25 Philadelphia (or Philly Inspired) Soul Classics from the 1970s
What was the most important and influential U.S. city in terms of 1970’s music? A strong argument could be made for Philadelphia. Producers Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell created a silky soul sound that resulted in a string of hit records early in the decade and the disco beat was popularized by MFSB drummer Earl Young. Listed below are 18 tracks that were Philly creations, then several more inspired by the same sound and production techniques. Format includes song title, artist, songwriters, and peak position on the pop charts. If inspired, feel free to slow dance or boogie with your 1970’s prom sweetie to the following (excerpted from my new book “1000 Essential Songs from The 1970s” also known as “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and available here)
- Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now, McFadden & Whitehead (Jerry Cohen, Gene McFadden, John Whitehead) (#13): McFadden and Whitehead had written hits for the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, but were frustrated that Philadelphia International producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff preferred to employ the duo as songwriters instead of performers. “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” is often viewed as positive affirmation toward the African-American community, however, it was actually a statement of excitement by the duo regarding their opportunity to record their own material. Their anthem proved to be more enjoyable than prophetic; the duo recorded two more albums in the 1980s, but never returned to the pop charts.
- Back Stabbers, The O’Jays (Leon Huff, Gene McFadden, John Whitehead) (#3): The O’Jays started recording in 1960 and while they had a few hits on the on the R&B charts, after a dozen years in the business they had no sustained success. The vocal trio were not fans of “Back Stabbers” or the vocal arrangement provided by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but the lush MFSB instrumentation and the lyrical warning gave the band their first major hit. Leon Huff on the production, “Our dream was to play so many counter-melodies that came with those songs, and the orchestra was able to put that together. Plus, stereo radio had just come around, and you had a lot of space to fill up. Stereo was much more soothing than mono, so we thought about the mixes we could do. The music was funky and classical at the same time.” MFSB was a pool of over thirty Philadelphia studio musicians and, depending upon who you believe, the acronym stood for either “Mother Father Sister Brother” or two common obscene phrases placed in succession.
- Betcha by Golly, Wow, The Stylistics (Thom Bell, Linda Creed) (#3): Producer Thom Bell wasn’t too impressed with The Stylistics as a unit, but he loved the falsetto voice of lead singer Russell Thompkins, Jr. While Motown was moving toward a more socially conscious lyrical direction, Thom Bell was creating a new brand of supper club soul. Lyrically, “Betcha By Golly, Wow” is a saccharin overdose, but Thompkins voice is such a splendid instrument, you barely notice the references to candy land and ordering custom made rainbows.
- Close the Door, Teddy Pendergrass (Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff) (#25): When Teddy Pendergrass left Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes for a solo career, he stayed with the Philadelphia sound, working with producers Gamble and Huff, as well as songwriters Gene McFadden and John Whitehead. Pendergrass hit the R&B Top Ten charts thirteen times between 1977 and 1991, but only hit the Top 40 twice, with this request for mutual sexual gratification being his biggest crossover success. Pendergrass became such a sex symbol during the late 1970s, he advertised a string of concert dates as being for “Ladies Only.”
- Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time), Delfonics (Thom Bell, William Hart) (#10): The Delfonics formed at a Philadelphia high school in 1966 and released singles on the Moon Shot and Cameo/Parkway labels before meeting producer and songwriter Thom Bell. Bell was one of the chief architects of the “Philadelphia Sound,” a genre built upon lush arrangements and sweeping strings. Bell took the Delfonics to #4 on the pop charts with “La-La (Means I Love You)” in 1968 and they returned to the Top Ten with this elegant ballad. Founding member William Hart continues to tour with a version of the Delfonics and younger music fans may know “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind)” as a significant part of the plotline from Quentin Taratino’s 1997 blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown.
- Hold Back the Night, The Trammps (Ronald Baker, Allan Felder, Norman Harris, Snooky Young) (#35): The Trammps evolved from the Philly vocal group The Volcanos, best known for the 1965 Northern soul meets Motown #33 R&B hit “Storm Warning.” A strong soul vocal group, “Hold Back the Night” was their entrance into the disco market, but still retained a strong pop sensibility. Strangely enough, it was first released in 1972 as a B-side instrumental titled “Scrub-Board.” British soul man Graham Parker had his first U.K. hit with his 1977 cover version.
- If You Don’t Know Me By Now, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff) (#3): Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had been recording since the mid-1950s, but didn’t have any chart success until they walked into Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia hit factory. The name was misleading – Melvin had seniority in the group, Teddy Pendergrass was the lead singer. Pendergrass provided an aptly blue noted reading on “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” voicing the frustrations of a man in a long term relationship who has determined that his feelings of love were being replaced with resentment. Gamble and Huff were skillful in utilizing strings to heighten tension without smothering the vocalist. The English pop band Simply Red scored a #1 U.S. hit with their 1989 cover version.
- I’ll Be Around, The Spinners (Thom Bell, Phil Hurt) (#3): In 1972, The Spinners left Motown for Atlantic Records, but still had some Detroit baggage. Producer Thom Bell, “Motown did such a number on them that they never wanted to see another black producer again.” Bell made a friendly wager with the band – if he didn’t produce a #1 hit for the band, he’d give each band member $10,000. If he did, they would buy him a Cadillac. “I’ll Be There” was an accidental #1 R&B hit, it was originally the B-side to “How Could I Let You Get Away.” MFSB, the studio house band, reportedly laughed when they discovered how simple the arrangement was. However, the story about a man who had lost his woman, yet will continue waiting indefinitely for another chance, clicked with the public.
- Love Train, The O’Jays (Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff) (#1): While the early 1970s were replete with anti-war songs, Gamble and Huff went a different route, simply making a call for international brotherhood. “Love Train” is a perfect example of pre-disco, early 70’s dance music, retaining the beat of traditional pop music, yet adorned with cascading strings and polished horn charts. The message may be viewed as quixotically simple, but this is spirit lifting, feel good music.
- Love Won’t Let Me Wait, Major Harris (Vinnie Barrett, Bobby Eli) (#5): Soul singer Major Harris joined The Delfonics in the early 1970s, after the group stopped hitting the pop charts, and left for a solo career in 1974. “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” was written and produced by MFSB guitarist Bobby Eli and Philly Soul songwriter Gwendolyn Woolfolk, who used the pen name Vinnie Barrett. “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” was slow dance, candlelight soul, spiced up with the ascending erotic moans of background singer Barbara Ingram.
- Me and Mrs. Jones, Billy Paul (Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Cary Gilbert) (#1): Philadelphia recording artist Billy Paul worked with songwriters/producers Gamble and Huff for over a decade, but “Me and Mrs. Jones” was his only major pop hit. Paul’s seductive reading of a tale about an extramarital affair that was emotionally irresistible yet limited by the participants’ circumstances clicked with the public. The elongated, guilt ridden take on the title phrase was an unforgettable musical hook. Songwriter Kenny Gamble on the inspiration, “This guy used to come into the bar every day – little guy that looked like a judge. Every day after he’d come in, this girl would come in ten to fifteen minutes after he’d get there, and they’d sit in the same booth, then go to the jukebox and play the same songs. It could have been his daughter, his niece, anybody, but we created a story that there was some kind of romantic connection between these people, so we went upstairs to our office and wrote the song.”
- Sideshow, Blue Magic (Bobby Eli, Vinnie Barrett) (#8): Blue Magic was a Philadelphia quintet, with a sound similar to the Stylistics and Chi-Lites, that was supported by the MFSB crew on “Sideshow,” their only major pop hit. Charting at the tail end of the falsetto soul era and featuring the type of romantic hyperbole typical of the form, there’s a comforting beauty in the vocal arrangements and production on “Sideshow.” They tried to capitalize on the “Sideshow” theme with their followup single, “Three Ring Circus,” but stalled at #36 on the pop charts.
- Then Came You, Dionne Warwick and The Spinners (Sherman Marshall, Philip Pugh) (#1): New Jersey native Dionne Warwick had a string of sophisticated pop hits in the 1960s that were written and produced by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The hits dried up in the 1970s and producer Thom Bell recommended a duet with Dionne and the Spinners. Bell recorded the basic track in Philadelphia, then went to Los Angeles to record Dionne’s vocals. She was unimpressed, but Bell thought it was a hit and added the vocals by the Spinners as well as string and horn arrangements. A fine example of smooth supper club soul, Dionne grew to appreciate the song as it became her first #1 single.
- They Just Can’t Stop It (The Games People Play), The Spinners (Joseph B. Jefferson, Bruce Hawes, Charles Simmons) (#5): While the rest of the world was chasing those disco dollars, producer Thom Bell and The Spinners stayed with their trademark sound. Recorded with MFSB and featuring Barbara Ingram on background vocals, this #5 pop hit is awkwardly titled because the publishing company didn’t want the royalties confused with “Games People Play” by Joe South. Thom Bell on using bassist Pervin Jackson on a few lead vocal lines, “Basses are not usually designed to do anything but hold the root. So I said I’m going to come up with something for that guy. And from the moment I gave him that part, his whole personality, his whole everything changed.” For the rest of bass vocalist Pervin Jackson’s life, which ended in 2008, he was known as “12:45.”
- T.S.O.P. (The Sounds of Philadelphia), MFSB featuring The Three Degrees (Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff) (#1): As the popularity of the syndicated music program Soul Trainexpanded in the early 1970s, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff pitched the idea to Don Cornelius of writing a theme song for the show. The producers worked their velvet magic with MSFB and included few vocal lines from the trio The Three Degrees, who would score a major hit later in 1974 with “When Will I See You Again.” Gamble and Huff wanted to title the song “Soul Train.” Protective of his brand name, Cornelius rejected that idea, a decision he later described as “the dumbest move I ever made.” While “T.S.O.P” had more of an R&B edge than most of the Philly Sound material, heavy string arrangement’s gliding on top of a four on the floor beat, popularized by MFSB drummer Earl Young, would become the basic building blocks for disco music.
- Wake Up Everybody (Part I), Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (John Whitehead, Gene McFadden, Victor Carstarphen) (#12): Note the writing credits from McFadden & Whitehead, who would score their own hit later in the decade with “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” One of the true beautiful soul songs of the decade with Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals and a lyric about proactive community involvement. This is a different take on the DIY philosophy, not based on self fulfillment, but for enrichment of the common good.
- You Are Everything, The Stylistics (Thom Bell, Linda Creed) (#9): “You Are Everything” was the first major pop hit for The Stylistics, a statement of all consuming love with that had more of a traditional vocal group arrangement than their later hits. Thom Bell created an unusual sound for the song, using an electric sitar as the lead instrument and having it float on top of a typically lush bed of strings. In this case, the ability and style of the producer was as important as the composition.
- You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine, Lou Rawls (Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff) (#2): The career of Lou Rawls dates back to the pre-rock era, he replaced Sam Cooke in the gospel group the Highway QC’s in 1951. Rawls released jazz and big band albums before moving to a traditional R&B, scoring a #13 pop hit and a #1 R&B hit in 1966 with “Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing.” He hit the Top 40 again in 1969 and 1971, but never felt that he was a priority act for his record labels. Philly soul giants Gamble and Huff wrote “You’ll Never Find” specifically for his smooth, crooning baritone voice, resulting in an unmatchable level of urbane elegance underneath the disco strobe lights.
- Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe, Barry White (Barry White) (#1): After a stint in jail as a teenager, Barry White released a string of unsuccessful singles in the 1960s and worked behind the scenes – in artist development, as well as being a songwriter, musician, and arranger. In the early 1970s, he became an unconventional sex symbol, crooning words of love with his deep, silky baritone voice. “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” is an extension of the Philly soul sound and a step toward the disco beat. Alone with your significant other on a Saturday night? Step one, put on a Barry White record. Step two, dim the lights.
- Everybody Plays the Fool, The Main Ingredient (J.R. Bailey, Rudy Clark, Ken Williams) (#3): The Harlem based vocal trio The Main Ingredient started recording in 1965 as The Poets and after a few name changes began hitting the R&B charts regularly in 1970. “Everybody Plays the Fool” is a smooth soul record featuring a universal message – heartbreak happens – and the agile vocals of Cuba Gooding, Sr. Songwriter Rudy Clark has some impressive credits: “Got My Mind Set on You” for George Harrison, the Betty Everett hit “It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song),” and The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.”
- Have You Seen Her, The Chi-Lites (Barbara Acklin, Eugene Record) (#3): The Chi-Lites started as a doo-wop act in the late 1950s and scored their first pop hit in 1971 with the income inequality statement “(For God’s Sake) Give Me Power to the People.” Vocally, “Have You Seen Her,” the group’s second hit, is firmly in the doo-wop tradition with Eugene Record’s glass shattering falsetto on top. Luckily, the quality of the singing and the chorus can carry the listener through the campy narrated passages.
- It Only Takes a Minute, Tavares (Dennis Lambert, Brian Potter) (#10): A family act from Providence, Rhode Island, five brothers comprised the band Tavares, a group whose lineage goes back to 1959. The first iteration was known as Chubby and the Realities and the band was recast in 1964 as Chubby and the Turnpikes. In 1974, Tavares scored a #1 R&B hit with “She’s Gone,” two years before it became a hit for Daryl Hall and John Oates. “It Only Takes a Minute” has the Philly soul at the discotheque sound, with the band wanting to find love as an antidote for depressing economic realities. With their soft R&B/disco sound and romantic themes, Tavares hit the Top 40 on seven occasions, including their version of the Bee Gees penned “More Than a Woman” from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
- Love’s Theme, Love Unlimited Orchestra (Barry White) (#1): Barry White was a bigger is better kind of guy – he created a 40-piece orchestra to serve as his backing group, then recorded that unit as a solo act as well. “Love’s Theme” was a series of beautiful cascading strings on top of a dance beat. The song was a #1 pop hit and an influential record within disco music. White purged the originally planned vocals – after hearing the string arrangement, he determined that adding lyrics would only be a distraction. Love Unlimited Orchestra also had an influence on the syndicated music program Soul Train. After paying for a budget busting live performance by the entire orchestra with added vocals by the trio Love Unlimited, program host and producer Don Cornelius decided that all future acts on his show would lip-sync.
- Oh Girl, The Chi-Lites (Eugene Record) (#1): The Chi-Lites recorded for over thirty years, but only scored two major hits – 1971’s “Have You Seen Her” and “Oh Girl,” which topped the pop charts in 1972. “Oh Girl” is a soft soul tale of romantic dependency, with a mournful harmonica and orchestral strings embellishing the group’s statement of guilty face heartbreak. Chi-Lites leader Eugene Record tried to be hip and think like the crowd with a late 1970’s disco turn, but the man was born to plead, not to boogie.
- Thin Line Between Love and Hate, The Persuaders (Richard Poindexter, Robert Poindexter, Jackie Members) (#15): The Persuaders were a tight New York based vocal R&B group, with a soft soul sound similar to the Stylistics and the Chi-Lites. On “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” a cheating man is welcomed with open arms by his woman at five in the morning. Later, he awakens in a hospital, having almost been beaten to death. “Thin Line” would later be covered by the Pretenders and the band’s 1973 hit “Some Guys Have All the Luck” became a Top Ten pop hit for Rod Stewart in 1984.