Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes

  • I Miss You [Philadelphia International, 1972] B
  • Black and Blue [Philadelphia International, 1973] B+
  • To Be True [Philadelphia International, 1975] B+
  • Wake Up Everybody [Philadelphia International, 1975] B+
  • Collector's Item [Philadelphia International, 1976] A-
  • Blue Notes and Ballads [Epic Associated/Legacy, 1998] ***

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

I Miss You [Philadelphia International, 1972]
For most of the eight-and-a-half minutes of the title cut, one Blue Note attempts a calm rapprochement with his estranged wife over the telephone while the others shout, moan, and sob his unspoken feelings--summed up by the title, which must repeat a hundred times. But not even their top-forty breakthrough, "If You Don't Know Me by Now," matches up. Gamble, Huff & Co. show off their skill at instrumental deployment and Melvin provides gorgeous vocal arrangements, but too often it all adds up to noble banalities sententiously expressed. And sometimes the banalities aren't so noble. B

Black and Blue [Philadelphia International, 1973]
The lead singer's name is Theodore Pendergrass, not Harold Melvin, which you'd only know by reading Soul or Jet--he's not mentioned anywhere on the record or double-fold jacket. Pendergrass boasts just about the most powerful voice ever to hit soul music, though not the richest or most overwhelming. Although his smashes are dance tunes like "The Love I Lost" and "Satisfaction Guaranteed," his real calling is big ballads, especially ones that assert dependence--"Is There a Place for Me," "I'm Weak for You." But did they have to kick things off with "Cabaret"? B+

To Be True [Philadelphia International, 1975]
Black suffering above the poverty level is the lyrical twist of "Bad Luck" and "Where Are All My Friends" (written not by Gamble-Huff but by Carstarphen-McFadden-Whitehead), and to Pendergrass's credit he seems to get it--even makes a few asides. He also generates tremendous romantic authority--you really believe he wants to meet up with her "Somewhere Down the Line." He doesn't do the impossible for "Pretty Flower," though, and given the credibility of most of what remains--not to mention the intrusion of the mysterious Sharon Paige--the impossible is all that would push this over the line for me. B+

Wake Up Everybody [Philadelphia International, 1975]
The sustained dynamics of the title track get me past its muddle-headed lyrics--Gamble-Huff sometimes act as if "hatred, war an' poverty" came along just as they were running out subjects. And I can still go along with Teddy Pendergrass's tender strength. But sometimes he sounds a little more insecure than I think he intends--he's prone to bluster and chest-pounding, and some of his grunts are almost coughs. Anyway, he's gone. B+

Collector's Item [Philadelphia International, 1976]
Harold Melvin could no more give Teddy his due than he could sing lead himself, so he includes a Sharon Paige feature instead of another slow, vulnerable one--if not "To Be True" or "I'm Weak for You," then why not "Yesterday I Had the Blues," which was a hit? And Kenny Gamble could no more get off his high horse than he could do the dishes, so he includes the inevitable piece of male-chauvinism-as-moral-posture, "Be for Real," instead of "Satisfaction Guaranteed," which was a hit. And for all that this compilation is the best Teddy Pendergrass record you can buy. A-

Blue Notes and Ballads [Epic Associated/Legacy, 1998]
Even if Teddy's not fully himself, Harold's not half Jerry Butler, and Sharon Paige is Sharon Paige ("If You Don't Know Me by Now," "To Be True"). ***