THE PHILADELPHIA SOUND-SWEET SOUL MUSIC

THE PHILADELPHIA SOUND-SWEET  SOUL MUSIC.

Back in the 1970s, Philadelphia produced some of the sweetest, most melodic soul of the decade. It was the latest in a long line of American cities that had produced some fantastic, memorable and hugely influential soul music. Chicago produced the sound of Chess, which produced some of the best blues and soul music ever. Detroit gave us Motown, probably one of the best known of all the soul labels, that produced Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Four Tops and Smokey Robinson. Memphis was responsible for Stax, the legendary label that gave the world Otis Redding, Booker T and The MGs, Sam and Dave and Isaac Hayes. Then, in 1971 Gamble and Huff launched Philadelphia International a new record label in their home city of Philadelphia.It would produce some of the most soulful music of the decade. It featured sweeping strings, lush arrangements that were punctuated by horns, and some wonderful new musicians. Philadelphia International introduced the world to artists such as The O’Jays, McFadden and Whitehead, MFSB,The Delfonics, Billy Paul and Dee Dee Sharp Gamble. This was the beginning of a magical new musical journey, which saw the label produce hit after hit. In this article, I’ll tell you about the Philadelphia Sound, and then tell you what are the best compilations to buy.

Philadelphia International was set up by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff in 1971, in partnership with Columbia Records. Gamble and Huff were both natives of Philadelphia, growing up in the city’s south side. By 1971, they were both experienced songwriters and producers, having over many years, learnt their craft in their own city. Clive Davis, president of Columbia Records agreed to enter a partnership with the pair, investing a $75,000 advance whereby Gamble and Huff would produce fifteen singles. A further $25,000 was set aside for a smaller number of albums.

When the label released their first three singles, they were huge successes. No wonder, they were Backstabbers by The O’Jays, If You Don’t Know Me By Now by Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes and Me and Mrs Jones by Billy Paul. Such a success was almost unheard of. The only label which had such immediate success, had been Motown. Maybe Gamble and Huff could recreate the success of Motown in Philadelphia.

The success of the label was down to the sound. People loved the mixture of music which incorporated a mixture of soul, funk, smooth jazz, tinges of gospel and the best of vocal pop music. Their use of sweeping strings, lush instrumental arrangements, horn sections that soared, punctuating the sound, even a glockenspiel playing subtly in the background. For over a decade, the music was a mixture of beautiful ballads and brilliant dance tracks. 

Another part of the success of the music were the producers. Gamble and Huff produced many of the tracks, but Gene McFadden and John Whitehead were another production duo. Having said that, there were many songwriters and producers who contributed towards the success of the label. People like Thom Bell, Dexter Wansell, Linda Creed and Norman Harris. However, without some brilliant musicians, the success wouldn’t have been possible. Some musicians played on many of the label’s big hits. Three important musicians were bassist Ronald Baker, guitarist Norman Harris and drummer Earl Young. Together, they’d record as The Trammps, and were the rhythm section for M.F.S.B. 

It would take forever to list the artists who recorded for Philadelphia. Groups such as The Stylistics, The Salsoul Orchestra, The O’Jays, The Three Degrees, The Jones Girls and First Choice. Singers including Billy Paul, Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass and Eddie Holman. All of these artists contributed to the success of the label and sound.

For over a decade, the Philadelphia Sound emerged beautifully from our speakers, providing us with some of the most memorable, melodic and beautiful soulful music. That music is as popular today, as it was back then. Compilations of the Philadelphia Sound are still being released today, and in this article, I’ll guide you through these compilations, and help you decide which are the best ones to buy.

LOVE TRAIN-THE SOUND OF PHILADELPHIA.

There is something for all budgets for someone wishing to buy a compilation of the Philadelphia Sound. Probably the most expensive and lavish, is a four disc box set entitled Love Train-The Sound of Philadelphia. It was released back in 2009 by Sony and includes most of the best known tracks released during the heyday of the Philadelphia Sound. It also features a comprehensive booklet featuring interviews from some of the people responsible for giving us the Philadelphia Sound.

Over four discs, you’ll hear some brilliant polished music, a mixture of soulful, dreamy ballads and some of the most danceable soul music of the 1970s’. This music features great songwriting, outstanding production and some of the most talented artists you’ll ever have the privilege of hearing. Here are my choices from this box set.

The O’Jays I Love Music begins with tom-tom drums playing, drums join in, and a vocal soars. Quickly, the song bursts into life, a mixture of bass throbbing, keyboards, sweet vocal harmonies and a trumpet playing. All this before the lead vocal. From there on, The O’Jays take you on a musical journey that demonstrates just what makes a great soul track. It’s a full arrangement, lead vocal surrounded by harmonies, short stabs from the piano punctuating the track. Horns soar brightly, drums are a constant. Later a guitar solo plays, as strings sweep in the background.  So much goes on for nearly seven minutes, with everything contributing towards making a brilliant track. Here, the tempo is fast, it’s highly danceable, full of hooks, with one of the best arrangements you’ll ever hear.

My next choice is Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes Don’t Leave Me This Way, a track that has a much more subtle start, with keyboards, drums and guitar combining, slowly building the track up. When Harold enters, he’s just humming, against a backdrop of some beautiful strings. Then, when his vocal begins, it’s strong and clear, surrounded by a mixture of strings, chiming guitars, the brass section play quietly. Suddenly, the track opens out, Harold’s voice soars, the arrangement grows, The Bluenotes harmonize behind him, and quickly, the most beautiful arrangement emerges. Like the O’Jays track, it’s a full arrangement, with guitars, string and brass section among the highlights. Harold’s voice is hugely powerful, and he sings the song with passion. Meanwhile, keyboards join in, and Harold and The Bluenotes take the lead, feeding off each other. The rhythm section then take over, with Harold taking a break, towards the end of the track. Many other artists have covered this track, but be warned, Harold Melvin produces the definitive version, you only need to hear this song once to realize why.

When I was growing up, one of my favorite records was McFadden and Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stopping Us Now. It was a particular favorite of one of the DJ’s on local radio, who like me, was a great lover of the soul music coming out of Philadelphia. This was a track he played many times, and a track since then I’ve loved. McFadden and Whitehead were songwriters, producers and this became their best know track as recording artists. It begins with drums, bass and strings, and has a lovely lush introduction, with backing vocalists singing. All the time the bass is playing quickly at the bottom of the mix. When the vocal begins, it’s strong and clear, accompanied by backing singers, strings constantly sweeping, synths punctuating the sound. Part of the success of the song is the use of backing vocalists, the prominent rhythm section and those lovely lush strings. Midway through the song comes the breakdown, when they slow the song down, only to bring it back up. Later on, the brass section join in, further filling the song out. For seven glorious minutes, McFadden and Whitehead take me on a memorable trip down memory lane, with one of the most successful and joyous of the songs from that era. Quite simply the best song on the box set.

Some of the songs on the box set are lovely ballads, none more so than The Delfonics La-La Means I Love You. It’s a dramatic opening that greets the listener as drums play, then another lush arrangement begins. Drums and piano play as the vocal begins, a falsetto vocal sings the lead, with the rest of the band providing backing vocals. Here the lyrics are tender, the vocal soars, harmonies enter. Behind them, the arrangement is much more subtle, suited to the lyrics and vocal. Drums are the most prominent instrument in the arrangement. Like other tracks, the arrangement sweeps, soothingly behind the band. However, what makes the track, is The Delfonics heartfelt, moving, delivery of some beautiful, romantic lyrics.

Another ballad from the box set is Billy Paul’s You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine. It begins with a synth playing, a keyboard accompanying it, and then Billy sings. His voice is both gentle and clear, as he takes care singing the lyrics. Behind him the arrangement sees a mixture of string and a synth play. Backing singers compliment Billy’s voice, doing so really well. A guitar plays, accompanying Billy, and that trademark glockenspiel can be heard in the background. Throughout the song, Billy sings the song brilliantly, mostly gently and restrained, towards the end although his voice soars, he’s always in control of his powerful voice.

My final selection from this box set is The Stylistics’ track Stoned In Love With You, another lovely ballad. This is another of my favorite tracks from this era. It’s a rich, full sound that opens the track, piano and strings combining, before the vocal. When the vocal arrives, it’s another brilliant falsetto vocal, complete with lovely backing vocals. The arrangement is just as good as the vocal, strings, drums, percussion and brass section combining. Here, the lyrics are about love, and have a lovely sentiment. Likewise, the vocal is brilliant, a mixture of restraint and soaring vocals. Stoned In Love With You is one of the most recognizable songs of that era, due to the brilliant falsetto vocal, lovely lyrics and stunning arrangement.

Love Train-The Sound of Philadelphia may be an expensive box set, but includes the best music from that label. It features some of the best known, best loved and most successful songs from that time. It also features some songs that may not be as well known. Together, they provide a snapshot of one of the most influential soul labels of all time. Personally, I think there isn’t a bad song on the box set, and should you decide to buy the box set, you’ll hear some marvelous, melodic soul music. Standout Tracks: Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes Don’t Leave Me This Way, McFadden and Whitehead Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, Billy Paul You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine and The Stylistics  Stoned In Love With You.

LOVE TRAIN-THE SOUND OF PHILADELPHIA.

PHILLY FREEDOM.

Recently there have been several compilations of music from Philadelphia. Two compilations have been released by Backbeats, part of Harmless Records. Both compilations were compiled by Ian Dewhirst. Philly Freedom is the first I’ll look at. There are nineteen tracks on the album, including tracks from Lou Rawls, Frantique, The Jones Girls, The Trammps and The Delfonics. This is a much cheaper compilation, and is really good value album. On the album, are a mixture of well know, and lesser known tracks. I’ll pick my four favorites from the album.

Lou Rawls’ You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine is my first choice from this compilation. It begins brightly, keyboards, drums and bass combining to produce a powerful sound. The bass is really prominent in the mix. When Lou sings his voice is strong and loud, as it soars as he delivers this lovely track. Accompanying him, is  a piano that constantly, compliments his voice by highlighting certain parts of the vocal. Behind him, strings play, the rhythm section combine, backing vocalists sing. Together they complete a stunning arrangement, which together with Lou’s voice produce one of the best track’s on the album.

Another song I remember from growing up was Frantique’s Strut Your Funky Stuff, a track that was hugely popular both on radio and the dancefloor. From the opening bars, it’s apparent this a classic dancefloor hit, one that’s so catchy it’s almost infectious. It’s a female vocal, pounding drums and handclaps that open the track. The tempo is fast, repetitive, the focus on just a few instruments drums, bass, synth and brass section. Backing vocalists accompany the lead vocal, and reverb is used on the vocal. During three and half minutes, it’s impossible to keep still, all you want to do is dance. This isn’t helped by the multitude of hooks that seduce your ears, and tempt you to dance. Quite simply, Strut Your Funky Stuff is a hugely underrated track that’s one of most catchy, danceable tracks on this compilation.

The Trammps’ Where Do We Go From Here? Earlier in this article I said how important the musicians who made up The Trammps were in the Philadelphia Sound. Where Do We Go From Hear? was one of their best know tracks. It begins with that rhythm section that featured on so many hits, the brass section and strings combining. It’s a dramatic, sweeping introduction before Earl Young sings. When he sings, his voice is powerful, soaring as the rest of the band harmonize. Meanwhile, the arrangement has a lovely full sound, drums pounding at the front of the mix, while by contrast, lush strings play. Together with guitars, brass section and backing vocalists, they produce a beautiful melodic, lush sound. Earl’s vocal drives the song along, proving that he’s more than a hugely talented drummer. To me, The Trammps are one of the unsung heroes of the Philly era.

My final selection is Archie Bell and The Drells I could Dance All Night, which begins with a lovely lush introduction, a mixture of strings and brass section, with the rhythm section and guitar playing. Archie Bell’s vocal soon enters, surrounded by the arrangement. He hasn’t such a powerful voice, but still delivers the song really well. The Drells’ provide backing vocals, a piano plays, the brass section punctuate the track, as it flows along. Towards the end, Archie’s voice soars, with The Drells accompanying him, and by now the arrangement is complete, a brilliant musical melange, demonstrating just what made Philly great.

Philly Freedom is a great compilation, full of some of the best tracks that came out of Philadelphia, combined with some hidden gems. For all the album costs, it’s well worth buying if you, like me, love the music of the City of Brotherly Love. Standout Tracks: Lou Rawls’ You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine, Frantique’s Strut Your Funky Stuff, The Trammps’ Where Do We Go From Here? and Archie Bell and The Drells I could Dance All Night.

PHILLY FREEDOM.

PHILLY DISCO.

Philly Disco is another album released on Backbeats, part of Harmless Records. It shares the same compiler as Philly Freedom, Ian Dewhirst. He is someone who knows his subject and has picked twelve great tracks for this album. Some people will know all the tracks, others just a few. However, one thing they have in common is that they’re among some of the best music coming out of Philadelphia during that time. This time, I’ve picked three songs from this album to write about.

My first choice is Dee Dee Sharp Gamble’s Breaking and Entering, a track that begins with a siren sounding, drums pounding and the funkiest of bass playing. After Dee Dee hollers “stop thief,” she sings the vocal, providing a dramatic rendition of the track, punctuated by horns. All the while, that brilliant bass plays, backing singers subtly accompany Dee Dee. By now the tempo is quick, the sound a mixture of funk and soul. Sometimes, there is a similarity with some of the early Chic records. During this epic track, Dee Dee’s vocal veers between passionate and dramatic. Here, the drums sound like the forerunner to early house music. Occasionally, a piano or the brass section adds to the dramatic atmosphere that’s built up. For nearly seven minutes, you hear a great example of funk and soul combining masterfully.

Less intense is Jean Carn’s If You Want To Go Back. It’s a very different, less frantic sounding track, with a much subtler arrangement. Piano, drums and bass begin the track, before strings sweep in, as if signaling Jean’s entrance. Her vocal is quite restraint, softer, quieter. Only once does she unleash her voice, but remaining in control. Around her the arrangement features some lovely, lush strings, accompanied by a piano, drums strings and brass section. Like Jean’s vocal, the arrangement is nicely understated, and not once, does it come near to overpowering her vocal. A lovely track, well sung, with a great arrangement.

My final choice from this album is Billy Paul’s Bring the Family Back. The rhythm section and handclaps, open the track, then Billy sings. At first his voice is quieter, he seems to be giving a much more restrained performance. He seems to be in the groove, providing a lovely piece of smooth soul, that floats along, with strings playing quietly in the background. Backing vocalists accompany him, they’re a perfect foil for his voice. One of the highlights of the track is some brilliant bass playing, which has an understated quality. Overall, the combination Billy’s restrained vocal, handclaps, strings and the rhythm section provide a lovely, subtle, arrangement.

As well as the tracks I’ve mentioned here, Philly Disco features tracks from The O’Jays, M.F.S.B, Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes and a ten minute version of McFadden and The Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stopping Us Now. Like Philly Freedom, and other tracks in this series it’s full of some great music, and really good value. I’ve purchased several of the albums in the Backbeat series, and would recommend them to anyone who is interested in soul music. Considering that this album costs about the same as a latte and cupcake, I know what I’d prefer. After all, coffee lasts a few minutes, music is for life. Standout Tracks: Dee Dee Sharp Gamble Breaking and Entering, Jean Carn’s If You Want To Go Back and Billy Paul Bring the Family Back. 

PHILLY DISCO.

PHILLY REGROOVED-TOM MOULTON REMIXES.

In the past few years, Harmless Records have been producing even more compilations than usual. By now, they’ve released over one-hundred compilation albums. In 2010 they released an album of Tom Moulton remixes of music on the Philly Groove label, entitled Philly Regrooved-Tom Moulton Remixes. Moulton was a legend in music, and was responsible for some of the earliest remixes. He could take a three minute track, and turn it into eight minutes of magical disco music. Almost single-handedly, Tom Moulton created ways to remix tracks long before technology was around. This was time-consuming, laborious work, but Tom is one-part obsessive, one-part perfectionist, and slowly and carefully, created some of the earliest, most successful disco tracks. So, back in 2010, Harmless released the first of two volumes of Tom Moulton Remixes. I’ll pick my two favorites from each album, and tell you, just what makes them so good. 

My first choice is the Philly Groove Orchestra (featuring First Choice) and Let Us Entertain You. It has a stuttering introduction, a mixture of cymbals and a funky bass and then an orchestra playing. This contains a mixture of strings and brass section, with a guitar playing. The arrangement sweeps lushly along, sometimes the bass kicking in, funkiness personified, trumpets punctuating the sound. Later a saxophone blows, then eventually backing singers join the arrangement, and after the trumpets sounds her arrival the lead vocalist sings.  Towards the end, a breakdown occurs, and it become something of a soul and funk workout. Thankfully, this works, and doesn’t spoil the track. Quite simply, it’s a lovely laid back, lush, joyous sound, with just a pinch of funk. Tom Moulton has taken the original track and transformed it, making it much better than the original. This is a difficult thing to do, often a remixer fails to do this, and spoils even the original track. Not Tom Moulton though.

My other choice from this album is Finishing Touch’s Second Best (Is Never Enough). Whereas the previous track was pretty laid back, this has a much more dramatic sound. Strings sweep in, opening the track, with drums punctuating the sound. The vocal joins in, accompanied by backing vocalists. Quickly, the sound takes a dramatic turn, the tempo quickening, bass, strings and drums combining. Drums play a large part in the track, constantly punctuating the track, highlighting parts of the vocal, sometimes filling gaps in the vocal. By now, a guitar chimes, the bass is more prominent. Throughout the track, the vocal is strong and dramatic, with backing vocalists complimenting the vocal. When the vocal drops out, strings and guitar play a bigger part, each getting a chance to shine. Occasionally, backing vocals interject. Towards the end, the vocal rejoins, with the backing vocals accompanying it. During the five minutes of the track, it’s a beautiful mixture of strings and vocals, which contribute most towards making this such a great sounding track.

Philly Regrooved-Tom Moulton Remixes features a dozen great tracks from the Philly Groove label. Unlike the previous three albums, you may not know as many of the tracks, but they’re great tracks, well worth exploring. When you listen to Tom Moulton’s remixes, you’ll find it hard to believe he created these tracks way before technology, and to do so, had to create his own ways of making such a remix possible. He lead the way for many others to follow, and even with the introduction of technology, it would be hard to produce such consistently good remixes. I would thoroughly recommend this album, as it’ll let you hear music from a label you’ve maybe not heard of before, and that music is really good. Standout Tracks: Philly Groove Orchestra (featuring First Choice) Let Us Entertain You and Finishing Touch Second Best (Is Never Enough).

PHILLY REGROOVED-TOM MOULTON REMIXES.

Philly Re-Grooved - The Tom Moulton Philly Groove Remixes

PHILLY REGROOVED 2-TOM MOULTON REMIXES.

Earlier this year, Harmless Records brought out the second volume of Tom Moulton’s remixes of music from the Philly Groove label, entitled Philly Regrooved 2-Tom Moulton Remixes. This time the albums consisted of another eleven tracks from artists including Ultra High Frequency, First Choice, Terry Collins and The Quickest Way. Again, I’ll choose two of my favorite tracks from this album, and tell you what makes them so special.

My first choice is Ultra High Frequence’s Incompatible, a track that begins with guitar, drums, bass and strings. At first, the track begins slowly, but quickly bursts into life with a crescendo of drums. When the track opens out, the tempo increases, and the strings are interrupted by the brass section as the song sweeps smoothly along. After a long instrumental section the vocal begins. A male vocalist sings, accompanied by backing vocalists. By now, the track is a lovely bright slice of Philly soul, complete with strings, brass section and wonderful vocals. Drums punctuate the track, and a piano and brass section play. All inject further life into the track. A funky bass plays, getting into the act. For the remainder of the track, it’s a masterful mixture of vibrant vocals, and a joyous arrangement, full of life and packed full of even more hooks and melodies. Incompatible has absolutely everything you’d expect from in Philly track from, Philly, and so much more. It’s a six minute celebration of what made the Philly sound great.

The other track I’ve chosen is The Quickest Way’s Who Am I, a bright sounding track beginning with drums, strings and brass section. Like the previous track, drums punctuate the introduction. Where it differs, is when a guitar plays a solo, as does a piano. After a lengthy instrumental passage, the vocal appears. When he sings, his voice isn’t the strongest, but it’s got a good voice, melodic and soulful. It’s augmented by backing vocalists, who are accompanied by a piano solo and strings. Similarly to the previous track, this also sweeps along, the arrangement just as lush and sweet. Midway through the track there’s a breakdown, and drums play a solo, a guitar and keyboard enter, replacing the vocal. Now the track becomes something of a jazz funk track, and individual musicians get the opportunity to shine before the vocal reappears. When it does, it sounds slightly stronger. Behind the vocal a lovely arrangement has emerged a lovely mixture of soul, funk and jazz. Overall, it’s a track with a feelgood factor, one that’s uplifting and sweeps you along on a tide of some beautiful, catchy and melodic music.

Like the first volume of this series, the album contains another eleven examples of Tom Moulton’s skill as a remixer. On the album are songs that many people won’t have heard of, and that’s a huge shame because there are some great tracks on the album. All I can say, is that if you’re interested in either soul music, especially the music that emerged from Philly during the seventies, this is a must have. If you’re interested in the history of dance music, this album will appeal to you, as it’ll allow you to hear some of the earliest remixes, by one of the most important and influential individuals in the history of dance music. I’d certainly recommend this album to anyone, regardless of whether they’re a fan of soul or dance music, because it features some great music. Standout Tracks: Ultra High Frequence Incompatible and The Quickest Way Who Am I.

PHILLY REGROOVED 2-TOM MOULTON REMIXES.

I’ve hugely enjoyed writing this article, it was both, a trip down memory lane, listening to music I grew up listening to and loving, and a great opportunity to listen to some of my favorite music. It was difficult narrowing this article down to just five albums. There were several others I could’ve included, but thought it best just to focus on the music from two labels Philadelphia International and Philadelphia Groove. The first three albums concentrated on the music from the Philadelphia International label, the last two music from the Philadelphia Groove label. What they’ve got in common, is that they both produced some brilliant music. Personally, my favorite of the two labels is Philadelphia International. After all, they brought us The O’Jays, The Stylistic, Billy Paul, Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, McFadden and Whitehead and The Jones Girls. For over a decade, these artists produced some of the best soul music of the past thirty or forty years. That music is still loved by many people, and still sounds as good today, as the day it was recorded. Similarly, Philadelphia Groove gave us some wonderful music, and that too has a timeless quality, as all good music has. 

Should you want to hear some of the music you’ve read about in this article, there are albums to suit all price range. If you buy any of three albums featuring music from the Philadelphia International label, you’ll be hearing some of the greatest soul music ever. Obviously the Love Train-The Sound of Philadelphia is the most expensive, but provides most of the brilliant music that great label recorded. However, the other two albums Philly Disco and Philly Freedom are good value, and  a good way to hear some of that music for very little money. Philly Regrooved-Tom Moulton Remixes and Philly Regrooved 2-Tom Moulton Remixes are both good value albums, albeit slightly more expensive than Philly Disco and Philly Freedom, but allow you to hear some great music on the Philadelphia Groove label. Regardless of which albums you buy, enjoy them, and I’m sure they won’t be the last albums you buy featuring the Philadelphia Sound.

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