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The Manhattans
by Bill Pollak

Originally published in MusicHound R&B: The Essential Album Guide, Gary Graff, Josh Freedom du Lac, and Jim McFarlin (eds.); Visible Ink Press (Detroit, MI): 1998.

Formed 1960 in Newark, N.J. Members: Richard Taylor (1960-1985), Kenneth Kelly, Gerald Alston (1972-1988), Edward "Sonny" Bivins, Winfred "Blue" Lovett, George "Smitty" Smith (1960-1971)

In the 1960s and 1970s, as in many other periods in the history of rhythm and blues, the male vocal group sound was a distinct and conservative thread that tied contemporary music to its recent past. Groups such as the Dells, the Temptations, the O'Jays, the Impressions, and the Spinners were all either part of the 1950s doo-wop scene or directly descended from it. Whereas the disco era of the 1970s destroyed the careers of many great soul vocalists of the 1960s, many of these same vocal groups were able to thrive into and beyond the radical stylistic changes that disco initiated. This must be because the male vocal group sound is easily adaptable to a wide variety of musical settings.

Since the days of the Ravens, the Ink Spots, and the Mills Brothers, vocal group music has always affirmed values such as showmanship, choreography, precision, presentation, style, and class--another indication of the music's inherent conservatism. In the 1960s, other vocal groups were always measured against the standard of the Temptations, with their neatly pressed sharkskin suits, precise choreography, and the chilling vocals of the two coolest humans on the face of the earth, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin. At least in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area, however, there were many fans who believed that the Manhattans were as good or better. On stage with their matching suits and trademark white gloves, the Manhattans were every bit as smooth, precise, and explosive as the Temps. What's more, they too were fronted by two outstanding lead singers, Winfred "Blue" Lovett and George "Smitty" Smith.

Lovett was the group's leader, and was also an outstanding songwriter whose compositions with producer Joe Evans and fellow Manhattan Sonny Bivins gave the group a string of hit records on Carnival Records in the mid 1960s. As lead vocalist on the group's more straightforward pop/soul recordings, Lovett's baritone projected a warm, relaxed persona in hits such as "I Wanna Be," "The Boston Monkey," and "Baby, I Need You." The Manhattans' more memorable early recordings, however, were sung by Smith, a distinctive stylist whose readings of songs such as "Can I," "I'm the One That Love Forgot," and "Follow Your Heart" conveyed a discomforting sense of anguish and despair. Particularly in live performance, Smith's voice seemed to be directly wired to the spines of his listeners.

When Smith died of an illness suddenly in 1971, the Manhattans' survival seemed unlikely. Yet they were able to replace Smith with Gerald Alston (nephew of Shirley Alston of the Shirelles), another fine singer whose style paid obvious homage to Sam Cooke. More of a pop singer than either Smith or Lovett had been, Alston's incorporation into the group enabled the Manhattans to break well beyond their status as the standard-bearers for the New York doo-woppers and achieve major national success. With Alston handling all lead vocals and Lovett relegated to providing spoken introductions a la Barry White, the Manhattans moved to Columbia Records in 1973. At Columbia, producers Bobby Martin, a former colleague of Gamble and Huff in Philadelphia, and later Leo Graham, who also produced Tyrone Davis, helped the Manhattans craft an impressive string of elegant pop/soul hit ballads; most notably "Kiss and Say Goodbye," a platinum-selling number one pop and R&B hit in 1976. Despite their high gloss and pop pedigree, however, these recordings always maintained continuity with the original Manhattans sound through strong, doo-wop influenced ensemble singing.

Alston left the Manhattans in 1988 and went on to pursue a solo career on Motown, with moderate success.

Buy first: Taking nothing away from the Manhattans' great Columbia recordings of the 1970s, the Carnival recordings represent their most original and transcendent work. These are available in a number of collections:

  • [Dedicated to You/For You and Yours] (Kent/UK, 1993, prod. Joe Evans) (5 bones)
  • [Dedicated to You: Golden Carnival Classic, Pt. 1] (Collectables, 1991, prod. Joe Evans) (5 bones)
  • [For You and Yours: Golden Carnival Classics, Pt. 2] (Collectables, 1991, prod. Joe Evans) (5 bones)

Buy next:

  • [Best of the Manhattans: Kiss and Say Goodbye] (Sony, 1995, prod. Various) (4 bones) is a fine retrospective of their Columbia recordings.
  • [Back to Basics] (Columbia, 1986, prod. Various) (4 bones) is notable for the production contributions of the great Bobby Womack. This was Alston's final recording with the group, and also featured the vocals of Regina Belle, who went on to a very successsful solo career after debuting with the Manhattans here. "Where Did We Go Wrong," a lovely Alston/Belle duet, was the hit from this disc.

Avoid: None

The rest:

  • [Dedicated to You] (Carnival, 1966, prod. Joe Evans) (5 bones)
  • [For You and Yours] (Carnival, 1967/Carnival, 1982, prod. Joe Evans) (4 1/2 bones)
  • [There's No Me Without You] (Columbia, 1973, prod. Bobby Martin) (4 1/2 bones)
  • [Summertime in the City] (Columbia, 1974, prod. Bobby Martin) (3 1/2 bones)
  • [That's How Much I Love You] (1974, prod. Bobby Martin) (3 1/2 bones)
  • [The Manhattans] (Columbia, 1976, prod. Bobby Martin) (3 1/2 bones)
  • I Wanna Be Your Everything (DJM, 1976, prod. Joe Evans) (5 bones)
  • [It Feels So Good] (Columbia, 1977, prod. Leo Graham) (4 bones)
  • [There's No Good in Goodbye] (Columbia, 1978, prod. Leo Graham) (3 1/2 bones)
  • [Love Talk] (Columbia, 1979, prod. Leo Graham) (3 bones)
  • [After Midnight] (Columbia, 1980, prod. Leo Graham) (3 bones)
  • [Greatest Hits] (Columbia, 1980, prod. Various) (4 bones)
  • [Follow Your Heart] (Solid Smoke, 1981, prod. Joe Evans) (5 bones)
  • [Best of the Manhattans] (Embassy, 1981, prod. Various) (4 bones)
  • [Black Tie] (Columbia, 1981, prod. Leo Graham)
  • [Forever by Your Side] (Columbia, 1983, prod. Leo Graham)
  • [Sweet Talk] (Valley Vue, 1989, prod. Leo Graham, Gary Taylor) (2 bones)
  • [Heart & Soul of the Manhattans] (Castle, 1992, prod. Various) (4 bones)
  • [Collection] (Castle, 1993, prod. Various) (4 bones)
  • [One Life To Live] (Sony Special Products, 1995, prod. unknown) (3 1/2 bones)

Worth searching for: The Manhattans recorded two LPs for Deluxe, a subsidiary of Starday-King of Nashville, between their Carnival and Columbia recordings.

  • [With These Hands] (Deluxe, 1970, prod. Buddy Scott) (3 bones) was George Smith's last LP with the group, and includes such uncharacteristic material as "Georgia on My Mind" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix".
  • [A Million to One] (Deluxe, 1972, prod. Various) (4 bones) was the first LP with Alston. "One Life to Live," from this LP, was one of their best.

Influenced by:  The Moonglows, the Dells, the Flamingos, Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor

Influenced: Boyz II Men

Read more soul articles by Bill Pollak

 
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