Thom Bell’s biggest coup as a producer, songwriter, and arranger was to give the already-sumptuous vocals of the Delfonics the most stunning backdrop any R&B harmonizers would ever need. Post-psychedelic touches (like the sitars in ornate breakup-to-make-up symphony “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)”) mingle with Bell’s ear for turning airy strings-and-horns smoothness to make for a particularly intense sort of beauty. Raw soul partisans called it “easy listening,” but nowadays it’s only easy to be floored by the sheer craft of it.
Philly Soul 1970-1982
Every major American city has a moment or two where it gets to lay claim on American popular culture when New York and Los Angeles are caught unawares. Detroit and Memphis in the ’60s, Minneapolis and Miami in the ’80s, Seattle in the early ’90s, Atlanta for the past couple decades — all of them have contributed the sorts of ideas, cultures, and settings that you can’t get from the two big coastal centers. And few metropolitan cultural centers echoed across a decade like Philadelphia did during the long Seventies. This was the stomping grounds of Mike Schmidt and Dr. J and Smokin’ Joe Frazier and the Broad Street Bullies edition of the Flyers, the Bicentennial city that birthed the era’s ultimate feel-good sports hero in Rocky Balboa — and, most enduringly, the sound of Philadelphia soul, a phenomenon that would permanently define an era and a style even more than it defined its origin city.
The roots of Philly soul run deep, but 1968 is a good place to pinpoint the hey maybe we’ve got something here moment. That was the year Joseph Tarsia opened the doors of Sigma Sound Studios, the state-of-the-art facility that boasted one of the earliest 24-track recorders in the country, and ushered in the possibility for the regional soul scene to become the epicenter of a newly upscale, hi-fidelity take on R&B. That was also the year Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, already crossover hitmakers with the Soul Survivors’ 1967 surprise smash “Expressway to Your Heart,” notched their first R&B #1 as both songwriters and producers with the Intruders’ “Cowboys to Girls.” With the September ’67 shutdown of legendary regional label Cameo-Parkway, other songwriter/producers who’d made their first strides there would find bigger things sooner or later — the former in the case of Thom Bell, who helped mastermind the ’68 Delfonics hit “La-La (Means I Love You)”; the latter in Bunny Sigler, a do-it-all singer/songwriter/producer/arranger who Gamble and Huff would add to their growing ranks by the turn of the ’70s.
It’s that turn of the ’70s, in fact, that Philly soul started to hit its stride — a long, continent-spanning stride that would put its own trademark on the charts, the dancefloor, then the globe. (After all, the early signature tune of MFSB — the tirelessly omnipresent session band of the scene — was titled "The Sound of Philadelphia,” but its hook called out to “people all over the world,” a reiteration of the O’Jays’ smash-hit chorus to “Love Train”.) To hear the sound of Philadelphia in 1970 is to hear a strange new notion of sweet-stringed R&B mutate easy listening into intimate listening. And then, to hear it in 1973 — as a colossal edifice of symphonic sweep, fused to a better-than-metronomic, subwoofer-caressing sense of rhythm and groove, and best paired with singers who held absolutely nothing back — was to hear the sound of so much more that followed, perfecting the possibilities of disco so thoroughly that Giorgio Moroder had to practically invent synthpop just to transcend it. This music was often derided at the time as overly slick or even bourgie, but it also feels like the last great movement of purely analog R&B — macroscopic as it was — before the advent of synths and sequencers opened another door to a far different world.
While Thom Bell’s work with the Delfonics ushered his sound into the 1970s, the debut he produced for the balladeers in the Stylistics proved that sound could carry even further into one of the most characteristic styles of the decade. The proven formula of combining glittering orchestral sweetness with lover-man falsetto — brilliantly provided by Russell Tompkins, Jr., whose voice was as delicate and captivating as a spiderweb — made them beloved sentimentalist soulsters that everyone from the disco-era Bee Gees to peak Ghostface Killah took to heart.
The two big hits on the O’Jays first outing for Gamble/Huff powerhouse Philadelphia International Records are as thematically disparate as anything — the “it’s not paranoid if they’re really out to get you” tension of the god-tier title cut (that piano intro alone!, and the closing salvo of soul-unites-the-planet anthem “Love Train,” which respectively nail early-decade, pre-Watergate “smiling faces” anxiety and anticipates (or invents) late ’70s discomania. The rest of it, from the pristine bowtie-funk of “When the World’s At Peace” to the floating-in-space regret ballad “Who Am I,” sound like the top ten hit singles they inexplicably weren’t but should’ve been.
They were from Detroit — they even had to be called the Detroit Spinners in the UK thanks to a pre-existing band of the same name — but it turned out that the Philly sound suited them even better than Motown ever did. The MFSB-backed Thom Bell co-write “I’ll Be Around” became their first and biggest hit of their Atlantic years — punchy drums, blankets of low-end, and strings that sounded nearly as soaring as Bobbie Smith’s feat of pulling off the near-oxymoron of a confident plea. And the cuts with Philippé Wynne on lead, especially the hip-rocking slinkiness of “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” sound like the ’60s vision of Berry Gordy given a metalflake sheen.
If ’70s R&B had a holy trinity of session bands, Philadelphia International’s MFSB would be right there next to Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records crew and Stax’s Bar-Kays/Isaac Hayes Movement ensemble — and only one of these groups could boast literally writing the theme song to the most definitive R&B showcase in TV history. “Soul Train” theme “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” made MFSB omnipresent, while “Love Is the Message” became an instant early-disco classic that early hip-hop got durable mileage out of, too. The jazzy flourishes of dance gem “Touch Me in the Morning” and vibe-sprinkled slow number “My One and Only Love” make this one a good not-just-for-the-hits pickup.
What “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” was to the 1960s, “When Will I See You Again” was to the ’70s — girl-group harmonies so laden with left-hanging yearning it felt like it could break your radio apart if the arrangement wasn’t so immaculate. But that was just one facet of Philadelphia’s most successful female vocal ensemble — that yearning took on a slow-boil epic turn on “If and When,” while there’s also the scolding defiance of cradle-robber shakeoff “Dirty Ol’ Man” and the motivational uplift of get-it-together liberation anthem “Year of Decision."
You’ve just hit #1 on both the pop and R&B charts with the velvet-smooth infidelity tale “Me And Mrs. Jones,” its accompanying album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul made your transition from niche vocal jazz performer to soul superstar, and you’ve proven yourself one of the greatest interpreters of the Gamble/Huff catalogue. What’s next? Why not a record filled with contemplative conceptual songs about religion and spirituality that sounds like the single most psychedelic thing PIR would ever put out? The Side 1 two-fer of revelation-euphoria “I See the Light” and the title cut’s pantheistic ruminations would be worth the price alone, even if the flip didn’t feature the top-notch disco-soul of “The Whole Town’s Talking” and the closing gospel-tinged stunner “Peace, Holy Peace."
From their first single in 1972 all the way through the early ’80s, few Philly soul acts were as primed for the rise of disco as First Choice, whose albums played up the kick-heavy 4/4 groove and the melodiously skilled yet emotionally unrestrained group female vocals that would remain hallmarks of the genre throughout the decade. But despite being known for a fantastic string of cult-fave singles that held high favor in the crates of Larry Levan and Todd Terry, they’re also an excellent album band, with this Norman Harris-helmed ’74 effort being their best: imagine kicking off with an all-timer of a “watch out for this cad” title cut and then keeping that dancefloor fire aflame nearly the whole time — and even the ballads (“You’ve Been Doing Wrong For So Long”; “All I Need Is Time”) leave burns, too.
If second-LP breakthrough Abandoned Luncheonette first put Hall & Oates on the map as potential future stars, their third was a wildly eccentric excursion into identity-searching freeform territory, where prog, funk, and piano ballads gave a thousand-yard stare to their blue-eyed soul. Fellow Philly fanatic Todd Rundgren brought members of his group Utopia in to push Daryl and John’s nuanced chops into turf that attempted to reunite the increasingly AOR-splintered worlds of hard rock and smooth soul — especially the fame-gazes-back shuffle of “Is It A Star,” the malaise-cope of “70’s Scenario,” and the band-gig nightmare travelogue “Screaming Through December.” It’s an anomaly, but it also sounds like the Steely Dan / Stevie Wonder / David Bowie melange you never knew you wanted.
Something had grown abundantly clear to soul fans by the mid-1970s: it was Harold Melvin’s name on the album’s cover, but it was Teddy Pendergrass’s voice that was making them fly off the shelves. A singer that could melt hearts in ballads and get them palpitating on the dancefloor, Teddy was one of the most intensely powerful voices in R&B history, and this gem of disco-soul is staggering on all counts, with “Where Are All My Friends” and “Bad Luck” alone belong at the top of the pantheon of agonized laments you can groove to and the Sharon Paige duet “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” steaming up the vocal booth something fierce.
It’s still considered something of a controversial record, a necessary bridge between the glam era and Station to Station, and yet Bowie’s all-in on Sigma Sound Studios-dusted “plastic soul” is as beautiful as anomalies get. Bowie’s tinkering with the Philly sound goes beyond casual co-optation into something more alien, and all the better for it: thrillingly reflecting on a country he’s only visiting on the title cut, then coming to some staggering self-remodeling epiphanies on the panopticon-wary funk jam “Fame,” vulnerable yet life-affirming “Win,” and breathless coke-euphoria “Fascination."
MFSB might have been the session-player backbone of the Philly sound, but their members would regularly find themselves at the center of their own thing — case in point, the band that went on to have a smash with “Disco Inferno,” who counted the pivotal Ronnie Baker/Norman Harris/Earl Young braintrust as important components in their songwriting, arrangement, production, and performing ranks. This self-titled debut boasts emblematic close-harmony vocals and fiery leads using rich orchestration and snap-tite rhythms to the benefit of deep-cut dance classics like “Trusting Heart,” “Love Epidemic,” and especially the Paradise Garage finale “Where Do We Go From Here.” As undistilled and pure as Philly soul and disco get without the names Bell, Gamble or Huff anywhere in the credits.
Whether or not his album title and its namesake cut were a tongue-in-cheek riposte to David Bowie taking up residence at Sigma Sound Studios the year before, longtime knob-tweaking synth wizard Dexter Wansel — still in his mid-twenties — leaped on the first opportunity he was given to turn his own studio engineering chops for MFSB and Billy Paul into a showcase for the more experimental side of Philly soul. Fusion-fueled soloing and jazz-funk inflections made this a treasure trove of spacey jams: the frenetic big-band futurism of “A Prophet Named K.G.,” planetarium smoke-out “Theme From the Planets,” and halogen noir of “Rings Of Saturn” beckon a tomorrow that the bicentennial wasn’t quite ready for — but a successive generation of hip-hop sample-spotters made it a must-have even if you didn’t plan on feeding it into an MPC.
No longer having to share the already-bright spotlight with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, TP spent his late ’70s/early ’80s stretch of R&B superstardom putting himself all out there to the utmost as if he knew in advance it would eventually be taken away from him. The entirety of his ’77-to-’81 streak of five platinum albums is worth immersing yourself in, but his second solo record and first R&B #1 LP will, to paraphrase Eddie Murphy, scare you into loving it — he’s so intensely authoritative a presence on yougotyougotyougotwhatINEED thunderstorm “Only You” and a conflagration of tenderness on “Close The Door” that your whole libido will need to be completely recalibrated just by being in its proximity.
If you want to really get the scope of what the Philadelphia sound was capable of, don’t just stick to the albums — and when you get to the singles, don’t just limit yourself to the 7-inches, because the finest qualities of the Philly groove most often manifested through deep immersion and deft remixing. Tom Moulton became one of disco’s great architects in part through his work with PIR’s cream of the crop, taking the components of already-great music and tailoring them for maximum dancefloor impact, so much so that it practically necessitated the invention of the 12-inch single to accommodate the extended-length reworks at high fidelity. This 2012 box set is rich with best-possible-version hits, deep cuts, and obscurities ranging from the O’Jays’ 1972 classic “Back Stabbers” to the Jones Girls’ 1982 curio “Nights Over Egypt,” each and every one of them glorious to the last.