Philadelphia-born Russell Thompkins, Jr. was the baby-faced, smooth and sexy falsetto voice, the driving force and original lead singer of R&B group the Stylistics. The iconic performers who gave us such memorable hits as People Make the World Go Round, Break Up to Make Up, You Are Everything and Betcha By Golly Wow. The Stylistics were formed in the late 60s and skyrocketed up the R&B and pop charts with their seamless harmonies. Russell’s silky vocal quality blended magnificently with the arrangements created by the legendary songwriter and producer Thom Bell, who imported techniques he had perfected with the R&B and soul group, The Delfonics.
The Stylistics have earned seven gold albums, five gold singles, two double gold singles, eight platinum albums, one double platinum album and four platinum singles. Whew! The group also earned a Grammy nomination in 1974 for the classic ballad, You Make Me Feel Brand New.
In 2000, after 33 years, Russell quit the Stylistics due to mental and physical pressures from the group. Additionally, he lost his beautiful falsetto voice. Russell rested for about a year and thankfully, his vocal gift returned. In 2002, he had the opportunity to record a solo album, A Matter of Style.
In 2003, Russell debuted his own group: Russell Thompkins, Jr. and the New Stylistics. The discord between Russell and his old bandmates is apparent because on his website he has a disclaimer that reads:
If you purchase tickets or see advertisements for the Stylistics or the Stylistics Review, you will not see Russell Thompkins, Jr.
The breakup between Russell and the original Stylistics was not an amicable one and is a subject that can get the performer pretty fired up. Russell contends that after his separation from the group, the original Stylistics members were trying to prevent him from performing and are still doing so to this very day. Russell has chosen to rise above the disharmonious situation with his former singing crew because he and the current members of his new Stylistics group–Raymond Johnson and Jonathan Buckson–are doing quite well as they continue to tour.
Russell inherited his vocal talent from his late father who was also with a singing group but who later went solo. Russell’s singing voice really began to get noticed during high school when he became a member of the Monarchs. A school talent show brought Russell together with the men who would become the future Stylistics.
In 1968, the R&B group was solidified and two years later, they had their first hit single which was played regionally, You’re a Big Girl Now. After signing with an even larger record company, Avco, their single was given national airplay and it shot up the charts. The record company introduced the group to Bell, who had reservations about working with them but who soon acquiesced. The stellar record producer zeroed-in on Russell’s exceptional vocal talent and most of the group’s most memorable hits were specifically crafted to feature his soothing falsetto vocals.
Besides Thom Bell, Russell has worked with other greats like the late Van McCoy, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Burt Bacharach. Russell brings to the table an unparalleled level of passion, talent, devotion, and professionalism to his craft. He is committed to providing his loyal fans of 30 years-plus with the same quality of music and showmanship that they have come to know and love.
Russell, who is performing at various venues throughout the country, wanted to open up about his life so that his 50BOLD fans can catch up with him.
50BOLD: You have one of the best silky-smooth falsetto voices of our time. When did you realize you could use your gift for singing? In addition, I read somewhere that you heard the pop singer Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons sing and how he actually inspired you as well.
Russell: My father was a singer, a baritone falsetto. He showed me techniques when I first started to develop my falsetto voice. The thing about Frankie Valli, when I first heard him sing falsetto, I really liked it and I said to myself, “Yes, I can do that too!”
50BOLD: Maintaining your falsetto voice, I know, can’t be easy. Do you do anything holistically or otherwise to keep your vocals in tip-top shape? Falsetto voices tend to change as one gets older but yours certainly has not!
Russell: I had a few problems with my voice. When I first began singing, I had difficulty with my vocals over several days because I would lose my voice after only singing for one day. After being on the road for a while, my voice got a bit stronger. And over the years, my vocals got stronger and stronger. However, after 33 years of using my voice to the maximum, I began experiencing some vocal issues. It was at this point that I left singing with the original group in 2000.
I took a little time off. It’s a funny thing because during that time, a lot of other singers were having trouble with their voices. The singer/actress Julie Andrews was having problems with her voice. The rocker Rod Stewart also experienced some vocal issues as well as a few other singers. They were having operations to remove vocal chord nodules. These performers were making comebacks and their voices weren’t sounding right. Julie Andrews actually lost her voice altogether. I decided just to rest my voice. During my time off, I went to music school and studied piano and music theory. After I rested for a while, my voice came back, and it was then that I decided to make a comeback with the new group in 2003.
Since I’ve begun performing again, I haven’t had too much of a vocal problem. I’ve just had the regular issues that many singers experience after screaming at the top of their lungs every night. (laughs)
50BOLD: You have worked with the great songwriter, arranger and record producer, Thom Bell. He gave you such compositions as You Are Everything, Betcha By Golly Wow; Stop, Look, Listen, People Make the World Go Round; I could go on and on! These classic songs made you one of the most sought after R&B balladeers. What was it like working with Thom? Were you a fan of the songs that I mentioned, or did you have any reservations about any of them?
Russell: I had no reservations about any of the songs we performed. I loved them right from the start as soon as I listened to them in Thom’s office. It’s funny, I knew nothing about Tommy Bell! Tommy was the writer of the songs that I was singing at the time at nightclubs and other venues because I didn’t have any songs. I found out that he was the talent who was working with The Delfonics. William Hart, the lead singer of The Delfonics was one of my favorite tenors.
Tommy was actually the one who gave me my vocal identity. I sang falsetto but he actually gave me a sound. He gave me the music that I sing to this very day. When I first walked into Tommy’s office he said, “The first thing we are going to do is bring that high voice down!” He brought my voice down to a level that was manageable. I didn’t like his suggestions at first but as the years ensued, I discovered that he gave me one of the best gifts ever. Even after years of not being able to sing as I used to when I was younger, I can still sing those Tommy Bell songs.
50BOLD: Wow, that’s so interesting! I know you worked with Bell until 1974. Why did you guys part company?
Russell: I think there were problems with Tommy Bell and the record company. Tommy Bell is also a funny type of guy. He works with the people whom no one else wants to work with and helps them become successful. He left us for The Spinners.
Part of what inspired Tommy to create his music was to take those folks nobody wanted to work with and mold them into successes. Almost everyone Tommy worked with became successful.
Tommy left during the time that I wanted to leave the Stylistics. I also began having problems working with the other guys in the group around the time that Tommy left. I was actually going to leave at the time but when I had a conversation with another tenor, he convinced me to stay. The tenor was Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations. Eddie told me, “You know how many people you are feeding? All of those guys on stage with you now and their families, and their children, they’re all counting on you right now. You think about what you are doing before you do it.”
After my conversation with Eddie, I wound up staying for another 33 years. Mind you, things did not get any better for me but it was a learning process.
50BOLD: Why did you want to leave at that time?
Russell: We just weren’t getting it together. The guys would not step up. On the three albums, we did with Tommy Bell, they didn’t sing on them. Only one of the guys sang on two songs. He sang on You Are Everything and You Make Me Feel Brand New. When we would go on the road people would say, “Ya’ll don’t sound like the record.” The reason why we didn’t sound like the record was that the group members weren’t on the record!
When Tommy left, we started working with Van McCoy. One of the stipulations I had with the new record company was that they had to use everyone in the group. I told them to at least let us go out on the road and sound like the music that we are making. The people in the group were either reluctant to work, or the record company just didn’t want to use them. A rift developed between us that mounted and mounted. It actually took 33 years for the tension to get to a point where it started to affect me mentally and physically. I had to leave the group!
50BOLD: What is your favorite Stylistics ballad that you never get tired of singing and why?
Russell: I never get tired of singing Betcha By Golly Wow. It seems like the song was written for me but it wasn’t. (laughs) At the time I was recording all of those songs, my life was going through what we were singing about. When my wife Florence and I first got together when I was 18, I was feeling every emotion in every one of the songs we sang as a group. Betcha By Golly Wow seemed to capture my life best. The song was actually written for the singer and actress Connie Stevens. The song wasn’t called Betcha By Golly Wow, it was called Keep Growing Strong. But eventually, the song became mine!
50BOLD: The song sure did become ALL yours! I know you stopped working with Thom Bell in 1974. The Stylistics started to fade somewhat here in the states in the mid-seventies, so you went over to Europe and the group became popular over there. Right?
Russell: Yes, we started working with Van McCoy at the new record company after we left Tommy Bell. Van wrote songs that were similar to The Hustle for us. We had a record called Can’t Give You Anything But Love; it went double platinum in Europe, and double platinum in Japan and opened up a whole new market for us.
50BOLD: Van McCoy is considered disco, right?
Russell: At that time Van was considered disco but he goes all the way back to writing songs like Every Beat of My Heart for Gladys Knight and The Pips in the 60s. He wrote so many songs for David Ruffin. Van was a very prolific writer. He helped us when Tommy left. I really didn’t want Tommy to leave. It was like having your teacher just up and say, “Look, I’m not going to show you anything, anymore. I’ve got to go.”
50BOLD: And you said it was probably because of the record company?
Russell: Yes, he left because of issues with the record company; we didn’t do anything. We came back and began working with Tommy again around 1982. We did an album with him and TSOP Records called Closer Than Closer. We recorded three albums with the label.
50BOLD: A few of those TSOP albums did not do as well as expected, what do you think was the reason?
Russell: Well, what I heard and what I assumed was that TSOP and Philly International Records had lost their distribution and their contract with Columbia Records. It was during that time that the record company Philadelphia International and TSOP were getting ready to close down. It was also around the time that Teddy Pendergrass got hurt; he was their biggest artist. There was a chain of events that went on during this period that negatively impacted many in the Gamble and Huff stable.
50BOLD: Russell, you left the Stylistics in 2000. Was it an amicable breakup?
Russell: No! The breakup of the group was not amicable! The breakup took place when everything came to a head with the problems that I told you were going on. I was pushed to the very limit in ’99. I wasn’t living right. I was not eating and doing things the right way. Things were really affecting me. I had a problem with the Internal Revenue Service. My home life wasn’t going well. I remember praying, asking God, “Please get me out of this situation. I can’t take it any longer. If I stay around here any longer, I’m going to be dead!”
I just kept on going until I couldn’t go anymore. And you know, God has a crazy way of doing things and He or She don’t do things the way you ask. I lost my voice which is how I left the group. My voice just went away. I could sing in my speaking voice but my falsetto was gone and so I quit the Stylistics. The day that I quit the group, well, I’ve never been that happy again in my life!
Russell: I mean I was so happy that I didn’t care if I never sang again!
Russell: I was happy because I was away from that entire situation. Working at that stressful job for that long a period nearly had me going out of my mind. When I left the group, my world became fan-tas-tic!
It wasn’t long after that my voice came back. I started singing again and doing a couple of shows here and there. I even recorded my first solo album, A Matter of Style.
All of the guys whom I had grown up singing with and the Stylistics band members came to me and said, “Look, let’s put a new group together!” So in 2003, we formed the New Stylistics.
50BOLD: So, the original Stylistics members are not involved with the new group at all, right?
Russell: None of the Stylistics are involved with my new group and as a matter of fact, I haven’t even spoken to them in 19 years! One of the Stylistics lives five minutes from me. I’ve seen him exactly twice in 19 years and he lives around the corner from me! I even jog past that area and I don’t see him!
50BOLD: Wow! So is it for legal reasons that you use the word ‘New’ in the group’s name?
Russell: For my current group, yes, the legal agreement was that I use Russell Thompkins, Jr. and the New Stylistics. For the original Stylistics, they cannot use my image, voice or anything that involves me in their advertisement, or that benefits their progression as a group.
50BOLD: Are the Stylistics still performing?
Russell: Yeah, the Stylistics are still working. They tried to stop me when I first came back on the performance scene and are still doing so but I made the music happen. Over the years, my group, the New Stylistics, have become more and more popular.
I think the Stylistics had three or four different lead singers. They have a new lead singer now who used to be a Temptations but that’s neither here nor there. I keep them out of my mind. I was very, very, angry with the group when I first began my comeback and for various valid reasons.
But now, I’m happy that things turned out the way they did. I remind myself to keep those Stylistics out of my mind so that I won’t get angry and become un-Godly.
50BOLD: Russell, I read somewhere that you were a long distance runner. Do you still run?
Russell: Yes, I do. When I was in my 30s I ran 30 miles. Now, I do five miles a day. I run every place, all over the world. I run in every country I’ve ever visited: Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines, Kuala Lumpur, New Zealand, Australia.
I’m 68 now and I’ve slowed down a little bit but I do run five miles a day. When I have a really important engagement and have to get in shape like for something I just finished doing, I run five miles twice a day. I go out about three in the morning, run and then go back out at about three in the afternoon.
50BOLD: So what did you just finish?
Russell: Howard Hewitt, Gerald Alston (of The Manhattans), and I just did a three-man show in Baltimore where we sang opera, gospel, and R&B. We sang various genres of music. We had a very enjoyable time. We had something like six months to get ready for it.
50BOLD: Yes, I interviewed Gerald Alston and I remember him discussing the Baltimore gig now that you mention it. When did it take place?
Russell: The event took place last June in Baltimore at the University of Maryland. It was wonderful. It was one of the greatest experiences of my musical life. Especially, working with the guys. Howard and Gerald are very experienced and gifted singers. The experience helped me find out where I was coming from because I had to keep up.
50BOLD: You run, and any other form of exercise?
Russell: I stopped lifting weights in ’05. I had a gym in the house and I used to work out. When I lost my voice, I was 50 years old. I began studying music. The music took over the exercise and the other things that were becoming harder to do because of my age. I continue to run and occasionally and I do play some basketball.
50BOLD: You lost your voice for how long?
Russell: I lost my voice for about a year. I could always sing in the same range as my speaking voice but my falsetto just wasn’t coming through. I was taking a music class for three years. My teacher was a classical music instructor and knew nothing about the Stylistics.
When I first attended the school, the musical director asked me, “Well, what’s this singing group you are with? What are you about? Why do you want to come here and study at the age that you are right now?” Behind her was a photograph of the world famous Carnegie Hall in New York City, I paused for a moment, pointed to that picture on the wall and said, “I sang there.” (laughs)
50BOLD: (laughs) What did the director say when you told her you performed at Carnegie Hall?
Russell: She said, “Oh, yeah? I have to do some research on you!” The director then assigned a teacher to work with me. For three years, I learned to read music, and play classical music. The teacher I was paired with wasn’t teaching me what I really wanted to learn, but I stayed at the school nonetheless because I just wanted to learn. After the three years, I continued to study. Now, I have a new music teacher and I’m studying jazz.
50BOLD: Is that a musical genre you eventually want to get into?
Russell: I just want to learn music. My main musical instrument will always be my voice. But if I’m going to learn music, I should learn as much about it as I possibly can; I tell this to young people all the time. I don’t care what you do. If you want to be in the entertainment business, if you’re a singer become a musician. If you are a musician, then sing. Put in as much time as you possibly can to learn every musical genre. Learning as much as you can about your craft will only strengthen you in life.
50BOLD: How does Russell relax during his downtime?
Russell: On the weekends, my wife Florence and I go to the movies when I’m home. We go to restaurants and things like that. At the age we are now, there’s not too much partying going on! (laughs)
50BOLD: How does Florence cope with you being on the road, especially during the earlier years?
Russell: She copes with me. She takes care of me. I went from one woman taking care of me to another woman taking care of me. She’s taken care of the business side of my career by doing the accounting work. We didn’t have children so she traveled with me for about the first 20 years of my career and then went back to school. Florence has three Masters now. We’ve been through some things in our 48 years of marriage, but we haven’t experienced situations we could not handle together.
50BOLD: Is there a mantra that has served you well over these years?
Russell: It took losing my voice to truly understand that someone else is controlling my life more than I am. It was at that point, I came to realize that God was a very potent part my life. I talk to God every single day. I’m not a church-going person, but I do know who runs the show and it is certainly not me!
(NOTE: Russell Thompkins Jr.’s allegations and opinions against his former group the Stylistics are his own. 50BOLD.com offers no opinion as to the accuracy of Mr. Thompkins’ allegations.)