*Thousands of Soul music lovers flocked to the beautiful Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park as summer drew to a close to be reminded of another time; a time during which they came of age, they fell in love, fell out of love, married, had children and smiled broadly. To serve as tour guides on this trip back in time were The Stylistics, The Four Tops and The O’Jays … oh yes, there was some sangin’ going on that night!
Promptly at 8:00 pm The Stylistics took to the stage and set the evening off on the right note with “I’m Stone in Love with You” then proceeded to unleash classic after classic in rapid fire succession, barely leaving time for the crowd to catch its collective breath after singing along. “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” “You Are Everything,” “Betcha by Golly Wow,” “Break Up to Make Up” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New” followed, raising the temperature in the outdoor venue. The Stylistics returned to their hometown of Philadelphia 43 years later, with two of the group’s original members (Herbert Murrell & Airrion Love) and a new album: That Same Way. They didn’t miss a beat or a note and if “Your Love Turned My Life Around” is any indication, the new album hasn’t strayed from the formula that’s made them favorites for over four decades.
Watching The Four Tops is witnessing history; the group was as instrumental in the “Motown Sound” as anyone and the music made during that period has stood the test of time, as did the group without a personnel change until 1997. It was in ’97 that Lawrence Payton passed away and over the next eleven years, Obie Benson and the legendary lead singer Levi Stubbs will also succumb to illnesses. The deaths of his friends leave Abdul “Duke” Fakir as the only surviving member and creates an emotional aura around performances, as the nostalgic feeling of the great Tops songs are always on stage next to him as he performs next to current lineup which includes, Spike Bonart, Ronald McNeir and Lawrence “Roquel” Peyton Jr.
At 76, Duke was in step or in his own step with the rest of the group, but he was always in tune. The hits were there: “Standing in the Shadows of Love”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got), “Bernadette”, “It’s the Same Old Song” and the timeless “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”, but it was a medley that served as a dedication to the original members that stole the show. In tribute to his father, Lawrence Jr., accompanied by his younger brother sung a soul-stirring rendition of Luther Vandross’ “Dance with My Father”, before Duke stood center stage, alone and sang a reworked version of the Sinatra classic “My Way.” Duke’s version, “Our Way” worked in the success of the group, as well as the false starts, but as he sang, “It was God’s grace” that turned things their way.
By this time, people were drying their eyes and still attempting to dry themselves from the moving and grooving they had done up until that point of the evening, but the showstoppers were on deck. While the first two acts had showed up and showed act, it was obvious that those in attendance came to see The O’Jays, as the dozens of shirts bearing their image with the words “Philadelphia Soul” printed above it proved. When the last dimmed and the M.C. started his introduction, the anticipation reached a near fevered pitch as a medley of their hits played in the background and they remained offstage for another two minutes, heads swiveled from side-to-side hoping to catch the first glance of the group.
Finally, they emerged: Eric Nolan Grant, Walter Williams and Eddie Levert took the stage and their microphones as well as the hearts and minds of everyone in attendance that evening. It was all a blur to me, I sat amazed that I was watching the mighty, mighty O’Jays; I don’t remember the first few songs performed at all, though I think they were “Unity” and “Only the Strong Survive.” Top-20 songs are what make up The O’Jays catalog and there are far too many of them to perform in one night, so they performed a bit of what everyone came to see and all of what we loved.
Nearly 50 years in our hearts and Walter Williams’ voice is still as velvety smooth as when you first heard “Forever Mine”, but 33 years and a couple weeks of living, I felt like I had never known life until I heard Eddie Levert live. After he performed his verse of “Lovin You” the crowd was buzzing after being blown away by the force of his voice and we were his, theirs, for the remainder of the night. It was closing in on midnight when they finished “Love Train” and those in attendance wanted more, much more, but there was nothing left but memories; memories of a time during which we came of age, fell in love, fell out of love, married, had children, smiled broadly and of a night in Philadelphia when we relived it all.
That’s all the people really want…