There used to be a time when R&B meant romance, when sweet soul singing groups like the Delfonics ruled the charts with tender odes such as "La-La Means I Love You" and "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)." Romantic R&B never really went away, but it too often was overshadowed by music that left so little to the imagination it required Parental Advisory stickers in order to be sold on the open market.
With the release of Forever New, the Delfonics' debut CD for Volt Records, romantic R&B proves its timelessness as we enter the new millennium. "This might be the beginning of music sounding like it was before," Delfonics leader William Hart says of the disc. "There are so many music lovers whose ears have been scorched by music that wasn't clean. You have mothers, you have fathers, you have little children who need to hear clean music. This CD tells me that clean music is coming back to the ears of the music lover."
All but one of the 11 selections on Forever New features the ethereal, candy-coated tenor voice of William Hart, who's given the Delfonics their signature sound since the Sixties. "Most people think it's falsetto, but it's really my natural voice," says Hart, who speaks in a husky baritone. "When it's time to sing, I just go into the higher register." Offering smooth baritone contrast to Hart's soaring highs on "My World Revolves Around You," "When You're Gone," and "Break Your Promise" is the great Major Harris, best known for his 1975 R&B chart-topping solo hit "Love Won't Let Me Wait." And stepping into the solo spotlight on "No One Knows" is Frank Washington, a former member of the Futures whose amazingly flexible singing comes off like a cross between Philippe Wynne and William Hart. Although not a full-time member of the Delfonics, Washington sometimes assumes Hart's lead role on the road when Hart is busy in the studio. Still touring with the Delfonics, but not heard on Forever New, is original group member Randy Cain.
"We never had three people really singing lead like we have now," Hart says. "You have Major singing real good, you have Frank singing real good, and, me, I'm still doing my thing. I don't think I have lost anything."
Hart's gifts as a singer remain undiminished. Of particular note is his crystal-clear enunciation. "I've listened to many songs over the years and said, 'What did that person say?'" he explains. "I always wanted to be the kind of singer where whenever William Hart sings something, you're gonna know exactly what he's saying. The only two people that I could listen to straight through on a record and understand every single word were Frankie Lymon and Little Anthony. I have that reputation as well now."
Produced by Fred Pittman, Preston Glass, and Hart himself, Forever New includes six songs from Hart's prolific pen, carrying on the tradition of such classics as "La-La Means I Love You," "You Got Yours and I'll Get Mine," "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)," and "Trying to Make a Fool of Me." The great Thom Bell had collaborated with Hart on all of those hits. For Forever New, the legendary producer-arranger came out of retirement to lend his master's touch to the hauntingly beautiful "She's the Kinda of Girl."
"He came to Philadelphia one day," Hart explains. "I said, 'Thom, I've got another nice tune. I want you to get with me on some music for this thing.' Donald Washington, the keyboard player in our band, had come up with the idea for the song. We finished the lyrics, and Thom and I finished the music together. It was a great reunion."
Born in Washington, D.C. on January 17, 1945 and raised in Philadelphia, William "Poogie" Hart organized the Delfonics out of remnants of two other vocal groups with which he'd sung—the Four Guys and the Orphonics. In 1966, Stan Watson, a onetime member of the Dell-Vikings, became the Orphonics' manager, changed their name to the Delfonics, and took them to Cameo Records, where Thom Bell was working as a pianist for Chubby Checker and trying to persuade the company to let him try his hand as a producer. Watson gave Bell the opportunity, but Cameo passed on the group's first effort, "He Don't Really Love You," which was eventually issued on the tiny MoonShot label. Watson formed Philly Groove Records in 1968 and proceeded to produce in collaboration with Bell a string of R&B and pop hits by the trio (then comprised of William Hart, his brother Wilbert, and Randy Cain), beginning with "La-La Means I Love You," a song inspired by the babble of Hart's young son.
The Delfonics' unique style—and the symphonic soul sounds with which Bell surrounded it—had a pronounced effect on subsequent vocal groups, the Stylistics and Blue Magic in particular. As British author Tony Cummings once noted, "Bell had taken a deft harmonic blend focused around a breathy high tenor lead and developed orchestrations that gave sophisticated embellishments to the vocal mood of trembling romanticism. Without jarring, he managed to combine the seeming contradiction of a black vocal style in a lavish orchestral setting."
Randy Cain left the Delfonics in 1971 and was replaced by Major Harris, a show business veteran who earlier had sung with the Charmers, the Teenagers, the Jarmels, the Impacts, and Nat Turner's Rebellion, as well as recorded as a solo artist for the OKeh label. After a successful solo career, Harris is again a member of the Delfonics, as is Randy Cain. William Hart, however, continues as the group's primary focus.
"My father always told me, 'You should have just sung by yourself,'" the Philadelphia-based singer says. "I was always the voice of the Delfonics—vocally and as far as the business is concerned—but I never put out a group called 'William Hart and the Delfonics' or 'Poogie and the Delfonics.' I just didn't care for that kind of thing. I always wanted everybody in the group to feel comfortable.
Longtime Delfonics fans, as well as a new generation of listeners, are certain to feel most comfortable with the Philadelphia trio's latest effort. Forever New, Hart proclaims, "is a signature masterpiece for the music lover." Indeed, good, clean soul harmony music just doesn't get any sweeter or more romantic than this.