Obituary: Harold Melvin

Pierre Perrone
Wednesday 26 March 1997 01:02

Harold Melvin was one of the pioneers of the Philly Sound which now epitomises the mid-Seventies.

Under his guidance, the Blue Notes, a vocal group also boasting at the time the talents of Teddy Pendergrass, had several worldwide hits like "If You Don't Know Me By Now", "The Love I Lost", "Wake Up Everybody" and "Don't Leave Me This Way". But Melvin had been involved in music from a much earlier age and was still singing until a paralysing stroke put him in hospital a few months ago.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1941. The young Harold sang doo-wop on street corners with his childhoood friends. They took up the name Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and released the "If You Love Me" single on the local Josie label in 1956. The group played the local club scene, recording intermittently for small labels like Brooke, Val-Ue ("My Hero" in 1960), Landa ("Get Out" in 1964) and Uni ("This Time Will Be Different" in 1969). They also cut a few tracks for Chess (with Luther Dixon) and the TK label (with Henry Stone). The Blue Notes constantly changed line-up and were very much Melvin's group, though he didn't always appear on stage with them. Rather, he choreographed their routines as well as arranging and composing some of their material, though they mostly sung standards and show tunes when performing in supper clubs.

By 1970, Melvin was the only original member left, and Teddy Pendergrass, who had joined from the Cadillacs, had stepped out from behind the drumkit to take up lead vocals in a line-up which also comprised Lloyd Parkes, Lawrence Brown and Bernard Wilson. His characteristic vocal stylings attracted the attention of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, two veteran songwriters and producers who had just set up the Philadelphia International operaton and signed a distribution deal with Columbia. In 1972, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes joined a roster which would soon include the O'Jays, Billy Paul and the Three Degrees and take over from Tamla Motown as the sound of mid-Seventies America.

After finding minor success with "I Miss You", they recorded "If You Don't Know Me By Now", a Gamble and Huff composition full of passion and yearning. It reached the American and British Top 10 in late 1972 and sold over two million copies. The song became a classic and was a popular choice for filmmakers trying to give a flavour of the period. It was revived by Simply Red in 1989.

The Philly Sound ruled discotheques the world over and, in 1973, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes hit paydirt again with "The Love I Lost". Rich orchestrations and catchy choruses also ensured that "Satisfaction Guaranteed", "Where Are All My Friends" and "Bad Luck" were dance-floor fillers, while at the same time making pointed comments on the state of America. "Wake Up, Everybody", another political plea for peace and harmony penned by Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Castarphen and produced by Gamble and Huff, saw them back in the pop charts in 1976.

However Teddy Pendergrass, who had the lion's share of vocal duties, was becoming uncomfortable with his position. People assumed he was Harold Melvin but he was just one of the Blue Notes and his financial rewards reflected that status. A billing adding "featuring Teddy Pendergrass" to the group monicker assuaged his worries for a while but, in 1977, he decided to go solo, scoring major hits in America with "The Whole Town's Laughing At Me" and "Close the Door", soul ballads of the late-night variety.

Before leaving the Blue Notes, Pendergrass had recorded "Don't Leave Me This Way" which battled it out with Thelma Houston's version in early 1977. Nine years later, the disco anthem was successfully brought up to date by the Communards, featuring Jimmy Sommerville.

Having replaced Pendergrass with David Ebo, the Blue Notes left Philadelphia International for ABC. "Reaching for the World" was a R&B hit but the group's popularity was on the wane and, when various records on Source, MCA, Philly World flopped, they returned to the night-club and cabaret circuit which was their original home. Two years ago, they appeared in London at the Green Room of the Cafe Royal. By then, as all those years ago, Harold Melvin was the only original member. The hits were long gone, but some of the magic sparkle was still there.

Harold James Melvin, singer, composer and arranger: born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 24 May 1941; married Ovelia McDaniels (five children); died Philadelphia 24 March 1997.

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