What a shitty way to start the day. I get up, I’m sitting at the breakfast table getting my sons ready for school, log onto the interwebs, and the first thing I see is that the mighty Teddy Pendergrass, one of the truly great soul voices of the 1970s has passed away at the age of 59.
Pendergrass had a memorable solo career, but my all-time fave record featuring his voice is also one of my all-time fave records period, that being Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes original version of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’.
I posted this record back in the summer of 2007, and I’m reposting it this morning in the memory of a brilliant singer.
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
“Listen – Don’t Leave Me This Way MP3″
I hope the middle of the week finds you well.
I wasn’t originally going to do a Wednesday post this week, but last night, as I was getting in a little headphone work before turning in (as I often do), I was flipping through my list of stockpiled blog tracks and when today’s selection came on I cranked the volume, closed my eyes and let the music carry me away.
The first time I heard Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes perform ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ I was just about pole axed.
I – like most people – always associated the song with the version (which I mistakenly assumed to be the original) by Thelma Houston. Her explosive take on ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ was a Number One hit in 1977, and is justly considered one of the truly great moments of the disco era (not to mention a fantastic record by any standards).
Then, sometime shortly after I moved in with my then fiancée (now wife), some nine years ago, we were listening to Felix Hernandez’ Rhythm Revue radio show*, and heard that familiar song, delivered by an unfamiliar (male) voice. Of course I hung over the radio until Felix announced the track, and was shocked to discover that ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ was in fact a cover of a recording by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and the male voice was none other than the great Theodore ‘Teddy’ Pendergrass.
I was shocked.
How did I not know this?
I certainly knew who Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were, but this was one of those moments when it became immediately clear that I had been asleep at the wheel, not only on this particular record, but on mid-70’s soul in general, more specifically disco.
Now, I’ve said this before, but I was always – if not a closet disco fan – one of those soul snobs who was willing to acknowledge that there were some good records within the world of disco, but insisted on turning a cold shoulder to the genre as a whole. I felt bold in professing my love for a record like ‘Get Down Tonight’ by KC & The Sunshine Band, but insisted that it was because the record was atypical, and thus an exception to the (my) rule ( a more succinct explanation here).
Anyway, suffice to say that in the years since then, for a number of reasons, including maturing tastes, a greater understanding of DJ culture and the world of disco (thanks largely to Peter Shapiro’s ‘Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco’ and Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s ‘’Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’), and of course exposure to a wider variety of music, my musical world view was reshaped considerably.
That said, that very day I ran out and grabbed a budget ‘Best of’ by HM&theBN’s and listened to it over, and over, and over again.
No matter how you slice it, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ is an absolutely monumental record. It was a perfect combination of vocalists, composers, producers and musicians, all at the peak of their powers, riding the crest of a wave that had yet to fully break (that being disco).
The Blue Notes had been together in one form or another since the mid-50s. By the early 60’s he group had split in two, becoming Bernard Williams and the Original Blue Notes , who recorded the brilliant ‘It’s Needless to Say’ for Harthon, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (featuring lead singer John Atkins) who recorded the equally brilliant ‘Get Out’ for Landa (which was included on the Funky16Corners Radio Philly Soul Mix). By the end of the 60’s Atkins was out, and was replaced by Blue Notes drummer Teddy Pendergrass. The group signed with Philly International in 1972, and soon hit with their first really big record ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ which topped the R&B charts and entered the Pop top 5.
The following year they hit again with ‘The Love I Lost’ and then again in early 1975 with ‘Bad Luck’.
Later that year they released the LP “Wake Up Everybody’ and had another R&B Number One with the title track, a gem of socially conscious soul. Oddly enough, the finest track on that album ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ was never released as a single in the US, though it was a Top 5 hit on the disco charts and a Top 20 hit in the UK. It wasn’t until two years later that Thelma Houston recorded her version for Motown, and the rest as they say is history.
It’s hard to listen to the Blue Notes original without wondering what the hell Philadephia International was thinking when they didn’t release it as a single. Though disco had not yet really gained steam as a commercial powerhouse, it would be foolish to pigeonhole ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ as just a “disco” record. This is not to use disco as a pejorative, but is rather a reflection on how this record transcends genre. Pendergrass’s vocal is absolutely flawless and the arrangement is a masterpiece of dynamics.
Opening – and running with – the Rhodes (as does the Houston version) , and the congas, the tune builds very gradually before literally exploding in the chorus, and then building again and again until the listener is carried away on a wave of emotion. It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone hearing ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ (especially the chorus which is absolute perfection) and not jumping up to dance. Had this record come out a few years later, when disco was at its height it would have been HUGE.
‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ is a great example of a great dance record that works on so many different levels. Clocking in at just over six minutes, it was long enough to build a fever on the dance floor, without resorting to any fluff or filler. When the record seems like it has reached its climax (right around the 5 minute mark), Pendergrass and the band take things back a notch. He whips a little mellow scatting on the room, backed by a very percussive electric piano and the drums, but then seemingly out of nowhere the rhythm guitar powers its way to the fore, taking over for just a few seconds and it’s a thing of beauty. I’m not sure who’s playing guitar here (Bobby Eli or Norman Harris most likely) but it’s amazing.
It’s interesting to contrast the Blue Notes version with Thelma Houston’s hit. While there’s no denying that Houston’s Motown-powered recording is a killer, especially her amazing vocal, the Blue Notes version manages to be incredibly exciting and a masterpiece of restraint at the same time. Where Houston’s version is marked by sharp trebly peaks, the Blue Notes recording has a richness about it. With all of its heightened moments of bliss it retains a wholly organic sound. The arrangements by Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker and Bobby Martin, and the production by Gamble/Huff is typically on point. The Philadelphia International crew (with the MFSB house band) created a huge catalog of incredible music, and ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ is one of their finest moments. It was also one of the last big moments for the group with Pendergrass, who embarked on a very successful solo career the next year.
Following his departure, the Blue Notes left Philadelphia International for ABC, and bounced from label to label through the mid-80’s. Despite several personnel changes, Melvin continued touring with the Blue Notes until his death in 1997.
I hope you dig this record as much as I do.
*The Rhythm Revue, which started out on listener-supported WBGO moved on for a time to commercial radio and lives on today in a series of popular dance nights hosted by Hernandez.