Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia

Title: Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia
Artists: Various
Label: Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697352792 (4 CD box set)
Release date:   October 21, 2008

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

Welcome to the May issue

This month we’re featuring Holy hip hop, also known as Christian rap or gospel rap, which blends the musical style and aesthetics of rap/hip hop with overtly Christian lyrics. To learn more about this subgenre of hip hop, be sure to check out the post “Holy Hip Hop 101,” as well as reviews of new CDs by Holy hip hop artists Sha Baraka, FLAME, Phanatak, and shai linne. The Sound of Philadelphia is explored in reviews of two new Legacy releases: Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records, and a compilation of Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits. A big “thumbs up” is given to Palmystery, the new solo CD by bass player Victor Wooten, perhaps best known for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Though we gave Miles Davis’s The Complete on the Corner Sessions a brief mention in our “Best of 2007” line-up, we’re running a complete review in this issue. Also featured is The Great Debaters Soundtrack, with contributions by the Carolina Chocolate Drops; The Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964 performance by Rev. Gary Davis; and John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, which sheds new light on the field recordings made by the Fisk University professor.

The Sound of Philadelphia

Title: Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records
Artists: Various
Label: Philadelphia International/Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697 27338 2
Date: 2008 (originally issued in 2007 as a limited ed. LP with only 12 tracks)

Title: The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits
Artists: Various
Label: Philadelphia International/Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697 21087 2
Date: 2008

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,1 has 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.

1 The John A. Jackson Papers at the Archives of African American Music and Culture include interviews, research materials, and book drafts pertaining to A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul.

Posted by Terence La Nier II and Brenda Nelson-Strauss