Wall Street losin' dough on every share
They're blamin' it on longer hair
Big men smokin' in their easy chair
On a fat cigar without a care
Lyrics from a current song addressing the recession? No, these words date back to 1971, and still resonate today. "People Make the World Go Round" represents a slice of Philadelphia soul, containing trademark strings and politically relevant lyrics a la Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "Bad Luck." But the chord changes and chorus are a hybrid of R&B and Burt Bacharach, making the notes difficult to sing. Yet Russell Thompkins Jr., lead singer for The Stylistics, met these challenges deftly using his trademark falsetto. The result is a still-haunting tune that stands out for its meaningful, biting lyrics and exquisite arrangement.
Written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed, the song appeared on the Stylistics' self-titled debut album. The disc became a massive hit, thanks to tracks like "Betcha By Golly, Wow," "You Are Everything," and "Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart)," but Bell and Creed departed from these overtly romantic songs by assuming a political tone with "People Make the World Go Round." The biting words are cushioned with lovely strings, but the meaning shines through:
Trash men didn't get my trash today
Oh, why, because they want more pay
Buses on strike, wanna raise in fare
So they can help pollute the air
Labor unions and the environment are addressed poignantly in these verses, with Thompkins taking on a resigned air. He offers no solutions to these problems—he simply describes current affairs. The chorus further argues that the world's difficulties are inevitable: "But that’s what makes the world go `round/The up and down, the carousel/Changing people, they’ll go around." His voice mimics the line "up and down," fluctuating notes with the grace of a ballet dancer. Amidst this seeming resignation, one line stands out: "Go underground, young man." Is this a call to action, or a desire to escape from these issues?
The bass and keyboard creep in the background, adding to the uneasy tone and downbeat themes. Yet Thompkins' soaring voice manages to convey some hope, that the "up and down, the carousel" means better times may be ahead. "People make the world go round," he sings, precisely hitting every difficult note, as the song fades. Due to its mournful strings, words, and Thompkins' perfect performance, the song remains with the listener long after the fadeout. In essence, the tune showed the Stylistics' sophistication and ability to tackle subjects other than love. Interestingly, though the song is credited to the Stylistics, only Thompkins appears on the track.
"People Make the World Go Round" peaked at number 25 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1972, reaching number six on the R&B singles chart, according to All Music. The track lives on in various remakes, though, covered by such diverse artists as the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Milt Jackson, Jerry Garcia, Michael Jackson, and, in recent concerts, Stevie Wonder. While many musicians put their own unique stamp on the song, nothing quite matches the wistfulness and emotional power of the original. Pull the song out of your record collection for a new listen, and marvel at Thompkins' peerless performance and the tune's elaborate, pristine production. Those who have never heard the track will, upon first listen, realize that solid songwriting, a thoughtful arrangement, and a gifted singer will never go out of style.