The Stylistics are a soul music vocal group, and were one of the best-known Philadelphia soul groups of the 1970s. They formed in 1968, and were composed of lead Russell Thompkins, Jr., Herbie Murrell, Airrion Love, James Smith, and James Dunn. All of their US hits were ballads, graced by the soaring falsetto of Russell Thompkins, Jr. and the lush productions of Thom Bell, which helped make the Stylistics one of the most successful soul groups of the first half of the 1970s." During the early 1970s, the band had twelve consecutive U.S. R&B top ten hits, including "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)", "You Are Everything", "Betcha by Golly, Wow", "I'm Stone in Love with You", "Break Up to Make Up", and "You Make Me Feel Brand New".
The Stylistics were created from two Philadelphia groups, The Percussions and The Monarchs. Russell Thompkins Jr., James Smith, and Airron Love came from the Monarchs, and James Dunn and Herbie Murrell came from the Percussions. In 1970, the group recorded "You're a Big Girl Now", a song their road manager Marty Bryant co-wrote with Robert Douglas, a member of their backing band Slim and the Boys, and the single became a regional hit for Sebring Records. Producer Bill Perry spent $400 to record the number in the Virtue Studios in Philadelphia. The larger Avco Records soon signed the Stylistics, and the single eventually climbed to number seven on the US Billboard R&B chart in early 1971.
After signing to Avco, the record label approached producer Thom Bell, who had already produced a catalogue of hits for The Delfonics, to work with the group. The Stylistics auditioned for Bell, and he was initially unimpressed. He ultimately only agreed to produce the group because he believed in the great potential of lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr.'s distinctive, nasal high tenor falsetto voice. Avco gave Bell complete creative control over the Stylistics, and he proceeded to focus the group's sound exclusively around Thompkins's voice. On most of the group hits Bell would have Thompkins sing virtually solo.
The first song the Stylistics recorded together with Bell and his collaborator, lyricist Linda Creed, was the lush "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)". Bell imported the techniques he had perfected with The Delfonics, and his arrangements worked perfectly with Thompkins' falsetto. The bittersweet lyrics from Creed were a key factor in creating memorable music.
Their hits from this period —distilled from three albums— included "Betcha by Golly, Wow" (U.S. #3), "I'm Stone in Love with You", "Break Up to Make Up" (U.S. #5), "You Make Me Feel Brand New" featuring a rare double lead with Airron Love, the aforementioned "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)", "You Are Everything", and the Top 20 Pop hit "Rockin' Roll Baby" (U.S. #14). "You Make Me Feel Brand New" was the group's biggest U.S. hit, holding at #2 for two weeks in the spring of 1974, and was one of five U.S. gold singles the Stylistics collected. The Stylistics' smooth sound also found an easier path onto adult contemporary airwaves than other soul artists, and the group made Billboard magazine's Easy Listening singles chart twelve times from 1971 to 1976, with three entries ("Betcha by Golly, Wow", "You Make Me Feel Brand New", and "You'll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart)") reaching the Top 10. Every single that Bell produced for the Stylistics was a Top Ten R&B hit, and several—"You Are Everything", "Betcha by Golly Wow!", "I'm Stone in Love with You", "Break Up to Make Up", and "You Make Me Feel Brand New"—were also Top Ten pop chart hits. This commercial success was not confined only to the U.S., with the band also having big hits with this material throughout Europe.
Thom Bell stopped working with the Stylistics in 1974, and the split proved commercially devastating to the group's success in the U.S. Just as with the Delfonics, the Stylistics were to some extent a vehicle for Bell's own creativity. They struggled hard to find producers who could come up with the right material, and partnerships with Hugo & Luigi (through which they did produce one commercially successful early disco record, entitled, "Hey Girl, Come and Get It" in 1975) and Van McCoy were notably less successful. However, just as U.S. success began to wane, their popularity in Europe, and especially the United Kingdom, increased. Indeed, the lighter 'pop' sound fashioned by Van McCoy and Hugo & Luigi gave the band a UK #1 in 1975 with "Can't Give You Anything (But My Love)". Further successes with "Sing Baby Sing", "Na Na is the Saddest Word", "Funky Weekend" and "Can't Help Falling in Love" consolidated the band's European popularity. They are one of the few U.S. acts to have two chart-topping greatest hits albums in the UK.
The Stylistics switched record labels during this period as Avco Records transitioned to become H&L Records in 1976. Notwithstanding this, the band began to struggle with increasingly weak material, and although the singles and albums came out as before, by 1978 chart success had vanished. This decline coincided with the rise of New Wave in Europe around this time, and it was also stated by Russell Thompkins Jr. (in the re-issue sleevenotes for the 1976 album Fabulous) that the group began to feel that the music they were recording was becoming increasingly dated, and not in keeping with the popular disco sound of the late 1970s.
In 1979, they had a small part in the movie Hair, directed by Milos Forman, where they play conservative army officers. They double Nell Carter in singing a tongue-in-cheek song called "White Boys".