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Melvin Steals doesn’t remember if he called “heads” or “tails.” All he knows is that the coin flipped in his favor, sparking a series of events that would lead to a timeless song.
That song — The Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” — landed on the Billboard charts 40 years ago last weekend, beginning a climb that would lead beyond gold-certified status to nearly 4 million radio spins.
That’s meant sizable royalty payments for the two men who wrote the song, Aliquippa-raised twins Melvin and Mervin Steals.
“It put my three kids through college and me through graduate school,” said Melvin, who based the lyrics on memories of courting the love of his life, Adrena, to whom he’s been married for 44 years.
They met at age 16 as 11th-graders. Adrena attended Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse High School, a football rival at the time for Aliquippa.
Tagging along with friends on an adventure to meet Pittsburgh girls, the two Steals brothers somehow found themselves at Adrena’s doorstep. They flipped a coin to see which one got to stay in hopes of wooing her.
“Some guys have all the luck,” recalls a smiling Melvin, who won the coin toss. “It was like I had met an angel.”
Fast-forward six years to the Philadelphia studios of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, songwriters and producers extraordinaire of dozens of hit songs by the likes of The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Billy Paul (“Me and Mrs. Jones”). The future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees conducted weekly auditions for aspiring songwriters. On one particular Saturday, two financially strapped 22-year-old Beaver County twins walked through the door.
They were lucky the meeting happened, recalled Mervin, who now lives in the Poconos.
“When we got off the subway in Philly we looked like two derelicts,” Mervin said. “A policeman followed us all the way to Gamble and Huff’s office. I think he thought we were going to rob somebody.”
Grungy or not, the Stealses impressed Gamble and Huff, who put them to work writing songs for Archie Bell & the Drells, who had just topped the charts with “Tighten Up.” Melvin was the wordsmith; Mervin crafted the melodies on piano. The twins wrote a few album cuts for Bell & the Drells before taking on their second assignment — a new R&B group from the Ellwood City area called the Jaggerz.
The brothers contributed “Gotta Find My Way Back Home” and “Forever Together — Together Forever” to the Jaggerz’ 1969 debut on Gamble Records.
“We called them the Rich Jaggerz, because they had money,” joked Melvin, who drove to Philadelphia with Jaggerz guitarist Benny Faiella for one recording session.
The Jaggerz’ debut disc paved the way for the band’s 1970 follow-up, on Kama Sutra Records, which produced the Billboard No. 2 hit “The Rapper.”
Gamble and Huff released the Stealses from their contract, believing the brothers had run out of fresh material.
But on a scouting tour to a Pittsburgh studio, Gamble and Huff associate Thom Bell heard a batch of seven songs by the Stealses that he liked, and agreed to find artists to record them.
One of those songs, “Honey Bee,” became a successful single for future disco star Gloria Gaynor.
Another of those songs, “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” would be pitched to Peaches & Herb, who rejected it. The Stealses then hoped to shop it to Marvin Gaye and his protege Tammi Terrell, whom the brothers had befriended, but the Motown hierarchy made it tricky for two little-known songwriters to formally submit such a song.
Atlantic Records had hired Bell as a producer and gave him a list of artists he could work with, including The Spinners, who needed a follow-up hit to their Top-20, Stevie Wonder-penned “It’s a Shame.” Meeting with The Spinners in Detroit, Bell offered “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” which the band agreed to record.
But the song needed to be tweaked.
Melvin originally penned the lyrics as a duet. The Spinners needed lyrics from a singular point of view. So Melvin went back to the drawing board, crafting lyrical lines inspired by his experiences years earlier courting Adrena.
Bell also came up with the idea to slow down the melody, giving it more of an Al Green feel.
The final version of the Stealses’ song was recorded by The Spinners in 1972, and early the following year would top the Billboard R&B chart and reach No. 4 on the Top-40. It earned the brothers a gold record. Melvin hangs his on the wall of his Economy home.
Many artists have covered “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” (Melvin favors Donny Osmond’s version), and the song has appeared in TV shows and films (Mervin’s favorite is the Queen Latifah movie “Beauty Shop.”)
The Stealses still earn royalty checks from “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” as well as 25 other songs they’ve written, including The Trammps’ “Trusting Heart” that appears in a new compilation of Philadelphia Sound songs that’s selling well in the U.K.
Realizing the odds are stacked against making a steady living as a songwriter, Mervin settled down in New Jersey and became a carpenter; Melvin taught for 25 years in the Aliquippa, Freedom and Quaker Valley school districts, then served as a principal for 11 more at Quaker Valley, Aliquippa and Seneca Valley schools.
But music has remained a passion, with the Stealses recently getting involved as producers for artists like R&B singer Darryl Grant and Pittsburgh gospel singer Damarra Chanel, who has a song on Sirius-XM radio.
Their crowning musical achievement came 40 years ago. And as long as there are oldies stations, “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” will always find an audience and elicit sing-alongs and smiles. Especially for the two guys who wrote it.
“Hearing it always brings back a lot of pleasant memories,” Melvin said.