In the beginning there was a concept: a virtual troupe of entertainers that would combine their talents to become a lean, mean, self-contained musical machine. Now, over 30 years, several personnel changes and 21 LPs later, New Birth is poised to make a re-birth into the 21st century. New Birth's soulful and sensual sound is making a resurgence via some of today's most popular artists. Their tunes have been covered or sampled by K-Ci & Jo Jo, Notorious BIG, Something for the People, and De La Soul, to name a few.
Today's New Birth consists of the nucleus of the original New Birth sound. Original members, brothers Leslie and Melvin Wilson, have reformed the group. A recent U.S. tour and appearances on BET Live and others are thrilling fans, old and new, with show shopping performances.
Originally the concept was the brainchild of Vernon Bullock: form a touring company who could perform separately and/or as part of a group. Bullock introduced the idea to his boss, former Motown songwriter/producer Harvey Fuqua. Fuqua liked the concept, so the pair traveled to Louisville, KY to start a production company and audition new talent. They would sign new acts, which would be recorded separately, but collectively the acts would be known as "New Birth." The name stood for a new sound and a new beginning.
New Birth's cutting-edge sound was culled from R&B, jazz, rock and Afro-Cuban strains, combined with soulful vocals that spoke to the heart, mind and erogenous zones. In 1970, NEW BIRTH released their debut, self-titled album on RCA Records. The first single, "It's You or No One" was not a smash hit. The 1971 release of their sophomore LP, AIN'T NO BIG THING, BUT IT'S GROWING netted the band a minor hit with a cover of the Perry Como song, "It's Impossible." The novelty garnered the band key TV and venue bookings and an award of merit from ASCAP. But a spark was missing in the vocals. Fuqua found it in a trio out of Michigan consisting of singing brothers Melvin and Leslie Wilson and Ann Bogan, who had previously sung with Fuqua before joining the Marvelettes. Melvin and Leslie were born and raised in the small town of Muskegon, Michigan, and grew up with roots steeped deep in gospel music. They sang with The Zion Wonders, the Gospel Legionaires and The Skylarks with Reverend Calvin Fair. After relocating to Detroit, they started a R&B act similar to the then popular Sam & Dave.
The trio, dubbed "Love, Peace And Happiness," were incorporated with a revamped New Birth. In 1972, Love, Peace and Happiness" released 2 albums: LOVE IS STRONGER and HERE TIS. The latter album featured the hit "I Don't Want To Do Wrong," which charted in August of that year.
The once 17 piece ensemble company evolved into a 15 piece ensemble company with the Niteliters, Londee Wiggins, Bobby Downes, Alan Frey and Love, Peace and Happiness, with the Niteliters and Love, Peace and Happiness recording albums in addition to the New Birth troupe. Ever evolving, it was inevitable for the group to become one single unit. They dropped the use of all other names and were no longer a troupe of separate entertainers, but one single supergroup. In addition to Melvin and Leslie Wilson, the group featured Londee Wiggins, Alan Frey, Tony Churchill, Austin Landers, Leroy Taylor, Robert Jackson, Carl "Butch" McDonald, Robin Russell, James Baker and Charlie Herndon. The band headed into the studio to record it's fourth album, BIRTHDAY.
BIRTH DAY, was the group's breakthrough release. Leslie Wilson set the tone for the album with the LPs first tune, a cover of Bobby Womack's "I Can Understand It." This became the band's first Top 5 R&B hit.
IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME, the fifth New Birth release, has been their biggest selling record to date. The title track, released in January 1974, climbed the R&B Charts where it remained in the Top 10 for 17 weeks. "It's Been A Long Time" marked a change to the softer, more romantic stylings that have become a New Birth mainstay. The title track came to Melvin in a dream. One day on the band bus, Melvin awakened with a start and all of the lyrics poured out of him. In the studio, Leslie filled the song with waves of passion. Leslie explains, "I'm a church boy, so it's my desire to give it everything I've got. Nothing compares to the feeling of singing for an audience, and if you can make them feel the emotion without touching them, it's magic." "It's Been A Long Time" has become THE quintessential R&B reunion song.
Leslie, once again, worked his vocal magic on the hit cover, "Wildflower", which charted at #17 on the R&B chart and went Top 10 in England.. Leslie had originally discovered the song when a friend sang it on a bus ride from Cleveland. "When we went in to record it I got into that special mood," Leslie explains. "I thought about what I wanted to tell the woman I'd spend the rest of my life with. Once you go caressing a song like that, all the feeling comes out." Oddly enough, although "Wildflower" did not chart as well as their other songs, this love song has become one of New Birth's most recognized hits.
The group recorded their sixth and final album for RCA entitled COMIN’ FROM ALL ENDS. The members of New Birth were restless and anxious to gain more control, creative and otherwise. The song “I WASH MY HANDS OF THE DEAL” reflects Alan Frey’s frustation of his dealings with the powers that be in relation to his place in New Birth, but turned out to be the consensus of the group. It was at this time that the group split with RCA, Harvey Fuqua and their management and signed with Buddah Records.
New Birth’s already solid reputation as showstoppers continued to grow and when Melvin created their new look for the stage, people went crazy. Melvin commissioned designer Bill Witten to make stage costumes for the group which had come to him in his dreams. Only mainstream acts such as KISS and Alice Cooper were wearing outlandishly styled uniforms. The group also incorporated the use of rear screen projection and had films commissioned to run as part of their performance which was also a first for R&B artists. This coupled with New Birth’s hunger to be the best, brought them to the forefront.
Controversy reared it's head with the release of LOVE POTION in 1976. The award-winning cover art, which was designed by Melvin Wilson and renowned photographer Norman Seeff, featured all 12 members posing together naked. The members all lived together in a mansion in the famed Hollywood Hills that they dubbed "the band house." Leslie Wilson muses, "we slept together, ate together and played together. We were brothers and sisters."
In 1975, New Birth released BLIND BABY on Buddah Records bringing a variation on the original sound. The group had complete creative control over the process with Melvin Wilson and James Baker producing the project along with input from the entire group. Their hit single, "DREAM MERCHANT" reached #1 on the R&B charts. The song was a cover of Jerry Butler's 1967 "Mr. Dream Merchant," and was a favorite of Melvins. Once again, Leslie's talent of combining tenderness and might were highlighted.
The group went on to record THE MIGHTY ARMY album for Warner Bros., but all was not rosy with the band. In-fighting over monetary and creative differences were driving a wedge into the close-knit group. These corrosive emotions, coupled with bad management decisions caused the members to go their separate ways in 1977.
Forging on, sans Melvin and Leslie, a revamped New Birth saw the return of Bobby Downs, and the addition of singer Dawn Pree. The band released PLATINUM CITY in 1979. In 1982, Londee Wiggins returned and replaced Dawn Pree on the groups second post Wilson Brothers attempt entitled I'M BACK. However, neither album proved to be successful and the remainder of the original New Birth disbanded.
Sadly, James Baker passed away in 1993. Fortunately, most of the members of New Birth were still in touch and had spent some time with him before his sudden and untimely death. He is missed but by the grace of God, will live on through the music he helped create.
2004 finds a new incarnation of New Birth, with Melvin and Leslie Wilson back at the helm. This most loved band is currently touring the US performing club and arena dates and have put together a new CD entitled "Lifetime". "Although it's been an up and down road, I wouldn't have missed a minute of it," Melvin reflects. "New Birth will never stop."