Album Review: The Chi-Lites – A Lonely Man

If I might engage in the vernacular for a moment, streaming ain’t all that.

Issues concerning fair remuneration to the artists aside, streaming platforms have many advantages for the listener. But they are not – and should not be thought of as – exhaustive. Take, for example, the case of The Chi-Lites. The popular Chicago vocal r&b/soul quartet released a string of (non-charting) singles beginning in 1964. Landing an album deal with Brunswick in 1969, the group embarked upon a prolific run of releases. In the space of six year they would release no less than eight long players. Things slowed down after they moved to a succession of other labels in 1976 and onward, but The Chi-Lites continue (at least in name) to present day, with founding member Marshall Thompson still in the group.

But back to their peak period. In their Brunswick era, the group appeared on Soul Train no less than five times; three appearances on American Bandstand in that period as well as spots on Midnight Special and other high-profile television programs. Why? Simple: they brought the hits. Starting with 1969’s “Give it Away” (an r&b Top 10) and continuing through 1975’s “It’s time for Love (r&b #27), The Chi-lites landed on the r&b singles chart more than two dozen times.

And they had crossover appeal, with numerous (if fewer) spot on the pop singles chart. Chi-lites singles climbed into the Top 40 on at least five occasions. Their best-remembered singles are the classics “Have You Seen Her” (pop #3) and the #1 smash hit “Oh Girl.” But there were plenty of others.

Now, finally, back to my original point: visit Spotify and count up how many of those eight Brunswick LP are available for your listening pleasure. Only six of the eight. Missing are (For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People from 1971 and its followup, 1972’s A Lonely Man. Here’s what’s most odd about that: those two LPs were the highest-charting (Billboard 200) of all Chi-Lites albums. They’re the ones that respectively contain “Have You Seen Her” and “Oh Girl.” Go figure.

Enter Org Music. In early 2021 the label released a vinyl reissue of More Power to the People. And now in 2023 they’re rescued A Lonely Man from obscurity. (Okay, there have been CD reissues of those in recent years, but for the purposes of my discussion, pricey Japan-only releases don’t count.) These straight reissues are true to the originals: no upgrade in packaging; no 180-gramming, no new liner notes. It’s completely and utterly about the music. (There is a translucent blue version. Mine’s black.)

And that’s just fine. Across nine tracks, The Chi-Lites are in peak form on A Lonely Man. Group mainstay and lead singer Eugene Record would be responsible for writing or co-writing all but two of the songs; opener “Oh Girl” is his alone. He produced the sessions, too. His deft mix of styles – symphonic soul arrangements, bits of Floyd Cramer-flavored piano, soaring tight vocal choruses – make A Lonely Man a time-traveling treat. And the music has worn well; there’s both an innocence and a sense of social awarness in the album’s tunes.

One of only two covers on the album, “Living in the Steps of Another Man” features an expansive, shimmering arrangement that may remind some of Stevie Wonder’s late-period Motown work. “Love Is” puts more focus on the instrumental work, a blend of core band (with combo organ) and full orchestra. The vocalists add some sweet soul. Ultimately, the song gets an arrangement that might be better than it deserves, but that adds up to a nice listeningexperience nonetheless.

Record and his associates dig into the tunes. Three of A Loney Man’s tracks extend beyond the five-minute mark. The title track aims for epic status, and comes close. The Chi-Lites’ A simmering, cavernous wall-of-sound reading of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” surely must have been sampled by some hip-hop artists (note to self; check on that). And the record closes with a truly epic eight and a half minutes of “The Coldest Days of My Life.” That song – a co-write by Record and industry legend Carl Davis – is a virtual movie for the mind.

If you want this album – and if you’re a fan of early ‘70s soul, trust me: you do – your choices are one of those expensive Japanese CD reissues, a domestic CD release from nearly a quarter century ago, a (likely) beat copy of the original Brunswick LP of ‘72, or this fine, fine Org Music reissue, mastered from the original analog tapes (no needle drops here!). I think you know which I recommend.