April 310, 1997
Keep On Lovin' You
The patriarch of Philly International soul is gone but not forgotten.
By a.d. amorosi
Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
He was the humble sound of Philly.
Harold Melvin the recently departed 57-year-old Svengali behind the Blue Notes and a dozen Philly International hits was also one of the red hot architects of '70s soul.
Whether you go back to his boogie days at Simon Gratz High, his crooning in the Charlemagnes or his very first Blue Notes moment "My Hero" Melvin's music was blessed with a generous nature and a funky feel. Pull out your copies of To Be True, Wake Up Everybody or the Blue Notes' eponymous 1972 release and you'll hear the heat behind Harold Melvin and his fine swaggering protege, Teddy Pendergrass.
As you see the smiling gentlemen in their suede tuxedoes, listen to the soul behind the smiles in the joyous gospel ranting of "Wake Up Everybody" and cooed harmonies of "The Love I Lost."
I still remember the day my dad brought the Blue Notes' albums back to me after working on remodeling Sigma Sound Studios. I don't think I've ever been happier about one of my dad's contracting gigs. With every listen I'd breathlessly await the shimmering strings that bound forth in "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and giggle at the strangely showy version of a campy "Cabaret."
In the soon to be released, lushly packaged three-CD Legacy box The Philly Sound: Gamble, Leon Huff & The Story of Brotherly Love 1966-1976 you'll find prose from Nikki Giovanni and testimonials from Barry White and Michael Jackson about Melvin. New York Public Radio producer Virginia Prescott compares the Blue Notes to the crooning gangmembers of West Side Story: "Tough in a rumble when their luck was down and soft as teddy bear nursing a wounded heart, the Blue Notes spoke the language of a man's interior. Harold Melvin was their mentor, steering an impetuous Teddy Pendergrass with the old values of faith and community."
Though there are bigger hits on The Philly Sound from the O'Jays and Intruders, the majority of Gamble, Huff, Thom Bell and Bunny Sigler hits belong to Melvin. No, Melvin didn't sing the leads. He pulled drummer Theodore Pendergrass from behind the kit after he recognized his growling sensual talents were wasted on the skins. And no, he didn't write the tunes.
"Harold was an innovator and creator inasmuch as he was able to spot talent," says WOGL radio's mega-legend Jerry Blavat, with a mixture of sadness and loving enthusiasm. "Harold patterned his role in the industry after Billy Ward of Billy Ward and the Dominoes." Ward had discovered Jackie Wilson and Clyde McPhatter. Melvin was smart enough to put his discoveries at the forefront. "Harold had no ego, God bless him," notes Blavat.
"I am deeply saddened," says Pendergrass in a statement released by his publicist. "I learned a great deal during my days with the Blue Notes. Mel was a great coach."
Vince Montana Jr., the arranger who lead the Sal Soul Orchestra, is more emotive about his years creating a cushion of soul with Gamble, Huff and Melvin.
"What's the purest, truest word I can use to describe those songs, those times?" muses Montana. "Heavenly, I think. Fantastic. Unbelievable. Magical. They were the best songs and the best moments of my life. And Harold put everything together. He made the deals and the music one."
Blavat reminisces about the very early years, when he and a young Melvin would boogaloo down Broadway, eating ribs and chicken at Small's Paradise, up the street from the Apollo. Blavat is all too aware that the sultry singing power of Pendergrass (who left the group in the mid-'70s to pursue an extraordinary solo career) often overshadows the heights Melvin scaled. But he knows Melvin proved his greatness early on.
"Go back to the beginning. Before the Philly International days with their cover of Edith Piaf's "If You Love Me,""My Hero" or "Blue Star." These are proud moments. He was a true talent and a dear friend."
To quote the Gamble/Huff tune that Harold Melvin did "I Miss You."