In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In figuring out how to turn old-school ’60s soul into something lush, symphonic, and dramatic, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff helped set the table for disco. Then, when Gamble and Huff were at their peak, disco more or less replaced them, taking over the charts from the Philly soul that Gamble and Huff had pioneered. Gamble and Huff wrote and produced their final #1 hit, MFSB and the Three Degrees’ “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia),” in 1974. But Gamble and Huff didn’t go away in the disco era; they kept scoring top-10 hits well into the late ’70s. And Philly soul didn’t go away, either.
Gamble & Huff didn’t have anything directly to do with the Manhattans’ summer-’76 smash “Kiss And Say Goodbye,” and the Manhattans weren’t from Philadelphia. (They were from Jersey City, which is close enough. They say that they named themselves after the cocktail, not the island.) But Bobby Martin, who co-produced “Kiss And Say Goodbye” with the Manhattans themselves, was a Gamble and Huff protege and a former member of MFSB. Other members of MFSB, uncredited, played on “Kiss And Say Goodbye,” and the Manhattans recorded it at Philly’s storied Sigma Sound studio. And the song’s silken drip is straight out of the Philly soul playbook.
(This choreography is just the best.)
Like so many of the groups who found success in the Philly soul era, the Manhattans were a long-tenured nightclub act, one with deep roots in the doo-wop era, who’d never had the chance to fully break through before they found their sound. The Manhattans got together in the early ’60s, when Richard “Sonny” Bivins and Richard Taylor, two Jersey City natives, met in Germany, where both were serving in the Air Force. Upon being discharged, Bivins and Taylor got together with three other local singers and formed a group.
The Manhattans’ first single, “For The Very First Time,” came out in 1964, and they first hit the Hot 100 a year later, when “I Wanna Be (Your Everything)” reached #68. All through the ’60s and into the mid-’70s, the Manhattans scored hit after hit on the R&B charts while mostly staying stuck in the bottom half of the Hot 100.
The Manhattans had to radically reimagine themselves in 1970, when lead singer George Smith died of a brain tumor at the age of 30. While touring in the South, the group had met a younger singer named Gerald Alston, the leader of a North Carolina group called the New Imperials. (Alston, incidentally, is the nephew of Shirley Alston Reeves, lead singer for two–time #1 hitmakers the Shirelles.) They’d tried to recruit Alston to their group when Smith was still alive, but Alston had turned them down. After Smith died, they offered his spot to Alston, and Alston took them up on it.
The Manhattans’ resident songwriter was Winfred “Blue” Lovett, the group’s bass singer. He’d thought of all of “Kiss And Say Goodbye” — the lyrics, the melodies, everything — one night at 3AM, and he’d jumped out of bed and recorded himself playing it on piano. Lovett loved country music, and he first imagined “Kiss And Say Goodbye” as a country song, even considering offering it to Glen Campbell. That’s Lovett’s voice on the intro, doing the Isaac Hayes/Barry White velvet-rumble thing while sadly telling a woman that he’s going to have to break it off: “I won’t be able to see you anymore because of my obligations and the ties that you have.”
Lyrically, “Kiss And Say Goodbye” is pure soap opera. The song’s narrator — first Lovett, then the chiffon-voiced Alston — is cheating on his significant other with another woman. That other woman is cheating, too. The narrator wasn’t too morally upright to get this affair going in the first place, but he knows it’s wrong, and it’s weighing on him. He decides to end it: “I’ve got ties, and so do you / I just think this is the thing to do.” He’s OK with her continuing to cheat: “Maybe you’ll meet another guy.” He just doesn’t want to do it anymore himself. But he can’t quite let her go. He wants to kiss her and hold her one last time. (If they do anything other than kiss and hold each other, that goes unsaid.)
Musically, “Kiss And Say Goodbye” is lush and buttery and gorgeous. The mix is full of mournful saxophones and twangy guitars, both of which evoke the Stax Records Southern-soul heyday. And all the embellishments — the murmuring organs, the tingly vibraphones, the soft string-washes — are delicate and tender. They never clutter the song up, and they never turn it into goop.
The backing vocals do some silly things that remind me of the Pips, but that silliness adds its own kind of weight. And some of the backing-vocal moments are hooks unto themselves; I especially like how all the non-Gerald Alston Manhattans whisper the word “goodbye,” just before the song strips away everything but the heartbeat drums. Everything about the arrangement plays into the drama of the song, keeping Alston’s voice in the foreground. And Alston puts in a command performance, doing a restrained and elegant take on the rasp-and-weep Southern-soul tradition. He finds the wounded dignity in the figure of a guy who’s just now realizing that he should’ve kept his dick in his pants.
There’s nothing about “Kiss And Say Goodbye” that reinvents the wheel. It’s simply a beautifully realized take on a long-established trope, one that was in the process of disappearing from the pop charts. The Manhattans could do disco just fine, and they made plenty of it. But in “Kiss And Say Goodbye,” they tapped into something older and deeper, and they did it right.
After “Kiss And Say Goodbye,” the Manhattans remained R&B radio mainstays who didn’t get a lot of love elsewhere on the dial. The Manhattans only scored one more top-10 crossover hit: 1980’s soft and lilting “Shining Star,” which has nothing to do with Earth, Wind & Fire. (“Shining Star” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.)
The Manhattans kept going, and kept doing just fine for themselves, for years. Eventually, in 1988, Gerald Alston left the group and had a run as a solo performer on Motown, where he made a bunch of top-10 R&B hits that didn’t cross over to the Hot 100 at all. In 1995, Alston rejoined one of two competing versions of the Manhattans. These days, Alston is the only member of that classic Manhattans lineup left alive. He’s still touring with a reconstituted Manhattans lineup, and he can still sing like a motherfucker.
BONUS BEATS: In 2007, Gerald Alston got an unlikely solo showcase, singing lead on the Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams track “Stick Me For My Riches.” “Stick Me For My Riches” is a staggering piece of music, a six-minute soul-rap lament, and Alston just bodies it. It’e easily my favorite late-period Wu-Tang song. Here it is:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Gary Wright’s beautifully dazed synth-rock lope “Love Is Alive” peaked at #2 behind “Kiss And Say Goodbye.” It’s an 8.