Winfred “Blue” Lovett et Sonny Bivins
We are very sorry to inform SoulTrackers of the death of Winfred “Blue” Lovett, founding member and bass singer extraordinaire of the legendary vocal group The Manhattans. He was 74. For a half century, Lovett’s songwriting and singing were integral parts of one of the most popular R&B groups in the world. His composition “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” introduced by his deep spoken word prologue, is still one of the most beloved soul songs ever. And while many fans knew of Lovett’s terrific vocal work, fewer knew of his impeccable songwriting instincts, often combining elements of love, loss and even infidelity into songs that moved the Manhattans to the A-List of vocal groups. Lovett’s death comes just a few days after the death of group co-founder Sonny Bivins, who maintained a version of the group in both good times and bad.
The Manhattans were formed in the early 60s in New Jersey as a quintet led by writer/bass vocalist Winfred “Blue” Lovett and emotive lead singer George Smith, along with Edward “Sonny” Bivins, Richard “Ricky” Taylor and Kenneth “Wally” Kelly, all of whom had just returned from service in the armed forces. The group was popular regionally and had minor national success on the strength of some solid recordings for Carnival Records (their version of the country tune “From Atlanta to Goodbye” was a gem) in the late 60s before gaining the attention of Columbia Records in 1970. Unfortunately, their Columbia signing coincided with the sudden illness of amazingly talented lead singer Smith. During a tour through North Carolina, the Manhattans came upon a college student with an amazing Sam Cooke-like voice. Recognizing the incredible talent of this 21 year old, the group invited Gerald Alston to join, and he became the lead singer who would bring stardom to the quintet, with the blessing of Smith, who sadly died just a few months later.
With Alston’s smooth lead vocals, solid songwriting talent within the group and the always wonderful work of Philly producer/arrranger Bobby Martin, the Manhattans began to score on the R&B charts, putting out a string of fairly traditional ballads that became Soul hits. Then in 1976, the quintet released Lovett’s composition “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” a song originally written for country star Glen Campbell, but which instead become the group’s signature tune. “Kiss” rocketed to the top of the R&B and Pop charts, and moved the group to the upper tier of R&B acts. And the companion self-titled LP became the first of several top notch albums that the group released in the 70s and 80s. With such great singles as “It Feels So Good to be Loved So Bad,” “I Kinda Miss You,” “We Never Danced To A Love Song” and “Am I Losing You,” the Manhattans’ late 70s albums It Feels So Good, There’s No Me Without You and Love Talk, were among the decade’s best. Love Talk was perhaps the Manhattans’ greatest disc – though not their most popular – a near-perfect adult Soul album that sounds as great today as it did more than 30 years ago.
After “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” the Manhattans spent the remainder of the decade scoring almost exclusively on the R&B charts. Then in 1980, they again surprised the Pop world, crossing over for a Pop top 10 hit with their loping 1980 ballad, “Shining Star.” The group continued to record through the 80s, hitting on the Soul charts with such hits as “Crazy” and “Honey Honey.” Their last album for Columbia records was the wonderful but overlooked 1986 disc, Back To Basics, produced in part by Bobby Womack and featuring a young Regina Belle singing background vocals. Unfortunately, the Manhattans’ smooth, adult soul style seemed out of place in the frenetic, electric funk sounds dominating late 80s music, and they were dropped by Columbia records in 1987.
Gerald Alston left the group for a moderately successful solo career in 1988, and was replaced by former Cameo vocalist Roger Harris. The group’s 1989 Sweet Talk album on small Valley Vue Records stiffed, and Lovett left the following year for medical reasons and Kelly retiring. With the group’s two most visible members gone, founding member Sonny Bivins reconstituted the group with some new members and continued touring, ultimately landing a record deal with Hektoen Records for 1994’s Manhattans Now LP. A number of personnel changes have occurred since then, but the Bivins-led Manhattans continue to perform internationally in multi-act soul music shows.
In 1993 a healthier Blue Lovett wooed Alston back and added David Tyson (brother of the Temptations’ Ron Tyson) and Troy May to form a more familiar version of the Manhattans (often billed as “The Manhattans Featuring Gerald Alston and Blue Lovett”), in time for the group’s 30th anniversary. That group has toured extensively in multi-group Soul music shows over the past two decades and recorded a very good “Live in South Africa” album in 2000. The group found some of its most loyal fans in South Africa, where much of their public appearances were broadcast on national television.
The Alston-Lovett version of the group, along with and producer Ted Perlman (former musical director for Stephanie Mills), gave soul music fans a wonderful surprise in 2002 with the studio album Even Now. Perlman brought a great batch of new material and some top-drawer backing musicians to the disc, including Billy Preston, Gerald Albright and Chicago’s horn section. Even Now was well worth the long wait for Manhattans fans, and was highlighted by the beautiful “Nites Like This,” a smooth jazz cut that was one of the year’s best singles, and the stirring ballad “Turn Out the Stars,” which became the group’s biggest hit in nearly two decades.
In 2008 the returned with the beautiful Al Johnson ballad “Men Cry Too,” which was originally recorded in the Even Now sessions, as part of a reissued, expanded version of Even Now titled Men Cry Too. It was a memorable addition to an already strong album and made the reissue a must-find for the group’s sizeable fanbase. In February, 2014, the Manhattans were featured on the TV One biography show, Unsung, providing a fitting tribute to the group’s lasting success.
The loss of Blue and Sonny is a huge one, but they leave an incredible legacy of soul music excellence.
By Chris Rizik
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