Harold Melvin was one of the most influential figures in the history of soul music, leading his group the Blue Notes to the top of the charts in the 1970s with their distinctive blend of soul, R&B, doo-wop, and disco. He was also a mentor and discoverer of talent, most notably Teddy Pendergrass, who became the group’s lead singer and later a successful solo artist. But Melvin’s life and career were cut short by a stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. He died on March 24, 1997, at the age of 57, in his hometown of Philadelphia.
Early Years and Musical Beginnings
Harold Melvin was born on June 25, 1939, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was a self-taught pianist and began singing doo-wop as a teenager with a group called the Charlemagnes. In 1954, he formed the first version of the Blue Notes, a quintet that featured him as the lead singer, songwriter, arranger, and choreographer. The group recorded for several labels without much success until they scored an R&B hit in 1965 with “Get Out (and Let Me Cry)” on Landa Records. However, the group’s lineup changed frequently, and Melvin often had to recruit new members.
The Rise to Fame with Teddy Pendergrass
In 1970, Melvin hired Teddy Pendergrass as the drummer for the Blue Notes’ backing band. Pendergrass had been a member of another Philadelphia R&B group called the Cadillacs (not to be confused with the New York doo-wop group of the same name). Melvin soon realized that Pendergrass had a powerful and charismatic voice and promoted him to be the lead singer of the Blue Notes. This move proved to be crucial for the group’s success, as Pendergrass’ vocals gave them a unique sound and appeal.
In 1972, Melvin and the Blue Notes signed with Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label, which was at the forefront of creating the Philly soul sound. With Gamble and Huff’s production and songwriting, Melvin and the Blue Notes became one of the most popular groups in R&B and crossed over to the pop charts as well. They had several hits, including “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, “The Love I Lost”, “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” (a duet with Sharon Paige), and “Wake Up Everybody”. They also recorded albums that showcased their versatility and range, such as Black & Blue (1973), To Be True (1975), and Wake Up Everybody (1975).
The Split with Teddy Pendergrass and Later Years
Despite their success, Melvin and Pendergrass had a strained relationship due to creative differences and financial disputes. Pendergrass felt that he deserved more recognition and compensation for his contributions to the group, while Melvin insisted on keeping his name as the leader. In 1976, Pendergrass left the Blue Notes to pursue a solo career, which proved to be very successful until he was paralyzed in a car accident in 1982.
Melvin continued to lead various versions of the Blue Notes, but they never recaptured their former glory. They recorded for different labels, such as ABC Records, Source Records, and Philly World Records, but none of their singles or albums made much impact. They also faced legal battles with Pendergrass over the use of the name “Blue Notes”. Melvin remained loyal to his original group members, such as Bernard Wilson, Lawrence Brown, Lloyd Parks, and Jerry Cummings, who often performed with him.
The Stroke and Death
In 1996, Melvin suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak. He was hospitalized for several months and underwent rehabilitation therapy. He never fully recovered from his condition and died on March 24, 1997, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. He was buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Harold Melvin’s legacy lives on through his music and his influence on other artists. He was one of the pioneers of Philly soul, a genre that shaped the sound of R&B in the 1970s and beyond. He was also a mentor and discoverer of talent, most notably Teddy Pendergrass, who became one of the most successful soul singers of all time. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1999 and into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2007.