Various Artists: Total Soul Classics

The O'Jays
Back Stabbers

Back in the day when I first started listening to music, there was something about the labels on vinyl singles and albums that intrigued me. As I began to obtain more knowledge about music, I was able to associate a specific geographic area and sound with those labels. Philadelphia International, with their familiar yellowish green label and red logo, was one of the companies with the most distinctive sounds: heavily orchestrated, yet danceable songs, many with a socially conscious message. Songwriter/producers (and now Rock & Roll Hall of Famers) Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created a sound that stood as the bridge between Motown (the label they challenged for R&B supremacy in the Seventies) and disco. Black music in the ’70s (and by extension, music in general) would have been a lot different without Gamble and Huff around. To this day, Philly’s vibrant soul music scene, which includes current favorites like Jill Scott and the Roots, owes much to this legendary musical duo.

More than 30 years after first seeing the light of day, several Philadelphia International classics are being released as part of Legacy Music’s “Total Soul Classics” series. These six albums — The O’Jays’ Back Stabbers, Billy Paul’s 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ Wake Up Everybody, Teddy Pendergrass’ self-titled solo debut, its follow-up Life Is a Song Worth Singing, and Huff’s own all-star-featuring album Here to Create Music have been remastered and repackaged, with new liner notes and bonus tracks. With this deluxe treatment, it’s the perfect opportunity for the folks who were there originally to revisit some great music. It’s also an opportunity for their kids and grandkids to listen to a musical revolution as it was taking place.

While there’s much to be said for the instrumental prowess of Philadelphia International’s house band, MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother), the real stars of this show were the songwriters and the singers. Gamble & Huff went from explicitly political songs — check out the O’Jays’ James Brown-esque “When the World’s at Peace” or Paul’s militant “Am I Black Enough for You” and chilling incarceration tale “I’m Just a Prisoner” — to sumptuous bedroom ballads like Pendergrass’s #1 smash “Close the Door” in a heartbeat. At the same time they’d throw in the occasional up-with-people sentiment, like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody”, which features Pendergrass making use of his upbringing as a child preacher with some fiery testifyin‘ near the song‘s close. Not one song here is sung with anything less than complete passion. Gamble & Huff certainly knew how to pick their singers. The vocal style of Paul, best known for the classic cheating ballad “Me & Mrs. Jones”, was a little more on the quirky side, as evidenced by his covers of songs like Carole King’s “It’s Too Late”. Pendergrass, who also did most of the vocal heavy lifting for the Blue Notes, and the O’Jays’ Eddie LeVert’s voices were filled with gospel fervor, a quality that drove their points home, whether they were talking about back stabbers or making sweet love.

It’s interesting to hear the evolution of their sound over the course of the decade-long period that these albums come from. While the oldest of the albums, Back Stabbers, is a more hard-edged funk album, the orchestration got more prominent over time and the music got less explicitly political, leading up to the Pendergrass solo albums, which still had an edge, thanks to his voice, but were more mellow and romantic. Not only did Philly International help lead the way for explicitly socially conscious R&B music, they were also one of the prime architects of the “quiet storm” movement.

Perhaps the most interesting of the six albums is Leon Huff’s one and only solo effort, Here to Create Music, released in 1980. It‘s also the album that has been out-of-print the longest. In similar fashion to Quincy Jones’ albums of the period, Huff doesn’t get behind the mic, instead sticking behind the piano. However, he does enlist a who’s who of Philly International superstars for a couple of songs, including the aptly titled “Your Body Won’t Move, If You Can’t Feel the Groove”. And Stevie Wonder contributes his signature harmonica to the instrumentally dense (and quite beautiful) “No Greater Love”. Huff really lets his diversity shine on this album, with songs that touch on just about every genre in existence, including classical, jazz and Latin.

These albums are just a sample of the groundbreaking music that came from the Philadelphia International studios in the Seventies. Of course, these were not the only vocalists with whom Gamble & Huff worked. The duo sat behind the boards for classic albums by Patti LaBelle, Phyllis Hyman and the Jacksons, among others. However, these six albums represent some of the best of ’70s soul, a turning point in the evolution of black music. It’s a pleasure to welcome these albums in deluxe fashion — any fan of great soul music will certainly echo my sentiments.

RATING 9 / 10