Serious fans of 1970s American soul music will probably already own every note of music on Be For Real – The P.I.R. Recordings (1972-1975), a new three-CD box set that compiles the four albums Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes recorded for Philadelphia International Records (P.I.R.). But, still, those fans might enjoy having all that music in one collection. And for fledgling students of 1970s soul, Be For Real will be an essential addition to their collection.
Harold Melvin had been a mainstay on the local Philadelphia rhythm and blues scene going back to 1954. He joined a group called the Charlemagnes, who eventually changed their name to the Blue Notes and released a 1956 single called “If You Really Love (Really Love Me)”. The Blue Notes then spent the next decade and a half releasing occasional singles that would sometimes scrape their way into Billboard‘s rhythm and blues singles chart.
Finally, 1972 brought tremendous change for Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Melvin had hired a new drummer named Teddy Pendergrass for the Blue Notes band. Pendergrass soon revealed himself to be a charismatic vocalist and became the Blue Notes’ lead singer. The group were playing lounges, supper clubs, and casinos when music producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff took in a Blue Notes show and convinced them to sign a contract to their fledgling record label, Philadelphia International Records.
The Blue Notes’ debut album, I Miss You, was just the second album released by P.I.R., between Billy Paul’s Going East and the O’Jays’ Backstabbers. All three acts soon had hits in the rich, symphonic, sophisticated style that became famous as the Sound of Philadelphia. “TSOP”, for short.
I Miss You is all about the ballads, which are generally engaging while offering no hint of the more upbeat material that would emerge on subsequent albums. The album’s title track made some waves, and “Be For Real” is a worthy entry in the R&B recitation genre. But the highlight of I Miss You is, by far, the instant classic “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, a breakout hit single for both the Blue Notes and P.I.R.
The second album, Black and Blue (1973), opens with a surprise: an over-the-top, lounge-ready “Cabaret”, arranged as if it were on a mid-1960s Wayne Newton album. It’s a real toe-tapper and a throwback to the Blue Notes’ casino days. However, “Cabaret” is over within two minutes, leading to the group’s first iconic upbeat tune, the wistful but driving “The Love I Lost”. Here you hear the Philly Soul sound in all its emerging glory. The rest of Black and Blue finds a nice balance between ballads and livelier tracks.
Disc two of Be For Real contains the Blue Notes’ two 1975 albums, To Be True and Wake Up Everybody, each of which features a hit single: “Bad Luck”, from the former, and the socially-conscious title track from the latter. The hits are the highlights of each album but, like nearly any album released by Philadelphia International in the 1970s, the quality level generally stays high throughout.
The final disc of Be For Real compiles seven non-album tracks. These include an intriguing cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking”, (originally a 1969 hit for Harry Nilsson) from the 1977 P.I.R. compilation, Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto. The disc also includes two dance-oriented remixes and three live tracks. None of these are particularly essential, though their inclusion helps to emphasize that collectors are getting very nearly everything Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes recorded during their P.I.R. years.
After growing contention within the group, Teddy Pendergrass left Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in 1976. He subsequently launched a successful solo run on Philadelphia International until 1982, when a serious car accident left him paralyzed. He gradually resumed his solo career, including an emotional appearance with Ashford and Simpson at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia on 13 July 1985. Pendergrass died in 2010.
Harold Melvin found new Blue Notes to replace Pendergrass, left P.I.R., and continued the Blue Notes with an often-changing lineup and occasional record releases. That was much as he had done before 1972, but the chart-topping days of the Blue Notes were over. Melvin’s death in 1997 essentially ended the Blue Notes. Although it would appear that an entity called “Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes” currently plays the music cruise circuit.
While Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes are primarily remembered for their hits, listening to the complete Be For Real does provide additional clues to the long-term influence of their work. Simply Red’s huge hit cover of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” — which won Gamble and Huff a well-deserved songwriting Grammy award in 1989 — is probably the most well-known example of Blue Notes influence.
Also, though, listeners will hear the proto-disco sound, not just of “Bad Luck” and “The Love I Lost”, but also of the original version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, which went on to become a full-fledged disco fantasia hit single for Thelma Houston in 1976. Plus, it’s hard to hear the moody ballad, “Pretty Flower”, and not imagine George Michael listening closely to it as he was formulating some of the tunes that became part of his breakout solo smash, Faith. Finally, samples of Blue Notes songs are scattered through a variety of hip-hop tracks by everyone from Jay Z to Wiz Khalifa to Wu-Tang Clan and beyond. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes spent a relatively small portion of their entire career in the spotlight but, when they did, they left a lasting impression.
As for the box set itself, it is indeed a convenient way to own the Blue Notes’ P.I.R. work physically. An accompanying booklet includes excerpts from past interviews of Blue Notes’ members, as well as some recent remarks by Jeremiah Cummings, the sole surviving member from the group’s P.I.R. years.
Ultimately, casual fans might prefer to find a single disc compiling the best of the Blue Notes P.I.R. recordings, or even a P.I.R. various artists compilation that includes the Blue Notes hits. But, for those who want to deep dive into the hit-making years of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Be For Real: The P.I.R. Recordings 1972-1975 is the place to begin, and end, your quest.