“Fantabulous!” Russell Thompkins, Jr. and the New Stylistics LIVE! at SOPAC
By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery
Music lovers inside South Orange, NJ’s SOPAC auditorium this Friday, January 20, 2023 evening ready themselves for an evening of soul by Russell Thompkins, Jr. and the New Stylistics. The original lead singer of the ’70s vocal group, The Stylistics, Thompson, Jr. was selected by Rolling Stone magazine on January 1, 2023 as one of the 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.
Inside the cozy SOPAC auditorium, the lights dim, and the members of the New Stylistics Orchestra take their places on stage. Under the direction of keyboardist/vocalist Kenny Thompson, the members of the New Stylistics Orchestra — featuring musicians on keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums, along with two brass players and a woodwind player — open the show with a dynamic overture of Stylistics’ hits. Trumpets and sax lead the way as audience members bop in their seats to the medley before vocalists Russell Thompkins, Jr., Raymond Johnson, and Jonathan Buckson take the stage smiling.
Looking dapper in their sequined suits gleaming under colored lights, the singers launch into The Stylistics’ “Pieces.” Thompkins, Jr. handles the lead with his trademark falsetto voice singing, “Pieces of a photograph/I tore in half/Pieces of love/Pieces of the past,” as he and the other New Stylistics vocalists move to the funky music.
The crowd cheers as Thompkins, Jr. and Co, perform The Stylistics 1974 Top 5 hit, “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Backed with lush orchestration, vocalist Ray Johnson sings the lead slowly and clearly on the “My love/I’ll never find the words, my love” verse of this timeless ballad. Thompkins, Jr. takes over with his patented high falsetto voice on the “Only you/Cared when I needed a friend/Believed in me through thick and thin” bridge before the vocalists sing in harmony on the memorable “God bless you/You make me feel brand new” refrain.
Trumpets and soprano sax call on the intro to The Stylistics 1971 Top 40 hit, “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).” Audience members gently nod their heads as Thompkins, Jr. emotes on the song’s catchy, “Stop, look, listen to your heart/Hear what it’s saying,” refrain.
The crowd bursts into applause and Thompkins, Jr. responds, “Thank you very much!” before announcing, “This is a song I only get to sing once in a while. It wasn’t a big hit, but it’s very dear to me.” Here, he and the New Stylistics perform the lush ballad, “Payback is a Dog.”
Switching gears on the upbeat “Rockin’ Roll Baby,” music lovers clap along and dance in their seats to the R&B groove punctuated by the staccato sounds of the horn section. Background singers Ray Johnson and Jonathan Buckson snap their fingers and dance during an electric guitar solo.
The band rocks and the horns scream on the tune’s rhythmic “Na na-a na na-a na, Na-na-na-na” coda.
The crowd applauds and Thompkins, Jr. responds, “Thank you all for coming out. It’s been 11 years since we’re been here! We’re going to take you back to the 1970s. Here are some songs I hope you remember.”
Thompkins, Jr. and Co. launch into an extended medley of tunes which starts with the bouncy “Point of No Return” and continues with The Stylistics’ 1972 Top 5 hit, “Break Up to Make Up.” Audience members nostalgically sing along on the tune’s “Break up to make up/That’s all we do/First you love me, then you hate me/That’s a game for fools” chorus.
Changing the mood, the musicians shift into the melodic ballad, “You’re As Right as Rain,” where Thompkins, Jr. sings with conviction. Segueing into “You’re A Big Girl Now,” the vocal trio sings, “You’re a big girl now,” in harmony before Johnson and Buckson croon, “No more daddy’s little girl,” in unison as Thompkins, Jr.’s falsetto floats above.
Thompkins, Jr. and the New Stylistics move on to the soulful and moody “Children of the Night” before they conclude the extended medley with a dynamic and soulful arrangement of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late.”
Following enthusiastic cheers and applause, the high and sweet sound of a trumpet leads off a sparkling disco rendition of “Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)” where the New Stylistics Orchestra has audience members’ toes tapping while Thompkins, Jr. ad libs over the voices of his background singers.
Following a short intermission, the group retakes the stage to perform The Delfonics’ “I Told You So” on an arrangement featuring a disco beat, solid brass playing, and fancy footwork complete with turns.
Music lovers sing along with Thompkins, Jr. on The Stylistics’ 1972 Top 10 hit, “I’m Stone in Love with You,” as he intones, “If I could, I’d like to be a great big movie star/An overnight sensation, drive a big expensive car/I would buy you everything your little heart desires/These things I do ’cause I’m stone in love with you.”
Concertgoers sway back and forth as they reminisce before reacting with enthusiastic cheers and applause.
Announcing, “I’ll keep singing these songs until I can’t anymore!” Thompkins, Jr. thanks Dionne Warwick for the group’s next number. On an extended medley which starts off with Warwick’s “You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart),” trumpets and flute fill out the rhythmic arrangement set to a bossa nova beat.
The medley continues with The Stylistics’ 1971 Top 10 hit, “You Are Everything” where Johnson and Buckson dance and pantomime to Thompkins, Jr.’s lyrics.
The audience joins in singing along on the well-known “You are everything and everything is you” chorus prior to standing and cheering at the end.
Johnson and Buckson do fancy stepping as Thompkins, Jr. sings “People Make the World Go Round.” Trumpets and sax call on this enigmatic number which features an offbeat shifting meter. Following an electric guitar solo, audience members sing along on the “People make the world go around” coda before showering Thompkins, Jr. and Co. with a heartfelt standing ovation.
Wrapping up the extended medley, Thompkins, Jr. and The New Stylistics perform “Hurry Up This Way Again” where the vocal trio shows off their moves dancing on the interlude and the band vamps on this funky disco tune.
The crowd cheers, and Thompkins, Jr. jokes, “I’m getting too old for this!” confessing, “This year makes 55 years for me — it’s up to us to keep it going!” After acknowledging musical director Kenny Thompson and the members of the New Stylistics Orchestra, Thompkins, Jr. announces, “Ladies, this one is for you,” as he and the band perform The Stylistics’ 1973 Top 5 single, “Betcha By Golly, Wow.” Audience members get lost in a wave of nostalgia singing along on the delightful “Betcha by golly, wow/You’re the one that I’ve been waiting for forever” refrain.
The crowd stands as Thompkins, Jr. and the New Stylistics perform a short reprise of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” before Thompkins, Jr. closes the show stating, “Thank you for letting us be a part of your evening and part of your life. We love you forever and ever and ever.”
As audience members make their way out of the SOPAC auditorium, we chat with several music lovers who share their thoughts on tonight’s performance. Declares Greer from South Orange, “Russell Thompson, Jr. was just fantastic!” recalling, “When I was growing up, The Stylistics used to play all the clubs in Brooklyn. I danced to their music live, and also had all of their albums, so it was really great hearing their music again.” Donna from Piscataway agrees, adding, “I loved this concert — it brought back so many memories. Russell Thompkins, Jr. sounds wonderful — just like he did back in the day,” before exclaiming, “I’m so thankful I got to see this show!”
Josephine from Union asserts, “Russell Thompkins, Jr. was great, and the band was great, too!” prior to explaining, “You know you’re a fan when you know every song. Tonight, I knew all the songs, and ‘Payback is a Dog’ was my absolute favorite.” Sherry from Newark remarks, “It was so nice to hear so many great tunes in such a lovely theater. It’s not far from my home, and any seat you get is a #1 seat, so I’m hoping to see many more shows here at SOPAC.”
Lance from Maplewood reveals, “I’m an old school guy, and this music brought me back to when I had a transistor radio under my pillow to listen to these songs. Those were the days when music had meaning and you could actually understand what the artists were singing about. Hearing all of these songs again brought back a lot of memories, and Russell Thompkins, Jr. has still got it,” prior to concluding, “We need more shows like this — it was so refreshing!”
Tyrone from Union concurs, adding, “Tonight’s show was excellent! These songs come from a time when music was music. We grew up on it and never got tired of it.” Lakota, a teenager from Union, declares, “I love this music!” explaining, “I even danced to the song, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ at my Sweet 16 party!” Concludes Lauren from Union, “I grew up listening to The Stylistics and I can tell you one thing for certain — Russell Thompkins, Jr. and the New Stylistics are just fantabulous!”
To learn more about Russell Thompkins, Jr. and the New Stylistics, please go to facebook.com/The New Stylistics Featuring Russell Thompkins Jr. For information on upcoming performances at SOPAC — including American Idol’s Hailey Reinhart on March 18, The Motor City Review on May 17, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Richie Furay on May 20 — please go to sopacnow.org.