Russell Thompkins Jr. & the (New) Stylistics
The Temptations, Four Tops, Spinners, Natalie Cole, the Chi-Lites, Dennis Coffey, Chaka Khan, Russell Thompkins of the (New) Stylistics, Earth Wind & Fire – the list of classic soul artists who are still touring and recording is quite long. These acts have enjoyed a new renaissance thanks to oldies specials on public television and playing venues ranging from small intimate clubs & theatres to casinos & state fairs. How are these acts still going strong and why are they still performing when many of their peers have retired from their respective fields.
The answers to the first question is quite simple – first of all, many of these musicians (who are in their 60s and even 70s) realize that they are indeed older and the days of staying up at parties, events and happenings require more energy nowadays. I learned this back in late 2003 when I saw the legendary Motown studio band the Funk Brothers perform at B.B. King’s Club in New York City. After their two sold-out sets and the photo/autograph sessions were finished, guitarists Eddie Willis & Joe Messina climbed into their motorized chairs and scootered into the luxury van followed by fellow members Jack Ashord, Joe Hunter & Uriel Jones. Once they arrived at their hotel, it was straight to their rooms for a good night’s sleep – they had to leave the next morning for another show in a different city. No hanging out at the bar or combing the streets looking for a late-night jam session at an after-hours club, these men knew that those days were indeed behind them.
Another factor as to how these acts are still out there has to do with modern technology as well as the use of their music on many contemporary hits (in other words, sampling). The Chi-Lites have had their website since the early 1990s – one of the first classic soul acts to do so (writer's note - their site is currently being updated, it will be running shortly). In addition, many artists visit fan music sites on a weekly basis – keeping their base up to date on upcoming concerts and future recordings. Russell Thompkins, Jr – original lead singer of the Stylistics who tours with a new group – carries his laptop with him on tour and makes daily rounds on the Internet. Funk guitarist Dennis Coffey (of “Scorpio” fame) has made his presence on the Soulful Detroit website for so many years he was recently upgraded to a moderator’s spot. The sampling topic is self-explanatory – pop, R&B and hip-hop have used bits & pieces of classic soul tracks (as well as jazz) for many years. With the rise of YouTube, young folks have discovered several R&B classics they may have heard on some of their favorite current hits, often posting the comments, “my Mom/Dad/Uncle/Aunt/Cousins used to play this record” or “the original sounds better than the record that sampled it” (the latter is music to this writer’s ears!).
As for the second question regarding why these legends are still doing their thing, there are many answers. For many, there is no other choice – money management was not their strong suit when they had the hit records and these acts wound up paying for their mistakes in their later years. When I worked for Brunswick Records during the mid-late 1990s, I was good friends with singer/songwriter Barbara Acklin, who had a hit with the label in 1968 (“Love Makes A Woman”) and co-wrote many hit songs, including the Chi-Lites’ 1971 Top Five smash, “Have You Seen Her”. She admitted to me during this time that she had spent a lot of her savings during a relationship with a younger man. This “gentleman” left Barbara when the money was gone & the IRS hit Barbara with garnishments for non-payment of back taxes – so she never got to see her songwriting royalties at all. As a result, she had to rely on advances from the record label against future royalties – a headache for both parties because the artist needs to pay bills, rent as well as eat, meaning that the money would be gone in a USA minute. The label has to recoup the advance by selling a lot of CDs and for an older artist whose name is not Barbara Streisand or B.B. King that could take time. So, Barbara went back to live performance and singing back-up for other acts on tour for a few years before she died in 1998.
On a happier note, many classic soul acts still perform because they simply love doing what they do and wouldn’t want it any other way. That love is evident on stage and television. When PBS shows a repeat of their My Music oldies specials, notice the look on the faces of those performing – they are smiling, dancing and having a ball. This writer got a kick out of seeing Little Anthony & the Imperials tear down the house singing their legendary 1965 hit, “Going Out Of My Head” – they capped off their energetic performance with lead singer “Little” Anthony Gourdine spinning around on stage like a young kid. Many of these acts now command top dollar for their shows from the promoters because they have the hit catalog and the strong following among older audiences (read – baby boomers with money to burn). Granted, the thought of Earth Wind & Fire performing at private corporate functions may give the die-hard music pundit a case of indigestion but let’s face it – the money is good and the crowd is there to enjoy the show. Same with the casino circuit – back in the days of Sinatra & the Rat Pack if the Supremes were booked to do a Las Vegas show, you’d hear them sing more standards & show tunes than their hit songs. Today, Supremes founder Mary Wilson can go to the same casinos and sing just the Supremes hits without having to add any outside material. If the venues are available, the artists should indeed take advantage of the moment.
All in all, to see these classic soul and R&B legends still perform is not only a treat, but a testament to their long-time staying power. As long as there is an audience that will welcome them and pay good money for a ticket, these men & women will be there to grace the stage.
Russell Thompkins Jr of the Stylistics - http://www.russellthompkinsjr.com/
Earth Wind & Fire - http://www.earthwindandfire.com/
Soulful Detroit - http://www.soulfuldetroit.com/
Dennis Coffey - http://www.denniscoffeysite.com/