It is hard not to listen to this, and other products of the golden age of Philadelphia International Records, without succumbing to nostalgia. I am not talking about wistful longings for some departed innocence and youth, you understand, but a tearful regret for the loss of the lush arrangements and the full orchestral backing that enriched even the flimsiest song. As the years go by the work of MFSB, and of the musical directors such as Vince Montana, Norman Harris and Gamble and Huff themselves, seems more impressive than ever, both for the overall sound and the high level of individual musicianship. As the O’Jays were a flagship band for the company, they got the absolute best. Popular music has rarely had such care and attention lavished upon it.
There was nothing new about plush arrangements and urban music. Chess, Atlantic and Motown had pioneered orchestral rhythm and blues in the previous decade but Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff encouraged the players to act like an enormous jazz group with an identity so strong that “backing” becomes the wrong word. Norman Whitfield at Motown was the model but there were major modifications. Starting with the Temptations’ post-1967 experiments, the Philly team encouraged highly disciplined, yet intricate session work to thrive and it is no exaggeration to say that this changed the feel of black music completely. Have there been better arrangements? Is there a less selfish guitarist than Bobby Eli? Was there a more influential contribution to seventies music than Earl Young’s hi-hat and cymbal work? Philly succeeded Motown, but the new rulers had a few tricks of their own.
The Philly sound took a wealth of local vocal talent, orchestrated the funk style then coming into play and mixed it with gospel, doo-wop and soul. The whole thing had a classical precision and a jazz sensibility. Almost as a by-product it produced disco. For five years it also proved infallible in turning out hit after hit more than justifying the Harvard Business School report that advised CBS to look to the African-American market. CBS chose Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who had a good track record as songwriters and local entrepreneurs. Thus adequately funded, the two carved themselves a unique slice of soul history.
The O’Jays are central to that story. Veterans of the R&B scene, they had been turning out mostly local hits for various Philly labels often under Gamble and Huff’s guidance. When the big opportunity came they were in the thick of things. From ’72 to ’75, Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell provided earnest, rich vocal performances on tunes such as “Backstabbers”, “Love Train”, “For the Love of Money”, “Put Your Hands Together”, “Living for the Weekend” and “I Love Music”. The result was a soundtrack for an era and a summary of an ethos of social justice and African-American success. Mixing social consciousness and feel good party anthems, each song was carefully crafted with roots and crossover appeal. Strong melodies, catchy hooks and full-blooded soul vocals appealed equally to black and white audiences. Philadelphia International can almost be regarded as the last great Civil Rights victory.
This greatest hits album concentrates on those Midas touch years. The familiar hits still sound wonderful and the other tracks are in no way inferior. “Backstabbers” still has real bite and the arrangement has lost none of its invention. “Love Train” sounds naive (as it always did) but is as catchy as ever despite its school disco status. The much sampled “For the Love of Money” is seven minutes of funky commitment, with its anti-materialism most refreshing in this age of endless celebration of the dollar bill. “Give the People Want They Want” reminds us that such a phrase once meant Freedom and Justice and not the latest consumer product. The full version of “Living for the Weekend” reveals it to be a great working-class cry from the heart in three separate movements — soul, early disco and jazz — masterful.
The lovely swayer, “Time To Get Down”, the deep “You Got Your Hooks in Me” and the gentle “Sunshine” show off group vocal, ballad and doo-wop styles to telling effect. Yet, excellent as the singing consistently is,thoughtful as some of the lyrics are, it is the music that grabs you time and time again. A piano here, a guitar lick there, Anthony Jackson’s popping bass or an uncredited horn — these touches are what linger in the mind. As dance music with finesse and funk — nothing has since come close. There is not a track out of the eighteen on show that does not have some little moment of pure magic provided by one or the other of the fifty or so musicians that made up MFSB.
The Philly Sound was derided by many, Too saccharine, too processed and packaged, the message shallow and sentimental. There is, I will reluctantly grant, something in those criticisms. But not much. The level of delivery transcended any banality in lyric or tone. This was music for a mass audience, unashamedly commercial. But it treated that audience with respect and gave it material it loved, played and presented with the utmost vigour and professionalism. It is rather like the best of Hollywood in its own Golden Age — well-made popular entertainment, utilising the finest performers and technicians and slipping the odd social message in between the fun. It could not last and it was the greed of the rock and pop stars, who saturated the Philly studios in the late seventies trying to mine some of that magic, who exhausted the seam. Just how rich that seam was can be sampled on this “Ultimate” collection. This selection is a tribute to a seminal mainstream vocal group but it is a reminder of one of the genuinely great African-American labels and to everyone involved with it.