Smokey Robinson wrote those words in 1971. They were written in admiration of - and out of respect for - his soon-to-be erstwhile colleagues the Miracles, whose elegant vocal backups had graced many of Robinson's compositions during the previous decade and a half. In these simple words - and whether or not he fully realised he was doing so at the time - Smokey was also paying tribute to an important, even indispensible, sub-genre of American black music, and to the multitude of other exceptional vocal outfits that have enhanced that sub-genre since the mid 60s. "
Group soul harmony has been dear to the hearts of soul fans and collectors for more than three decades now and, for almost as long as there has been such a thing, has been a prominent feature of the Ace catalogue. Down the years we have featured - and continue to feature - wonderful single-CD sets devoted to the Manhattans, Mad Lads, Impressions, Chi-Lites, Detroit Emeralds, Delfonics and many others who, for those of us who are aficionados, are pretty much the be-all and end-all of sweet soul harmony. Group soul has also been well represented across a host of great Kent compilations, which have drawn their repertoire from the catalogues of Carnival, Scepter/Wand, Stax, Excello, Modern and Philly Groove. It's fair to say that every time that age-old question Do you like good music, that sweet soul music?" has ever raised its head in Ace towers, the answer from most of us present has always been a very firm "Yeah! Yeah!".
Sadly, our enthusiasm seems to be less well reflected in the buying habits of today's young music lovers. As times and tastes in black music have changed, the great vocal groups that were always one of the principal ingredients in the recipe of soul, seem to have become relegated to a seat at the back of the musical bus. Solo acts, meanwhile - both male and female - have become the mainstay of music that's nowadays known as R&B, but what, in truth, is no more related to real R&B than were Elsie and Doris Waters any kin of Muddy's (they were actually Dixon Of Dock Green's sisters, tedious fact fans).
Contemporary soul groups may be a vanishing breed, but happily there's plenty of demand for both the past masters of the genre and their past masterpieces. And, now in 2003, we're happy to bring you even more of that sweet soul music in the form of IN PERFECT HARMONY, a multi-artist, multi label CD - the first, we'd like to hope, of an ongoing series - devoted entirely to the increasingly vanishing art(istry) of group soul. Its two dozen tracks, all recorded during group soul's golden decade of 1966-76, feature some of the greatest names the genre has to offer, as well as many so obscure that even the performers' mothers would be hard pressed to remember much more than names and dates of birth. But all these groups have one special thing in common - a vocal greatness that makes these, and any other records they might have made, totally indispensable to their genre's many fans who reside as far apart as Tokyo and Todmorden. Those who know and love these kind of records will need no added incentive to buy In Perfect Harmony once they've taken a quick look at a track listing that contains masterpieces by the Pretenders, the New Cymbals, the Smith Connection, the Temprees and the Masqueraders, to name but a few.
In total, In Perfect Harmony contains 24 shining examples of how great human voices can sound when harmonically intertwined. While the emphasis is very definitely on the sweeter side of things, there are also several examples of the deeper and more torrid side of group soul, such as those by Memphis' Tuxedo and the City Of Brotherly Love's very own Philadelphia Story. And as would be the case with any self-respecting doo wop compilation - and in the spirit of the late Frankie Lymon - the package also showcases a handful of tracks featuring pre-teen lead vocalists, one of whom - a certain Michael Jackson - grew up to be quite a famous person, don't you know. (The other, the lead singer of the Ponderosa Twins Plus One, didn't grow up quite so famously I'm afraid.)
In recent years, group soul has also found increased favour with doo wop collectors, who have 'fessed up to the fact that the records of the Delfonics and Stylistics are really not that different, when all's said and done, from those by their street corner predecessors of the 50s. And as original doo wop 45s have begun to become beyond the reach of those without unlimited disposable income, obscure group soul has begun to take its place as a more affordable collector currency. Indeed, some of the tracks featured here are already beginning to command the sort of prices that are usually more commonly associated with Northern Soul rarities than with exquisitely harmonised ballads. Some others undoubtedly will do the same, as they become better known in collector circles. And as for the rest, well, even if they never attain a book value of more than a fiver, they will always be priceless treasures for those of us who can and will never get enough of this exquisitely sung stuff.
By Tony Rounce