One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of Philadelphia soul than that of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. They kicked off the Seventies with a clutch of albums for the esteemed Philadelphia International Records that not only set the tone for the decade to come, but they helped define the sound of modern R&B and Soul in ways that can still be heard nearly fifty years later. Be For Real: The P.I.R. Recordings (1972-1975) collects their four essential albums and a handful of rarities in what is most assuredly an essential release.
Yet the story of the group actually began in the late 1950s, when Harold Melvin put together a vocal group, The Charlemagnes. Over the next decade, he and various iterations of what would become his well-known group would record singles for local Philadelphia record labels, all to no success. But his fortunes changed when the group signed with local powerhouse label Philadelphia International Records and promoted drummer Teddy Pendergrass to lead singer.
It was a deft move; the smooth and seductive Pendergrass possessed a vocal power that predecessor John Atkins simply didn’t have. Their 1972 debut single, “I Miss You,” was an eight-minute epic slow jam that rose to the Top Ten of the R&B charts, and performed respectably on the Pop charts. Furthermore, it was a brand new sound; long, heavy, and languid, it exemplified a sexier and more emotional style than the poppier Motown sound of the previous decade. The debut album, I Miss You, was a promising start, and was propelled even further with the arrival of the album’s second single, the career and genre defining ballad, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” easily one of the best songs of the decade. The album consisted mostly of ballads, and cuts such as “Ebony Woman” and “Be For Real” are quite intoxicating aural aphrodisiacs.
While I Miss You established the band as fine balladeers, Black & Blue found them expanding into more upbeat territory, working in a style that can now be seen as proto-disco. Lead single “The Love I Lost” was a Top Ten smash for the group; the Gamble & Huff composition originally began as a ballad, but was transformed into a song that matches the lyrical passion with infections groove. “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back),” the second single, is another uptempo number, this time one indebted to the classic Motown sound. Also thrilling are disco-ready songs “Is There A Place For Me” and the potent blues of “I’m Weak For You.” The album’s lone weak spot is ballad “Concentrate On Me;” it’s nice enough, but it’s a fairly blatant rewrite of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” an unnecessary but understandable move.
To Be True, the band’s third album, was an album of noticeable change. With disco now on the rise, the album’s grooves were attuned to the new scene. Not surprisingly, the band’s single “Bad Luck” was aimed for the dance floor, and land there it did—as well as being a key point in one of Richard Pryor’s finest standup routines. To Be True offers some great grooves, and for the first time they featured a new vocalist, Sharon Paige, who would be the voice of the album’s second single, “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon,” which was also a hit. But To Be True indicated something was happening behind the scenes as well; for this release, the album was credited as “…featuring Theodore Pendergrass,” a notorious credit distinction that for other groups had often proved to be portentous.
Wake Up Everybody, their fourth album, would be their finest moment, yet didn’t bear the fruit of inner turmoil. From a listener’s perspective, however, the band was in peak form; the title track was a powerful epic ballad about social consciousness, togetherness, and trying to make the world a better place, and has since become a defining song of the era. The rest of the record is equally high quality; “Keep On Lovin’ You” and “Tell The World How I Feel About ‘Cha, Baby” feature some of the group’s finest harmonies, while “You Know How To Make Me Feel Good” is a seductive slow jam with a wonderful interplay between Pendergrass and Paige. She also shines well on the thoughtful ballad “I’m Searching For A Love.” But Wake Up Everybody also contains another definitive number for both the R&B genre and the decade, even if it wasn’t their own. The Gamble & Huff composition “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is a superb mixture of disco and Motown Soul, and when singer Thelma Houston heard this version of it, she fell in love with it and decided to record it for her own. Her take of it would be a smash international hit that finally kicked off her career.
Unfortunately, in spite of their good fortunes, Pendergrass left the band at their peak because of financial disagreements, and his jumping ship also brought an end of the relationship with PIR, who opted to continue working with him as a solo act. It was a shocking turn of events for a band that had come into their own over three short years, and though the band would continue on, they never attained the level of success that they had with Pendergrass. The former lead singer, however, became one of the most successful R&B performers of the decade, making the split even more unfortunate for the group. Be For Real captures that brief spark when the relationship worked, and it contains some of the finest music of the decade—and some of the finest music, period.