Johnny Popcorn? Yes that is the name of this group and I love it. Hailing from Philadelphia, the five member band features vocals from Hezekiah (Davis) and Jani Coral, with Lloyd Alexander on guitar, Freshie on bass, and Clayton Crothers on drums. They’ve opened for a who’s who in the neo soul/progressive soul scene: Kindred, Oddisee, Robert Glasper, Ledisi, RJD2, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Bilal. JP’s ten track sophomore album, Totem Pole, is rock—yes, rock! Now before some of you start frowning your face, it’s not hard rock. It’s not Bad Brains, and there are no Vernon Reid guitar solo riffs. However, Totem Pole offers a welcome fusion of sound and if you free your mind, you may enjoy it.
“Go Go Go” is perhaps the most up tempo of all the tracks. It opens with, believe it or not, acoustic guitar that recalls George Michael’s “Faith.” The catchy chorus has Hezekiah and the group chanting and clapping, “go, go, go – you got to get up and go, go, go” as they encourage folks to chase their dreams.
“Coming Home” is another good track thanks to drummer Chuck Treece, who is a local legend in Philly. Hezekiah is once again featured on vocals, and listening to this track you might think Lenny Kravitz could have recorded it. “What a Day” is a step out of rock and into funk. The opening bass is a sure fire winner and will get heads nodding up and down.
Johnny Popcorn’s Totem Pole is certainly different. Where so many acts want to copycat each other, this band stands out! The only question remains, will they or can they find an audience? Judging by who JP has collaborated with, I’d say yes. Totem Pole is a promising follow-up to their debut album, The Crow, and I’m already waiting to see what direction they will pull the audience on their next release.
The Delfonics had a good run from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s, and without a doubt set the bar very high for Philly soul. The group was comprised of William “Poogie” Hart, Wilbert Hart, Randy Cain, and later Major Harris. A legendary Philadelphia disc jockey called them “tall, lean and talented.” This comprehensive 2-CD set, 40 Classic Soul Sides, presents the hit singles that put them over as well as songs you probably never knew they recorded. Included are most of the tracks from their four Philly Groove albums, in addition to three non-LP sides.
Disc one opens with the Delfonics’ hit “La La Means I Love You,” written by a very young Thom Bell, the producer/songwriter who would be the Delfonics’ guiding light during the group’s run. Also included are “Break Your Promise” and “Ready or Not Here I Come” (any Fugees fans out there?). Disc two includes more hits: “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind,” “Hey Love” and “Walk Right Up to the Sun.”
The Delfonics do a great job covering others’ tunes. They put their signature harmonies on Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” and “The Look of Love,” making them sound like new compositions. The same is true with “Hurt So Bad” and “Going Out Of My Head,” originally recorded by Little Anthony & the Imperials. On the cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me,” William Hart takes it home. You have to wonder why these singles were not pushed harder by the label back when they were released. The anthology showcases this other important side of the group’s output.
The Delfonics never became as big as the Motown male vocal groups or even the Impressions, but they did pave the way for Blue Magic and the Stylistics—two important Philly soul groups. In fact, it would be easy to argue that for this reason alone the Delfonics belong in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Thanks to a generation of filmmakers and hip hop producers who have sampled their songs, the Delfonics’ music will continue to be discovered, if sometimes in unlikely places. 40 Classic Soul Sides is a great place to start.
Formed in 1963, The Three Degrees claim to be the longest-running female vocal group in history (though admittedly the membership has changed over the years). A mainstay of the soul and disco era, they scored many hits on Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records label.
Now celebrating their 50th anniversary, The Three Degrees have released their first studio album in 25 years on British soul music impresario David Nathan’s label. Recorded in Atlanta with a full band and orchestra, Strategy (Our Tribute to Philadelphia) features “almost” original member Helen Scott, along with Valerie Holiday (who joined in 1967) and relative newcomer Freddie Pool, who has been with the trio since 2011. As with their last album, Out of the Past Into the Future (1993), the group revisits their roots by covering many timeless Philly soul classics, including the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and the stand out track “Don’t Leave Me This Way” which demonstrates their super tight vocal harmonies. The album closes with a new version of The Three Degrees’ iconic hit song T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia), better known as the Soul Train theme song.
These ladies may not be breaking any new ground, but they certainly embody the female vocal trio stylings of the ‘60s and ‘70s and serve as wonderful ambassadors, bringing the soulful sounds of Philadelphia to a new generation.
In August of 2007, Philadelphia International Records licensed its entire catalog to SONY BMG, and reissues have been gradually appearing on the Legacy label. The most recent collaboration is the Total Soul classics series, which so far has resulted in newly remastered reissues of six classic Gamble & Huff albums that include new (albeit brief) liner notes and an occasional bonus track. The three reissues covered in this review focus on the contributions of Teddy Pendergrass, who captured the essence of Philly soul (other reissues in the series include 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers, and Leon Huff’s Here To Create Music).
The Philadelphia sound, also known as the “Philly sound,” is a style of soul music featuring the elements of funk, strings, horns and lush orchestral arrangements. Pop vocals and R&B rhythm sections fused to create this new sound/genre, and laid the background for disco and the format known on smooth jazz radio stations as the “Quiet Storm.” The Philly Sound, or Philly Soul, was pioneered by the producing and songwriting duo of Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble. They formed Philadelphia International Records (PIR) in 1971 and worked with many artists including Patti Labelle, Archie Bell and the Drells, the O’Jays, the Jacksons, Lou Rawls, the Stylistics, Jean Carne, Phyllis Hyman, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Teddy Pendergrass, amongst many others. Gamble & Huff routinely used the same group of studio musicians, known as MFSB (Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, and Brothers), which produced a consistent hit-making sound. Since 1963, Gamble & Huff have earned 175 gold and platinum records, dominating the pop and R&B charts for over twenty years. They’ve written over 3000 songs that were nurtured from the church pulpits and streets, tackling topics like family, poverty, politics and relationships.
Title: Wake Up Everybody
Artist: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Label: PIR/ Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697-340102
Release date: 2008 (1975)
One of the most recognizable male vocalists to come out of PIR was Teddy Pendergrass. Like high premium chocolate, Teddy Pendergrass has a voice that is smooth, rich and velvety. Pendergrass’s vocals promote sexiness, sultriness and sensuality, and he convincingly belts out with the prowess necessary to render social change, equality and global consciousness. Affectionately known as the “Teddy Bear,” Pendergrass has been famously known to cater to women by holding “women only” concerts and handing out roses, teddy bears and hugs and kisses.
Originally hired as the Cadillac’s drummer, Pendergrass began singing with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes when the two groups merged. Many hits were made through this collaboration, yet it is the title track from the album Wake Up Everybody that arguably stands out as one of the best soul/R&B songs of the seventies. What makes this song so vital and beautiful is the lush orchestration, well-executed production, and perfect harmonies. The lyrics offer a cry to the world to literally wake up and see what is going on (similar to Marvin Gaye’s plea) and take accountability. There is no excuse or reason for society to allow poverty, crime, illness and the many plagues that affect us all if we choose to stay in a dormant state. According to his biography, Pendergrass is an ordained minister. His vocal approach is very similar to the calls and wails of black preaching- commanding yet convincing. With a wonderful balance of gruff pleas and smooth vocals, Pendergrass demonstrates his gift to blend both styles effortlessly. The ability to show vulnerability with a masculine commanding voice is not easy to achieve and Pendergrass is one of the masters.
The remaining tracks on Wake Up Everybody are primarily love songs with the stand out cut, “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” This 1975 release was Pendergrass’s final album with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Only one bonus track has been added, an extended Tom Moulton mix of “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”
Pendergrass’s first solo album, self-titled Teddy Pendergrass, was originally released in 1977 and was also produced by the dynamic team of Gamble & Huff. Two singles charted from this album, “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me.” The track “Somebody Told Me” recalls the vocal styles of gospel, while “If I Had” evokes the best of the blues. These songs in particular showcase Pendergrass’s ability to pull from both the secular and the sacred to create emotive soul-stirring music whose appeal is most obvious to women, yet also addresses feelings that both men and women have experienced. A very consistent album with no dull tracks, Gamble & Huff concentrated on Pendergrass’s vocals, using female backing vocals or Pendergrass’s own voice to truly showcase his lead vocals. “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The More I Get, The More I Want” offer soulful disco tracks ideal for dancing, while also incorporating a great rhythm section, pounding percussion, and beautiful orchestrations.
Life is a Song Worth Singing was Pendergrass’s second solo album, again produced by Gamble & Huff. Pendergrass sings with raw conviction, yet offers tenderness in tracks such as “When Somebody Loves You Back.” The title track is a well-arranged mix of horns and strings that could provide any action movie from 1978 with a formidable soundtrack. The fervor of this CD is more intense than Pendergrass’s first album. He confidently makes it clear what he wants and what he likes as in the track “Only You,” while songs like the top charting “Close the Door” build from slow seduction to intense passion, displaying his vulnerability. This album solidified Pendergrass’s position as one of the sexiest, most sensual balladeers in R&B music. The two bonus tracks include the single version of “Only You” and an extended disco version (7:09) of “Get Down, Get Funky.”
Though primarily known for his love songs, Pendergrass is much more than a balladeer. His body of work crosses many genres, such as disco, funk, soul and R&B. He sings from a spiritual fervor, bringing soul to every song. Whether Pendergrass is lamenting his woes of love gone wrong, the joys of loving someone when someone loves you back, or calling out to the world to show compassion towards our fellow brothers and sisters, it is very clear he has made an indelible mark on music that will never be duplicated.
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.”
Philadelphia International Records (PIR) was formed in 1971 by legendary songwriting and production duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The two had become acquainted while working in Philadelphia’s Schubert Building and borrowed $700 to start their first label, Excel Records, in 1965. Gamble and Huff’s PIR songs and productions placed special emphasis on the musical arrangements, giving birth to “The Sound of Philadelphia,” or TSOP. PIR was probably the last major independent record label to develop a distinct regional sound, following Motown and Stax by more than a decade.
John A. Jackson, author of A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul,1has described Philly Soul as “a multilayered, bottom-heavy brand of sophisticated and glossy urban rhythm and blues.” Two main factors are accredited with this trademark Philadelphia sound. The first was the funk-infused rhythm section, searing horns, and velvet strings of the house band known as MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother). As noted by Jackson, the letters “MFSB” served as a double-entendre used within the studio to relay a compliment, “He plays like a mother-fuckin’ son-of-a-bitch.” The second contributing factor was Joe Tarsia, a sound engineer and founder of Sigma Sound Studios, who’s motto was “less is sometimes more” in regards to recording. Tarsia favored an unimpeded surround sound, and this effect was accomplished through the use of his Sigma equipment. In contrast , The Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP) was “the last major independent record label to develop a regional sound (Jackson, p. 470).”
Through a special license between PIR and Sony BMG/Legacy, two new 16-song collections were released in March, just in time to celebrate the induction of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits and Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records sum up the Gamble & Huff approach to musical success. They also provide a “Music Appreciation 101” of Philly Soul for those who did not receive their tickets in time for TSOP (the theme from Soul Train).
Conquer the World entertains with a number of quirky performances such as “Grasshopper” by the Soul Devalents, which tells of a grasshopper in the bayou that falls into a vat filled with gin. Producers Joe McEwen and Leo Sacks drew from rare and mostly forgotten 45 rpm singles that were recorded between 1971-1975 and released on the TSOP, PIR, Gamble and North Bay labels. One of the better known artists featured on the compilation is Bunny Sigler, who contributes “Theme for Five Fingers of Death,” “Everybody Needs Good Lovin’,” and “Conquer the World Together” (with Dee Dee Sharp). The other tracks feature local performers, most of whom (according to the press release) “never went far beyond the neighborhoods and bars of Philadelphia,” including: Pat & the Blenders, Love Committee, Yellow Sunshine, Ruby & the Party Gang, and the Mellow Moods. Though the artists never hit the big time, this is still classic Philly Soul featuring the signature sound of MFSB, and now thanks to McEwen and Sacks these songs are no longer lost.
On the opposite end of the PIR spectrum, The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits leads you through of tour-de-force of chart busting Philly Soul delivered by PIR’s substantial roster of superstars. The compilation begins with the back to back hits “Love Train” and “Back Stabbers” performed by the “incomparable, mighty-mighty” O’Jays, followed by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes performing “If You Don’t Know My By Now,” “The Love I Lost,” and “Wake Up Everybody.” Also featured is Billy Paul’s smash hit “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “When Will I See You Again” by The Three Degrees, and “You’ll Never Love Another” by Lou Rawls, along with contributions (in chronological order) by People’s Choice, The Intruders, McFadden & Whitehead, The Jones Girls, Teddy Pendergrass, and Patti Labelle.
In summation, Conquer The World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records and The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits provides an aural history of the development Philly Soul as well as a fitting tribute to the creative genius of Gamble and Huff. Maybe if we’re lucky, Sony would reissue the 1997 box set Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and the Story of Brotherly Love (1966-1976) which provides a much more complete overview but has unfortunately been unavailable for several years.
Whether back in the days of bell bottoms, penny candy (that actually cost a penny), red light and quarter parties, and afro picks with fist; or the present day of ‘70s parties and steppers sets…if you were asked to compile a playlist of music, you knew it was not complete until you added some selections from such legendary groups as the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and Blue Magic.
Growing up during the early ‘80s on Chicago’s Southside, I can remember waking up on Saturday mornings to the sounds of the vacuum roaring and the radio blaring as my mother cleaned the house. After running to the kitchen to get a bowl of my favorite cereal, I would rush to the area of the house that my mom was in to watch as she put on a show. As she cleaned, she would sing along with the radio as if she were in grand concert. “Ready or not, here I come you can’t hide…, God bless you, you make me feel brand new…, Let the sideshow begin, hurry, hurry, step right on in…” These early morning experiences would serve as my introduction to the lush Philly sound. I would received further submersion within the Philadelphia sound by listening on Sunday afternoons to Chicago radio deejay Herb Kent “The Cool Gent” as he played “dusty records” which often featured the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and Blue Magic.
Recognized as one of the foremost groups of that distinctive “Philadelphia sound,” the Delfonics were formed in 1965. Comprised of brothers William “Poogie” and Wilbert Hart, and friend Randy Cain, the Delfonics have graced us with classics such as “Hey Love” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” featuring William as the lead. In 1968, the union of lead singer Russell Thompkins, Jr. (previously a member of the Monarchs) with the members of the Percussions gave rise to the Stylistics. This group was responsible for hits such as “You Make Me Feel Brand New” and, one of my personal favorites, “Betcha By Golly Wow.” Blue Magic was formed in 1972 when Ted Mills (originally brought on as a songwriter) was paired with a group of guys from a North Philly neighborhood. Blue Magic is noted for songs such as “Sideshow” and “Three Ring Circus.”
The 3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia brings together three of the best known lead tenors of the Philly sound. Thompkins, Hart and Mills offer the Soul enthusiast ten audibly pleasing tracks. Throughout each of the tracks, the 3 Tenors of Soul masterfully and artistically use their golden tenor falsettos to weave images of days gone by. In addition, the 3 Tenors have included collaborations on three of the songs: All The Way From Philadelphia (with Hall & Oates), A Love Of Your Own (with The Average White Band), and Where Are All My Friends (with Bilal). As a side note, Bilal is also from the North Philly neck of the woods, as well as a member of the neo-soul tradition.
While all ten tracks are great, I found the following to be the most audibly stimulating: Grateful (track 3), featuring Ted Mills on lead vocal; A Love of Your Own (track 5), featuring Russell Thompkins, Jr. (with The Average White Band); and Where Are All My Friends (track 9) with lead vocals by Ted Mills with Bilal.
Though the accompanying liner notes provide a brief glimpse into the history of each group, they do not provide the consumer with the facts or characteristics of what exactly constitutes that distinctive Philadelphia sound. Nor do the notes provide an explanation for why William Hart is not featured as a lead vocalist save for when all three tenors are featured. Nevertheless, if you are new to the Philadelphia sound and would like to understand the concept behind the music, I would suggest you do a little research. Check out John A. Jackson’s book A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul in particular. Additionally, all of the research materials Jackson used in compiling his award-winning book have been deposited at the Archives of African American Music and Culture, as described in the Winter 2007 issue of Liner Notes.
Overall, The 3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia is a good buy for the lovers of the falsetto register. And for those who find it annoying, just remember these words from the liner notes: “it’s a Philly thing!”