Graded on a Curve: Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Collectors’ Item: All Their Greatest Hits!

When it comes to the bands representing the “Philadelphia Sound” that came to dominate the soul charts in the early seventies, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes were inarguably the best. Signed to Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1972 and featuring the mind-blowing baritone of lead singer and soul legend Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes recorded masterful soul, R&B, and disco tunes that were alternately inspirational and heartrending, thanks chiefly to the band’s myriad musical talents, the stellar production of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and the almost phantasmagorically powerful pipes of Pendergrass, who at his most passionate could both cause people of the female persuasion to swoon and blow the wooly off a mammoth.

I picked Collectors’ Item: All Their Greatest Hits! for two simple reasons; (1) it really does cull the biggest hits from the band’s golden years of 1972-1975 with Philadelphia International, before Pendergrass defected to pursue a solo career, and (2) it has one of the cheesiest album covers I’ve ever seen, a horror of pastels with the band in blue leisure suits (with Harold in lime green!) huddled together as if for protection against the dubious painting skills of one Victor Juhasz. I have half a mind to buy the album and frame it on my wall next to a black light painting of a unicorn.

Melvin & The Blue Notes were a vocal group, and the music on their songs was provided by the legendary MFSB, a stable of more than 30 musicians based at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios who also worked with the Spinners, Wilson Pickett, the Stylistics, the O’Jays, and others. They’re chiefly remembered for their great proto-disco track “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” which was to become the theme song for Don Cornelius’ Soul Train. How cool, I ask you, is that?

First cut “The Love I Lost” opens with some bright organ and quickly becomes one cool disco song, with the band singing smoothly in ensemble until Pendergrass comes in to power his way through the tune. It’s a slick number, this one, in accordance with disco principles, but Pendergrass gives it a saving edge, especially during the call and response in which he sings and the band follow him with, “I lost it/Sorry I lost it.” The fast-paced “Bad Luck” is one of the best songs of the era, thanks for the most part to its chorus, on which the guys sing, “Bad luck/That’s what you got/That’s what you got” while Barry gives it all he’s got over the top. He even throws out some nonsense syllables before singing, “People in the world out there/I know none y’all satisfied” and concluding, “The only thing that I got/That I can hold on to/Is my God, my God/Jesus be with me/Jesus give me good luck/Good luck, help me Jesus.” But the song’s real plus is the way it just keeps coming at you, relentless as, until it sends you into a state of ecstasy.

Pendergrass talks his way through “Be for Real,” in which he rebukes his girlfriend for showing off her bling and looking down on those who are less fortunate than her. She’s forgotten her roots, and is all high and mighty, he says, before breaking into a chorus in which he sings, “Be for real” to the accompaniment of the rest of the Blue Notes. “I can’t be having you chasing my friends away/Because of the serious stupid things you say,” he says, while the Blue Notes go wild behind him and a cool saxophone and equally happening piano add some flavoring to the strings etc.

“Wake Up Everybody” is one of the greatest protests songs ever written, although the great melody and Pendergrass’ vocals have much more to do with its success than does its wake-up call to teachers, preachers, politicians, and the like. “I need some help y’all!” he cries as the song goes into one immensely cool groove, then proceeds to shout, talk, and point the finger at the people who aren’t making the world a better place (“I’m talkin’ about the dope pushers/Stop pushin’ that dope!”) while the song goes on and on, in one of the coolest extended grooves you’re ever going to hear. As for Pendergrass he’s a force of nature, naming names and barking out, “We need each other!” and “No more backward thinking/Time for thinking ahead.”

“Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” features some funky guitars and a duet between Sharon Paige and Pendergrass. Doesn’t do much for me, this one, mainly because Pendergrass keeps it on the down low and never gets overheated the way he does on the phenomenal ballad, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” where he talks, testifies, and in general sets your hair alight with his larger-than-life vocal pyrotechnics. “If you don’t know me by now” sing the Blue Notes while Teddy shouts over them, a young dude carrying the sorry news.

“Where Are All My Friends” is fast-paced disco fabulousness with a message; to wit, Teddy is wondering why his all friends are stabbing him in the back now that he no longer has money in “big old stacks.” The Blue Notes provide their usual smooth backing vocals, while Teddy blasts the trifling fair-weather friends who don’t come round no more now that he doesn’t drive a big fancy Cadillac car. “I Miss You” is a slow burner, with the Blue Notes completing Pendergrass’ sentences, as in “You been away from me so long/And I just don’t think I can carry on so I been” to which the Blue Notes add, “Drinkin’, Drinkin’ Drinkin.’” Pendergrass simply doesn’t know what to do with himself, so he sings this song, which makes his loss our gain, especially when he commences to groaning while another Blue Note howls and then another Blue Note makes a telephone call to Pendergrass’ old love, and it’s so cool it hurts. Then a funky guitar comes in and Pendergrass continues to provide some super commentary, while the other Blue Note continues his phone call, tossing in a cynical little laugh here and there before saying, inexplicably, “Cuz I still like to go down by the supermarket” before letting Pendergrass groan the song to its finish.

Truth is I’d give this baby an A- minus based on “Bad Love” and “Wake Up Everybody” alone, then raise it a half-grade based on the awful cover art. But the six other sings are winners too, even “Be for Real,” which amounts to the greatest dressing down of a significant other since Bob Dylan. As for “Wake Up Everybody” it will always be one of my favorite songs, because it’s one wondrous jam with a social conscience to boot. And then there’s Pendergrass, with that simultaneously sultry and gravelly voice of his, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. His paralysis in 1982 as a result of an automobile accident in Philadelphia was a great loss to all of us, depriving us of that incredible set of vocal chords he possessed. The man had at least six times the soul of any other human being, so wake up everybody, and have yourselves some motherfucking Blue Notes for breakfast.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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