylistics for my guys. But, one of the guys that's in The New Stylistics was in The Stylistics also. That name is Raymond Johnson.
Q - So, now we have The Stylistics and The New Stylistics?
A - Yes. Two members that I used to sing with.
Q - You are the guy who sang lead on all the hit records!
A - You got that right.
Q - If you are a booker, you have to pay close attention.
A - Well, it's been 10 years now and every year it gets easier and easier for people to get the original guy they hear on the records. At first it's a little difficult because the other two guys, their manager is a booking agent and it's one of the biggest booking agencies in the country. They've been trying to underhand, under man me. My lawyers say just hang in there, cream will come to the top. Every year it gets better and better.
Q - Thom Bell and Linda Creed were writing the hit songs for The Stylistics with the exception of "You Make Me Feel Brand New", which was written by Airrion Love.
A - He did not write that. It was just Thom Bell and Linda Creed. Airrion Love never wrote any songs on those first three albums and, he also sang on two of Thommy Bell's songs on that album. One was a dual lead with myself on "You Make Me Feel Brand New" and he did a harmony part with me on "You Are Everything". He sang on "You're A Big Girl Now", but every other song he did not participate.
Q - Were you discouraged from writing your own songs?
A - No, not at all. I was very new in the business when I started with them. When I started with Thommy, I think I was 19 years old. I had only been working locally and a couple of gigs on the road a few years before that. I started working local clubs my last year in high school here in Philly (Philadelphia). By the time I was 19 I had just put out my first local record that was "You're A Big Girl Now". After Embassy Records picked "You're A Big Girl Now" up and sent it nationwide, that became a success and they wanted to pair us with some new writers and that's when they got Thommy Bell. They told me to meet Thommy Bell. One Monday they said go downtown. They gave me an address. I met Thommy Bell and we started working together from there.
Q - Was Embassy Records your first big break then, or meeting Thom Bell?
A - See, I never looked at it as a big break. It was just another process in the music business for me. I started when I was 17. I never thought about recording until we met some guys here in Philly and they said "Come inside and record." I took the same attitude when I went to Thommy Bell. I'm just going down to do some more recording. Nobody knew that the records were going to be a success. I just went there to do some recordings and it just happened that the records took off. Since they took off, I guess you could call it a break, but I never looked at it that way.
Q - Is it true that when you auditioned for Thom Bell, he wasn't very impressed with The Stylistics as a group, but he did like your voice and he said "We'll take the songs and build them around your voice"?
A - Now see, that's a myth also.
Q - I'm glad we're doing this interview and setting things straight.
A - Yes. Thommy Bell might call it an audition, but I didn't. It's the same thing I just told you. It was another process in me going down to meet somebody to work with them. Either I was going to work with them or I wasn't. Now, Thommy might say it was an audition, but to me it was not. Thommy knew and heard of the other guys in the group. They might have seen us 'live' and when that meeting was called on, he just wanted me there. I went down there and started working. He didn't want anybody else in the group. It took a long time, but at that time me and Airrion Love were very close friends. I tried to convince Thommy into bringing Airrion in to do some recording. Thommy let him come in and do the harmony on "You Are Everything" and he let him sing lead on "You Make Me Feel Brand New". Now, that's from my perspective.
Q - Let's say Thom Bell just used you on the records. When the record was released, what name would it have been released under?
A - I went back and had a meeting with the other guys 'cause like I said, we were very close at the time. I sat down with all of them and I said, "Look you all, I'm going to go ahead and record all the songs, but I'm going to work with the organization. Everybody is going to get paid. Everybody is going to make some money out of this. We can keep on working like we're doing right now, on the road or whatever, but I'm going to do the recordings under the name The Stylistics.
Q - Who thought of that name, The Stylistics? You or Thom Bell?
A - Neither one of us. At the time we had a guitar player by the name of Robert Douglas. Robert Douglas and Marty Bryan wrote our very first record, "You're A Big Girl Now". Robert Douglas had the idea to call the group The Stylistics. But before that we were two different groups. We were The Monarchs and The Percussions. When we graduated from high school, both groups lost members. So, the English teacher that was in the high school where most of the guys went to at the time, had the idea of merging the two groups. Myself and Airrion Love and James Smith were in The Monarchs. Herb Murrell and James Dunn were in a group called The Percussions, but The Percussions' band members were Robert Douglas and his brother Clarence. That's how we all got together.
Q - How smart teachers were back in the day!
A - Oh, yeah. Before we started singing in nightclubs or anything like that, we were doing the talent shows. So, the teachers were the first ones to discover our talents. I had been singing in talent shows from the time I was in elementary school, junior high school, all the way through. If it wasn't for teachers, I wouldn't have ever been in the music business. I probably wouldn't even have thought of singing professionally or in choirs or anything like that. I had a teacher in junior high school by the name of Miss Minard. We had a talent show in junior high school and I went on stage as a joke. After she heard me, she told me at lunch time she wanted to see me on the fifth floor in the music room. I went up there and that's how my singing, my learning and all of that first started. She put me in the City Choir. I sang in two choirs in the school and I started to learn from there.
Q - What did you do immediately after you graduated high school? I know you said you recorded your first song when you were 19.
A - When I came out of high school, I went back to school. I went to a technical school and was studying to repair musical instruments. Then, at that time, that's when I started working in nightclubs. Repairing musical instruments was going to be a long task. I had to stay in school for two years and then I had to go under an apprenticeship with someone for another four years. A lot of things happened that summer. I got out of school. That made it so that I had to start making some money.
Q - When the hits started coming, how did life change for you?
A - Things started very slow, but we started getting more work. We started out branching out in New Jersey and New York, the Apollo Theater, the clubs in New York, the clubs in New Jersey, Washington DC, Baltimore. It started to spread out as "You're A Big Girl Now" started to become more famous. But we got our big break as far as the country seeing us when management and the agency who were booking James Brown at the time and they put us on tour with James Brown. We went on a 35, one nighters with James Brown all over the country and people got a chance to see us. That helped bookings and everything after that. At that time, James was working everywhere, all the time. James took us to Africa and all over the United States. He really was very instrumental in The Stylistics being seen and heard.
Q - Speaking of heard, your songs really fit the Top 40 radio format.
A - That was phenomenal! (Laughs). To this day I don't understand what the records did then and what they are doing now. At one time, someone said every five seconds there was a Stylistics record played somewhere in the world. And it went international. We started working all over the world.
Q - How many people do you take with you on the road?
A - There's 14 of us that travel together.
Q - What kind of venues are you playing today?
A - Anything and everything. We work anywhere at any type of job. Weddings. Birthdays. Clubs. Theaters. We work all types of jobs.
Q - You have to be rich to have The New Stylistics perform at your wedding party.
A - I got one we just signed for. As you said, you must be rich. The agent hooked us up, so I don't know who the people are until I get there. But the night before the wedding at the pre-wedding party, they have us and The Manhattans and then the night afterwards at the wedding party they have Frankie Valli. There doing something really big.
Q - I guess so.
A - I've been in that situation before. And I've worked with Frankie Valli on a wedding before. I'm a big fan also. I grew up listening to him. That's when I found out I could sing like that, by listening to him.
Q - Do you have any new material that's been recorded?
A - Well, I recorded my first solo album in 2003 and I've been recording ever since, but it has not been released. This year (2014) I will probably put out my second solo album and I'm also working on some music from some people I worked with before.