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The Pleasures of Creative Source
Spotlighting an under-the-radar soul classic from 1973
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
Today’s essay goes deep on a great under-the-radar soul album from 1973: the debut recording of Creative Source, a vocal group in the mold of the 5th Dimension (Ron Townson from the group was their manager) and the Friends of Distinction. It’s been recently added to streaming services and I hope what I've written will intrigue you enough to check out the record.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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There is something altogether puzzling when a record collector gets excited after discovering a favourite album has finally been made available for streaming. Amassing a physical collection, experiencing the tactile thrill of selecting an album from the stacks, removing the vinyl from the inner sleeve, placing the first side onto the turntable platter, cleaning the playing surface, lifting the stylus and gently placing it onto the opening groove, hearing that click sound as needle and vinyl make contact, waiting a few seconds for the music to begin. In all this lies one of the true joys of music. Compact discs provide a narrower thrill. Streaming offers even less. It does, however, bring the prospect of portability—what the Walkman and then the discman and finally the MP3 player used to offer—the opportunity for a favourite piece of music to provide the soundtrack to whatever one may be doing and in the process, elevating a walk in a city park or making the morning commute several degress more bearable.
These thoughts, and others, came to mind when I recently saw that the debut album by soul vocal group Creative Source, titled simply Creative Source, had been added to streaming services. Save for a CD reissue in 1997, this is the first time it has been widely available since its release almost fifty years ago in 1973.
If Creative Source is known at all today, it’s for its’ extended cover of Bill Withers’ ‘Who is He and What is He to You,’ which was a minor hit. The group was one of many that explored the possibilities available in the blend of male and female singing voices. In soul at the time, the group that arguably reached the ideal realization of this dynamic was the 5th Dimension. Ron Townson, perhaps the most gifted singer in the group whose range extended from Jim Webb’s ‘Paper Cup’ to Pagliacci, formed Creative Source and was its manager. Helping Townson was Skip Scarborough, who, among many other things, wrote ‘Love Me or Let Me Be Lonely,’ a big hit for the Friends of Distinction, another male-female vocal group popular at the time.
While the 5th Dimension and the Friends of Distinction’s specialty was a kind of supper-club soul, Creative Source’s sound was more in the spirit with what was happening in Philadelphia in the early seventies in which Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (Thom Bell and others as well) were popularizing an orchestrated soul, full of brass and strings—think the O’Jays, the Spinners, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. It was also oriented around the group as a whole, resisting the urge for one member to be considered the lead singer. In fact, on their debut album, the group’s names are not listed at all.
The vocal blend and harmony that singers Barbara Berryman, Barbara Lewis, Celeste Rose, Don Wyatt and Steve Flanagan created were neither as extroverted as the 5th Dimension's nor, for that matter, as powerful, but Clarence Avant was intrigued enough to sign them to his Sussex Records label. Bill Withers was Sussex’s leading artist and biggest hit maker, and the label was also home to Rodriguez, the Presidents (best known for their hit, ‘5-10-15-20 (25-30) Years of Love’) and guitarist Dennis Coffey, a key ingredient in Motown’s embrace of psychedelic soul by way of Norman Whitfield.
Consequently, Sussex’s artist roster was an interesting combination of the trends underway in soul music at the time and Creative Source’s first album is a most interesting lens in which to ponder them. To be sure, there were objectively better singers, both individually and collectively, than Creative Source, but speaking for myself, every once in a while, I reach for their first album to give it another listen and never regret it. It evokes a response, one rooted in pleasure and enjoyment; emotions that can’t be ignored when listening to music or discounted in the never ending pursuit of refining one’s definition of good music.
The album opener, ‘You Can’t Hide Love,’ written by Skip Scarborough, which was also Creative Source’s first single, marries a funky groove rooted in the stabbing sound of the clavinet with the group’s smooth harmonies—light and mellow—making the song’s main refrain especially indelible. It does what any expertly constructed pop song does: it worms its way into your ear and through sheer repetition as well as the logical flow of its line, in which each note seems to land exactly where it is expected to, becomes a snippet of music that can soon be recalled by memory.
The understatement of Creative Source’s sound is, to a certain degree, in the spirit of Bill Withers’, which, especially during his years on Sussex, purposely eschewed the broadening of soul’s sound canvas—the strings, the brass, the choir of female backing vocalists—for a leaner aesthetic in congruence with Withers’ working-class, blue-collar ethos. The very chill vibe of Creative Source’s cover of his ‘Let Me In Your Life,’ with Steve Flanagan signing lead, not only reflects its’ songwriter’s primacy of simplicity but also mirrors Isaac Hayes’ approach to the ballad, particularly in the backing by Berryman, Lewis and Rose, the orchestration of the strings and flutes and also in how the tempo—slow, deliberate—is made for dancing between two about to be partnered.
‘Who is He and What is He to You,’ also by Withers, presents a potent link between its lyrics and its sound, in which the recurring bass line forms the song’s insistent and memorable groove directly manifesting the romantic paranoia that Withers explores, especially in a line like “when you cleared your throat, was that your cue?” Singing lead here is Don Wyatt, who had a deeper, more expressive timbre than Flanagan—hear how he digs into “dadgummit, who is he and what is he to you.” Taking a cue from Motown and Norman Whitfield, the song is given the extended treatment, almost 12 minutes in total, with a long prelude and postlude framing Creative Source’s contribution, a stylistic decision alluding to how the conspiracy mindset, if allowed to run unchecked, can consume and overwhelm one’s life. The effect though falls short due to the somewhat derivative arrangement—there is more than one direct allusion to the Temptations’ ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ and the extended instrumental sections doesn’t possess the same logical progression found in a Whitfield production.
The former caveat becomes more clear when realizing that the arrangement was by Paul Riser, who wrote the charts for an array of Motown’s biggest hits, including ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone,’ which, combined with the fact that many on the musicians on ‘Who is He and What is He to You’ were part of the Funk Brothers, makes the latter point more than a little puzzling. Still, with a bass line as potent as the one Withers devised, there is enough to retain one’s interest for all 12 minutes.
A more compact pleasure can be found on ‘Lovesville,’ co-written by producer Michael Stokes, barely into adulthood at the time and a few years away from signing Janet Jackson to her first record deal, which recalls the sound of the Friends of Distinction, both in terms of how the lead is traded between the group’s five members and the bright production, including a nice break after the first verse and a part for tuba in the extended coda at the song’s conclusion. There’s an elevation of spirit or idealism that permeates the song that is also felt on ‘You’re Too Good to Be True,’ providing an ideal future for Wyatt’s baritone. Similarly, Flanagan’s lighter tone brings a late-night intimacy to Creative Source’s cover of Skylark’s ‘Wildflower,’ as iconic a piece of early-seventies soft rock-soul as there is.
The trend towards orchestrated soul that colours Creative Source’s debut soon branched off into several sub-genres for which neutral opinion is hard to find: one was smooth jazz; the other, disco. It is the latter territory that ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ anticipates after a swirling psychedelic introduction, a nod to the hallucinogenic interlude of the Steppenwolf hit. There’s more than a little Studio 54 kitsch going on here—check out the syncopations added to “you don’t know what you can find. Why don’t you come with me, little girl, on a magic carpet ride?”—even still, through the glitter and the glam, the innate funkiness of John Kay and Rushton Moreve’s tune shines through as well as its’ adaptability for jazz (for comparison, check out Billy Paul’s cover).
Three singles were released from Creative Source; as mentioned earlier, the only one that made a dent on the charts was ‘Who is He and What is He to You’ but I suspect if ‘Oh Love,’ which closes the album, had been pushed as an A side rather than made to languish as the flip side of ‘You Can’t Hide Love,’ it could have broke through. Here is everything one would ever want in a soul number. The sunny opening—redolent of the promise of a summer night—invites one in, to open one’s ears and heart to the harmonizing that follows. Berryman, Lewis and Rose carry the bulk of the song with Wyatt and Flanagan answering them in kind at several points, a call-and-response effect that reminds me of Dylan’s Gospel, a 1969 recording featuring a coterie of California’s finest session and church singers exploring the religiosity inherent in almost everything Dylan has written. The use of a suspended rhythm at a few choice moments—the rests call for emphatic handclaps to be supplied by the listener—is the stuff that great pop-music hooks are made of and lends further credence to my suspicion that ‘Oh Love’ had the makings of a hit.
Coming after the darkness of ‘Who is He and What is He to You,’ ‘Oh Love’ has a cleansing power; an opportunity to glorify in its glow and joy that has been well earned. And for the longest time, it was something that only the savvy crate-digger or soul collector could partake of. That is why, reservations about streaming aside, it’s a good thing to see Creative Source more widely available. To me, it’s an unheralded gem.