In the history of regionally defined black popular music, certain cities, labels, and “sounds” are represented most often. For many, Detroit is synonymous with Motown, and indeed, Berry Gordy’s “assembly line” mode of music production and tight control over his product and workers was mirrored from the Ford factory in which he worked as a youth. Down in Memphis, a different sort of expression of black musical identity, one that prided itself on retaining the grit and spirit that Motown polished into a smooth shine, called itself Stax. Other major cities can lay claim to their own forms of regional musical expression as well: New York City and the rise of rap and hip-hop culture, Chicago blues and Chess Records, New Orleans jazz, and so forth.
Yet one very important locale is often eluded in these narratives: Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love had a long history of localized soul music before Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff made a business out of it through a partnership with Columbia Records in 1971. That duo’s own form of elegant R&B and soul, for many, has come to stand for the city’s cultural history as much as anything. The phrase “Philly Soul” immediately conjures wonderful and specific musical memories as much as do the guttural “Memphis Blues” or the polished gospel-pop of the “Motown Sound.” James Miller describes it as “a blend of fierce gospel, smooth jazz and gossamer pop, as irresistibly danceable as Motown, as cool and swinging as Miles and Wes Montgomery, as harmonically sophisticated as Burt Bacharach, and as politically pointed as the best songs from Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.” Miller’s quote is pulled from the extensive booklet accompanying the 4-CD set Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia, which wonderfully brings together the highlights of Philadelphia International’s remarkable run through the 1970s.
The first disc of the set traces Gamble and Huff’s quick rise to national prominence. Its first half is marked by sessions the duo produced for artists who had made their names elsewhere: Jerry Butler’s dramatic, forceful “Only the Strong Survive” was an early hit for the former Impression, reaching #4 on the pop charts in 1969, and Dusty Springfield’s “A Brand New Me” and Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Be Fooled by the Green Grass” reached the Top 30. The Delfonics, due to the arrangements of hired hand Thom Bell, emerged as the first of Gamble and Huff’s own Philly brand, and “La La – Means I Love You” and especially “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” are still lush, dramatic and fragile, what Miller calls “soul concertos.” Yet few at the time could have predicted the incredible string of hits and stable of artists that Gamble, Huff and Bell were ready to unleash. The first disc alone contains four of the 1970s most indelible soul classics, all released, amazingly enough, between June and October of 1972: Billy Paul’s ode to infidelity “Me and Mrs. Jones” (a #1 Pop hit), Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” The Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around,” and best of all, the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers” (the latter three all crossed over, hitting #3 on the pop charts). Philadelphia International was riding high enough that the pair was looking into collaborating with living legends like Miles Davis and Bob Marley (as detailed in the liner note essay by Russell Hall, “Give the People What They Want: A Conversation With Gamble and Huff”).
Yet this set illustrates beyond a reasonable doubt that the music was more than immaculately crafted pop. It was also emanating from, and dialoguing with, a distinct historical era for Philadelphia. In his essay for the booklet, Gerald Early writes that the Philly Sound “emerged from a Black Philadelphia energized by the Civil Rights movement and NAACP leader Cecil Moore as much as it was distressed by urban blight, drugs, and violence.” Lynell George notes that Gamble, who has remained in South Philly to this day, “founded the Urban Development Company to put some message behind the music.” Likewise, the sounds from Philadelphia International reflected a notion of uplift and unbridled love-the personal allowing reflection on the political-during a very turbulent time. The O’Jays were the most noticeable exponents of this ideology, with the socio-poetic funk of “For the Love of Money,” the late Civil Rights flair of “Give the People What They Want,” or their proto-disco, post-‘60s anthem “Love Train,” but they weren’t alone. There was the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody,” house band MFSB’s “Love is the Answer,” even McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” released a bit later, in the heart of the disco boom in 1979. Perhaps no song from the set encapsulates the desire to make the best from one’s surroundings, and to do it with style, than William DeVaughn’s sinuously funky “Be Thankful For What You Got,” in which he preaches, “you may not have a car at all, but remember brothers and sisters, you can still stand tall.”
Following is a clip of the Blue Notes performing “Wake Up Everybody,” from the upcoming PBS Special, Love Train, coming December 2008 (Courtesy of Legacy):
Listening to this box set, it becomes incredibly easy to hear the roots of many later musical styles in Gamble and Huff’s music. Disco is the most obvious, but the late ‘70s tendency toward smooth soul, or what radio executives dubbed “Quiet Storm,” is evident through the lithe guitars and light arrangements of Lou Rawls’ “See You When I Get There” and the shimmering keyboards backing Dee Dee Sharp’s “I’m Not In Love” (a cover of the 10cc hit). Lyrically, as well as in terms of its laid-back vibe, “Be Thankful’s” legendary couplet “diggin’ the scene, with a gangster lean” effortlessly elevates the prosaic to the poetic like the best early ‘90s West Coast rap. George reminds us that even the neo-soul Philly scene nearly two decades later, featuring the Roots, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott, owes a huge debt to the path blazed by Philly International.
When asked if he and Gamble were competing with Motown, Huff answered specifically in terms of technology: “Motown had their era…when things were being mixed in mono…We had an orchestra…which of course, sounded much better in stereo” (as per Hall’s liner notes). The famous “house band” for Gamble and Huff’s enterprise-Philly Soul’s own version of the MG’s and Funk Brothers-was named MFSB, short for “Mother, Father, Sister, Brother,” and their 1974 song “The Sound of Philadelphia” was familiar to many at the time as the theme to Soul Train.
Listening to the music collected on Love Train and reading the essays that situate it historically, it becomes abundantly clear that Gamble and Huff, and Philadelphia International, were hosting a family affair, one that broadcast the closeness of post-Civil Rights-era Philadelphia to the world with music that made “love” simultaneously interpersonal and lushly transcendent. For linguistic evidence, the back of the Love Train booklet breaks down the word “Philadelphia”: “filia” is Greek for “friendship”, and “adelphios/adelphi” is Greek for “brother/sister.”
Posted by Eric Harvey