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Soul Is the Message

Everybody knows about Motown. Many know about Stax. But, as far as the general public or even music enthusiasts go, the story of Philly Soul is known by relatively few. Of course, a clutch of Philly Soul songs continue to be loved and recognized by most everyone who’s ever listened to the radio or watched a movie. “Love Train”, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, and “I’ll Be Around” are indeed classics. But they’re just the top of the huge stack of groundbreaking, timeless Philly Soul records. If Motown was the granddaddy of modern Black music, and Stax was its scruffy, shady-yet-magnetic uncle, Philly Soul was the prim-and-proper little sister with a mean streak beneath the makeup.


Unlike Motown and Stax, Philly Soul was not represented by a single record label. It was, however, defined by a small group of men with a surplus of talent and an entrepreneurial spirit. By 1971, Motown had already peaked. Stax, though flush with the success of Isaac Hayes and Shaft, was just a few years from bankruptcy. When they founded Philadelphia International Records that year, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were already seasoned songwriters/arrangers/producers with hits to their names. However, along with freelance cohort Thom Bell, the music they created with their various groups and vocalists was some of the most influential, not to mention well-realized, of the modern era. Want evidence? For starters, the work of Gamble, Huff, and Bell has been covered or sampled by everyone from Elvis Presley to OutKast and Kanye West, from disco diva Thelma Houston to R&B crooner Brian McKnight, from agit-folkster Billy Bragg to synth-poppers Erasure. If universality is a sign of great pop, Philadelphia International produced some of the best. Ever.


cover art

Various Artists

Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia

(Legacy; US: 21 Oct 2008; UK: 27 Oct 2008)

That music is at the center of the long-overdue Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia. A four-disc, 71-track set, it features no fewer that 26 #1 R&B hits and 27 Top Ten pop hits. Though it spans from Gamble, Huff, and Bell’s early careers to Philadelphia International’s distribution deal with EMI in 1984, its main focus is on the halcyon years 1971-1976. And the collection, overseen by Gamble and Huff themselves, does it right. Everything’s chronological, from start to finish. No incongruous, “themed” discs. No superfluous demos and live tracks. Just the hits, and there were plenty of them. Philadelphia International’s two premier acts, the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, are as well-represented as one might expect, with over a quarter of the 71 tracks. With few exceptions, Love Train is a de facto greatest hits for both. If you don’t already have the O’Jays and Blue Notes stuff, you’re already behind the ball. But here’s your chance to make things right, because, aside from the obvious classics, the best thing about Love Train is all the relatively underappreciated, sometimes hidden, gems.


Like many soul artists of the time, Philadelphia International’s roster were not “album acts”, the O’Jays being the exception. What you’re getting is as complete a picture of the Philly Soul sound as anyone could hope for. And it’s remarkable how, once it was established, that sound remained consistent and unmistakable for over 15 years. Like Motown and Stax, Philadelphia International had its own house band, in this case MFSB, for Mother Father Sister Brother. Anchored by the innovative, hi-hat-heavy drumming of Earl Young and the increasingly funky basslines of Norman Harris, MFSB provide the rock-steady groove on the uptempo numbers and the bedroom atmosphere on the ballads.

On top of this bedrock Gamble, Huff, and Bell would lay their trademark arrangements. The Philly sound was slick, pristine, and effortless, yet warm and never mechanical. The complex vocal harmonies were heavily influenced by doo-wop, and the ambitious brass and string charts, performed by members of the Philadelphia Symphony, were swathed in reverb.


Even from their pre-Philadelphia International hits with the Delfonics, the sound was intact. It’s there on the swaying, floaty “La La Means I Love You”, the soaring chorus of “Ready or Not Here I Come”, and the rich harmonies of “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)”, the first genuine Philly Soul classic. Gamble, Huff, and Bell’s songs are so intricate yet so natural they sound like they’re made of diamonds, and often take on a downright ethereal quality. By 1972 the funky but no less smooth mid-to uptempo grooves begin to flow with the O’Jays’ immortal “Back Stabbers” and Johnny Williams’ “Slow Motion”.  Melvin & Blue Notes’ “Miss You” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” are also here. And that’s just Disc One.


Disc Two finds Philadelphia International’s momentum growing into a confident, well-honed, redoubtable hitmaking juggernaut. As far as the O’Jays, “Love Train” still hasn’t lost its melancholy groove or heartfelt optimism, and “For the Love of Money” still boasts the Meanest Bassline Recorded. Their “Time to Get Down” Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost” begin to clear soul’s eventual path to modern dance music. Crucial to this development was the subtle yet effective employment of Latin percussion instruments. The Intruders’ charming “I’ll Always Love My Mama” and William DeVaughn’s sublimely smooth “Be Thankful For What You’ve Got”, later covered to great effect by Massive Attack, are among the many sleepers you’ll be glad you discovered.


And so it continues into the mid-‘70s. The ballads, as ever, sparkle and seduce. Philly Soul isn’t known for its girl groups, but regulars the Three Degrees deliver one of Love Train‘s defining tracks. The swooning strings, steady congas, and ecstatic cooing all combine to serve a gorgeous melody that seems to freeze time. Philly Soul’s influence on pop, hip-hop, and R&B is readily acknowledged, but here you sense it going far beyond that. It’s hard to imagine pop neo-classicists like Saint Etienne and Camera Obscura existing without a song and arrangement like “When Will I See You Again” to inspire them.  Likewise, you can hear more than a little of the “Manchester sound” of Happy Mondays, the Charlatans, and Doves in dance numbers like MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” and People’s Choice’s “Do It Any Way You Wanna”. The O’Jays’ “Give the People What They Want” is about as heavy on the funk as Philly or anyone else got, while Melvin & the Blue Notes offer up some prime pre-disco with “Wake Up Everybody” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. The latter was a hit for Thelma Houston on, ironically enough, Motown, as well as for the Communards in the ‘80s.


Some critics bump Philly Soul down a notch from Motown and Stax, claiming its well-polished sound was also saccharine and dispassionate. It’s true that, as the ‘70s turn into the ‘80s on Disc Four, the disco loses substance while the ballads gain even more studio sheen. But that doesn’t stop the Manhattans’ “Kiss and Say Goodbye” from being top-notch bedroom music, complete with Isaac Hayes/Barry White-style monologue. Nor does it prevent McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” from being a floor-stomper that’s almost on par with Chic’s “Good Times”. Even Denice Williams’ “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle”, from 1982, provides one last breath of that still-fresh, Doo Wop-inspired sound. Gamble, Huff, Bell, and their stable of musicians, arrangers, and engineers can’t be blamed for disco and “urban contemporary” blandness any more than Miles Davis’ pioneering electric work can be blamed for smooth jazz. They’re just unfortunate but inevitable side-effects.


Legacy has done a good job of licensing key tracks from acts that did not record for Philadelphia International but were a part of the Philly sound. Chief among those are Bell-produced acts the Spinners, with the transcendent “I’ll Be Around” among a handful of their hits here, and the Stylistics. Also included are tracks from already-established legends who came to Philly for a new lease on musical life. Among these are the title track to Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis follow-up, A Brand New Me, Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You”, and Lou Rawls’ disco-era smash “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”.


The accompanying 64-page booklet features essays and interviews from critics, historians, and some of the principals of the time. A little too much effort is made to paint Philadelphia International as a force of social commentary. It’s true that “For the Love of Money” and Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody” reveal Gamble and Huff’s social consciousness. But their most overtly political statement, the O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy”, is omitted, and “Love Is the Message” best sums up the Philadelphia International ethos. And really, as presented by this music, that’s as deep and powerful a message as any.


Sadly, the remastering here tries to apply the 21st Century technique of cranking the levels and squashing out the dynamic range of the music, giving the sound of Love Train an ill-fitting harsh edge. But even that can’t keep the warmth and spirit of this music down.


You could argue that, as Philadelphia International faded in the 1980s and Gamble and Huff eventually retired later that decade, the original golden age of soul music died. But what an age it was, and a big piece of it can be found in this indispensable collection.


Rating:

John Bergstrom has been writing various reviews and features for PopMatters since 2004. He has been a music fanatic at least since he and a couple friends put together The Rock Group Dictionary in third grade (although he now admits that giving Pat Benatar the title of "first good female rocker" was probably a mistake). He has done freelance writing for Trouser Pressonline, Milwaukee's Shepherd Express, and the late Milk magazine and website. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and two kids, both of whom are very good dancers.


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