As soon as Kenny Gamble and Thom Huff started mining soul-music gold in Philadelphia, plenty of singers trekked over to Sigma Sound Studios to see if they could capture a little Philly Soul magic for their own careers. Indeed, during Gamble/Huff’s most successful years everyone from Dusty Springfield to Johnny Mathis would take a crack at the Philly Sound. Doing so didn’t automatically guarantee success — but it did guarantee some good music would be produced.
An interesting, lesser known case is Ronnie Dyson’s One Man Band. Though it is not a full Philly Soul effort, the big draw here is a quartet of productions by Delfonics/Spinners mastermind Thom Bell. The title track is a good example of Bell’s approach to the Philly style in its prime: a soaring melody offsets a barbed lyric about the isolating potential of self-reliance, all supported by plush orchestrations and regal yet soulful harmonies. Dyson’s background was musical theater so he has the lungpower and actorly chops to flesh out the scenario effectively. The result is easily worthy of the hits Bell was cranking out for the Spinners around this time and it was the album’s hit single, hitting high on both the pop and R&B charts.
Bell’s other tracks on One Man Band are similarly impressive: “Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely,” a stately lament about trying to stave off the pain of a break-up, was the follow-up single. It didn’t hit as big but it was a worthy successor, with a beautifully-layered arrangement where strings, horns and glossy backing vocals back up Dyson’s soulful expression of heartache in style. It’s worth noting that The Main Ingredient would score a big hit with a cover of this song the next year. Elsewhere, “I Think I’ll Tell Her” underscores its tale of infidelity with a jazzy shuffle that makes its introspection elegant while “Give In To Love” is a romantic plea where the subtle orchestration gives way at chorus time for a heart-stopping blend of Dyson’s rich lead vocal and choir-like backing harmonies. Dyson gives a richly-textured performance on all the Bell tracks and the results are pure class.
The remainder of One Man Band is divided between cuts produced by Stan Vincent, who helmed Dyson’s first hit “If You Let Me Make Love To You (Why Can’t I Touch You?),” and Billy Jackson. Vincent’s cuts fare best: “When You Get Right Down To It” blends early-1970’s singer-songwriter production touches with a Johnny Mathis style of ballad melodrama and “Point Of No Return” is a driving cover of a Stylistics tune that has an AM-pop punchiness to it (This song also happened to be penned by Bell with writing partner Linda Creed and it inspired Columbia execs to hire Bell to work on the album). Vincent also manages an impressive, unexpected Guess Who cover with “A Wednesday In Your Garden,” which transforms the lite-psych balladry of the original into something more intense as Dyson drives the chorus home with high-octane style.
The Jackson-produced tracks are the most modest ones on the album but still work well enough to fit in: “Girl Don’t Come” gets a stately assist from a Thom Bell arrangement that adds percussive horn and string elements and “The Love Of A Woman” turns this Neil Sedaka-penned number into a swinging piece of orchestrated lounge-soul. A cover of the Beatles’ “Something” is a little too Vegas-y in its arrangement but Dyson redeems it with a rousing vocal performance.
In short, One Man Band is a good early-1970’s soul album that gets a real Philly Soul shot in the arm from Bell’s writing, arranging and producing chops. It’s a shame that Bell and Dyson never did a full album together because their work on One Man Band suggests they could have made sweet-soul magic together.
CD Notes: this forgotten album has gotten its long-overdue CD reissue from Purpose Music Vaults, who provided Schlockmania with a 320k MP3 version of the set and a copy of the liner notes for this review. The liners do a great job of telling the story of Dyson’s crossover into Philly Soul, incorporating new interview material from Stan Vincent and songwriter Vinnie Barrett. The Purpose reissue also includes six bonus tracks taken from non-album Dyson singles, including a few produced by Philly stalwart Norman Harris. The best of the bonus items is “Captain of Your Soul,” a grand self-affirmation anthem produced by Friends Of Distinction maestro John Florez. It has a proto-disco beat and an elegant yet emotional vocal turn from Dyson.