When Lou Bedell of Dore Records christened a California R&B group "The Whispers" in the early 1960s, he wasn't thinking about the kind of conversation you have at a library. He knew that these singers excelled at delivering those tender words that are spoken on the edges of earlobes, those sweet nothings that precede the making of sweet, sweet love.
And although the group is 40-plus years older, when they hit the stage at Shea's Performing Arts Center Friday night, it was like they were laying the entire crowd down by the fire.
After a dramatic introduction by the eight-piece "Whispers Orchestra," which included a flamenco guitar solo, the trio of Walter Scott, his twin brother, Wallace, and Nicholas Caldwell walked out from the wings (fourth member Leaveil Degree was ill and didn't perform), decked out in matching three-piece suits with canary yellow shirts and ties.
As the orchestra kick-started the R&B-dance groove of "It's A Love Thing," complete with synthesizers, alto sax and lovely syncopation between the bassist and drummer, there was no doubt about it -- the audience was in for some baby-makin' music. And the singers, while probably not as limber as they used to be, still had the moves to match, especially Caldwell, who twirled and gyrated like his life depended on it.
The group covered a lot of ground confidently and efficiently, moving from "(Let's Go) All The Way" into "In the Raw" and "Olivia (Lost and Turned Out)," without missing a beat.
The orchestra was tight and incredibly entertaining -- imagine eight guys swaying in unison one second, dancing like crazy the next -- and The Whispers themselves can still sing their brains out.
And The Whispers weren't the only purveyors of slow-building soul music on this night. Stephanie Mills, an R&B legend in her own right, dished out a set of passionate performances, cherry-picked from different points of her over 30-year career.
With the supremely smooth concoctions of her four-piece band behind her, the diminutive singer belted out songs like "What'cha Gonna Do With My Lovin' " and "Home" in a voice that is anything but small. When she tore into her biggest hit, the undeniably catchy "I Never Knew Love Like This Before," Mills couldn't help but start dancing in her high heels, as if they were meant for such an activity.
The Indianapolis trio After 7 opened the evening with a set of high-energy, New Jack Swing-era R&B. Wearing pinstripe suits and the occasional fedora, these guys are seasoned crowd pleasers who sing the hell out of every note.
Although the music tended to sound a little dated, relying a little too much on the synth horns, it was more than made up for by the trio's charisma and vocal excellence.
The Whispers and Stephanie Mills
Friday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center.