by Steven Pisano
The SummerStage program run by the City Parks Foundation presents a wide variety of (mostly) free performances throughout the summer in all five boroughs. And in Brooklyn, what says "summer" more than Coney Island? The enormous open-air Ford Amphitheater (5000 seats!) along the Boardwalk a couple of blocks past the stadium where the minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones play baseball was recently the host for an oldies-but-goodies show called "The 70s Soul Jam" featuring the Manhattans (known here as Sonny Bivins' Manhattans, due to a 2018 court ruling about the name), the Stylistics, and Harold Melvin's Blue Notes.
The 1970s was a time of striking transition in popular music. The generally short, upbeat, radio-friendly pop hits of the 1960s was giving way to strong inroads from disco, funk, punk, and jazz, and would see the roots of hip hop which would influence the next several decades, just as the roots of rock & roll in the 1950s had set the table for the decades following then.
But while ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, Donna Summer, and others were the common face of the decade, there were lots of groups pumping out ear-friendly soul music. Especially what was called "the Philadelphia sound," created by the songwriting and production of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff whose Philadelphia International Records became a sort of rival of Motown Records.
One of Gamble and Huff's most famous acts was the original Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, who had chart-topping hits with songs like "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and "Bad Luck." But many people also remember the group for its most famous singer, Teddy Pendergrass, who had been the group's drummer before ascending to stardom as the main vocalist before heading out on his own platinum-selling solo career. Harold Melvin died in 1997, and several of the original members of the group, as well as Pendergrass, died in 2010, so as is true for many of these older groups that go out on tour, the current members are mostly various replacement singers from over the years who tour under a slightly modified group name.
The Stylistics were also a group formed in Philadelphia, but they grew out of a doo wop heritage and not the Gamble and Huff sound. Two of the current members, Airrion Love and Herb Murrell, still perform with the presently touring group. Among the biggest hits of The Stylistics were "I'm Stone in Love with You" and "You Make Me Feel Brand New."
The Manhattans, who despite their name hailed from across the river in Jersey City, were formed in the early 1960s and enjoyed hits with "Kiss and Say Goodbye" and "Shining Star" (although the latter song was recorded in 1980, so technically outside the decade featured).
All in all, this was a fun show along the beach, even if it reminded me of PBS fundraising shows where they showcase musical groups from the 1950s and 1960s. People were dancing in the aisles and hugging each other when certain songs began. Of course, as more and more older groups go on tours like this, often with few or even no founding members, I often wonder what will happen when the rap groups of the 80s and 90s start to age into their 70s and 80s. Can you imagine Snoop Dogg, Public Enemy, and N.W.A. on stage in such a show?
More photos can be found here.