THE BEST OF HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES (Track-By-Track)

If You Don’t Know Me By Now: The Best of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (1995)

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were already a veteran soul unit, albeit one still searching for success when they signed with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1972. Success there was immediate and lasted through 1976 at which point the group signed with ABC records, left behind their incendiary lead singer Teddy Pendergrass, and, despite occasional action in the mid-reaches of the R&B chart, soon faded back into the woodwork.

This comp from the mid-nineties covers their essential work for Philly International, distills the best work of their four fine albums there, and is an essential part of any conversation about 70’s soul or the socio-political confluence I’ve dubbed The Rising.

Pendergrass stayed with Gamble and Huff and went on to a substantial solo career. Had he and Melvin not fallen out, it’s likely the group would be accorded its rightful place as a peer of the O’Jays and the Spinners. But, brief as it was, their stay with Gamble and Huff was both a cornerstone and peak of the last age when Rock and Roll America was still in the ascendancy. Coincidentally or not, their last stand marked the road to ours. This is an exemplary comp, programmed for maximum sonic, musical and social impact, chronology be damned.

Listen close.

“Cabaret” – Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Deep soul group goes Show Biz. Just to prove they can? Or to be ready in case Vegas calls? Maybe just to prove they’ve forgotten nothing.

“The Love I Lost” – Redolent of the paradox confronting Black America  coming out of the Civil Rights movement, faced with the possibility that only the laws had changed and that whether or not the rules would change might or might not be up to them–and that this moment was the last time anyone would have a chance to make it come good. Other than that, it’s just a song about lost love.

“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” – The record that introduced Teddy Pendergrass to the American pop charts in 1973. Except for Ronnie Van Zant, he would be the last great blues singer to find a place there. Ronnie could go deep but he preferred watching from a distance, living on the sly. Teddy didn’t have any “sly” in him. He was a pleader, a beggar, a demander. It might have been histrionic, except the quality of his pleading was too pure, his timbre too rough, and the stakes, as he surely understood them, too high. Other than that, it’s just a song about the fragility of the social contract called marriage.

“Don’t Leave Me This Way” – Somehow, Philly International failed to release this as a single in the U.S. With the possible exception of the O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy,” a ten-minute curse on the slave trade that was hardly radio fodder, it’s probably the greatest record the label recorded that wasn’t a hit.  A few years later, Thelma Houston did a version on Motown that was both a monster hit and an answer record. Choosing between the two versions is a fool’s game. If they can be rated, it’s by this difference: in Houston’s version, her life is at stake. In the Blue Notes’ version, featuring Pendergrass’s greatest vocal until the far reaches of the vamp at the end of “Wake Up Everybody,” everything is at stake. Meaning us.

“I’m Weak For You” – Their features one of the soft soul/hard soul/Greek chorus tradeoff vocals (Pendergrass always took the hard soul part and the concluding improv vamp) that became the group’s signature arrangement style. You might argue it goes on too long, but I bet the black women who heard it being sung to them would argue it didn’t go long enough.

“Everybody’s Talkin'” – Fred Neil’s standard (a big hit for Nillson in 1969) starts wearing a new face when it’s sung by a multiplicity of black voices (yes, it’s soft soul/hard soul/Greek chorus again) blending into one man with his shoulders hunched against a gray, wind-blown sky that might be hanging over a ghetto, a newly minted black suburban neighborhood or a country road in the Deep South where the car in the distance might be a ride home or a Klan patrol.

“Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” – A lovely soul ballad, a duet between Melvin and guest vocalist Sharon Paige, that offers the hope of peace without quite making it a promise, even when–or especially wnen?–Pendergrass steps in at the end. In the mid-seventies, who could do more than hope?

“Bad Luck” – Just in case anyone was getting too comfortable there for a minute. Teddy preaches some at the end…getting ready for the climb.

“Where Are All My Friends” – A sequel to the O’Jay’s “Backstabbers.” Teddy doesn’t wait this time. He starts preaching right out of the box, stalkinng from one end of the tent-revival stage to the other, the pulpit unable to contain him. Climbing…climbing…seeking?

“Wake Up Everybody” – And then, carried by his label’s greatest arrangement, he arrives at the mountaintop. And just keeps reaching…and preaching. Until, standing on the mountaintop, with his shiny, sweat-stained preacher’s suit in shreds at his feet, he falls to his knees and sings “Oh it don’t matter….what race….creed or color. Everybody….we need each other.” If we didn’t listen then, brother, we never will.

“Yesterday I Had the Blues” – Then the slow descend, back to reality. The acceptance that life’s victories will be more pedestrian than dreams. And hard-won. And perhaps, just perhaps, worth it for all that.

“Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back)” – After all that, some swagger is in order. And it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.

“I Miss You” – It’s only the last few years that I could listen to this more than every few years. Possibly the most poignant record the Rising produced. And, for once, Pendergrass, giving one of his greatest performances, isn’t the center of the show, stepping out of the spotlight halfway through and taking a back seat to Melvin’s spoken-word monologue, softly rapped out over Teddy’s agonized blues shouting (the combination capping one of Thom Bell’s greatest arrangements). Again, white critics complained about the length when what they really meant was the shattering intimacy. Again, I doubt that black women either complained or failed to understand what it was worth to be missed.

“Tell the World How I Feel About ‘Cha Baby” –Coming out of “I Miss You” this feel bright, pedestrian. Like a false promise of happiness. But then so would anything.

“Keep On Lovin’ You” – Relatively slight though it is, this closes an epic set on the right note. It would have been nice if the battle really had been won and we could get back to love songs. There’s just enough desperation, even in Teddy’s seduction voice, to make you want to start over again….not just the album but the battle. Who knows? Maybe we’ll make it come right this time.

Harold Melvin 57 (1940-1997)
Lawrence Brown 63 (1945-2008)
Teddy Pendergrass 59 (1950-2010)
Bernard Wilson 64 (1946-2010)

R.I.P. brothers.

It costs.

THE WOUNDS STILL BLEED…(Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #14)

My town’s local R&B station features America’s greatest dee-jay, Joe Bullard. That’s 96.1 Jamz in Tallahassee, FL, in case anyone ever wants to check him out.

Days like today he’s part minister, though, even on a day like today, I’ve never once heard him preach. He let’s the subtlest shift of tone in his usual patter do some of the work.

He let’s the music do the rest.

So, driving around doing errands this morning, the first piece of music I heard after I heard the news from Charleston was from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

Bear in mind there was a time when Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed and others crossed over to the American Pop Charts. Then hear me when I say this is the deepest blues singing to ever crease those charts, however briefly.

Triple deep in fact because it’s a collective.

The wordless, knife-in-the-heart falsetto is by Lloyd Parks, the long monologue by Melvin himself.

The lead is Teddy Pendergrass, about whom I had this to say a little while back.

And, here as there, it’s not the words (which are about something else entirely). It’s not even the music.

It’s the sound. The sound of mourning and, today, there was no sound to match it. Certainly not the babble coming from talk and news stations. It made a difference.

But you do have to wonder how long we can go on healing and patching before we bleed out.