My Life In Philly Soul

Elizabeth Isadora Gold

By Elizabeth Isadora Gold

on 05.31.13 in Collections

I was born into the Sound of Philadelphia family in 1974. My father, Larry Gold, was a cellist in TSOP’s house band, MFSB (the letters stand for Mother Father Sister Brother, or Motherfucker Son of a Bitch, depending who’s asking). Later, he wrote string and horn arrangements for Teddy Pendergrass and McFadden & Whitehead, sitting at our Yamaha upright with his friend Jerry Cohen, the brilliant keyboard player — and co-writer of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” I fell in love with this music listening to that piano, and going to sessions at Sigma Sound Studios when I was little.

Songwriters, producers and soul music impresarios Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell had been working together long before founding Mighty Three Music in 1973. They’d known each other since they were teenagers, singing and playing together in the Romeos, a prototypical ’60s R&B band. With little more than a song in their hearts and local garmento Ben Krass as investor, the Three began producing local acts such as the Soul Survivors (“Expressway to Your Heart”), as well as older stars looking for a comeback (Jerry Butler, Wilson Pickett). By the time Gamble and Huff signed their groundbreaking deal with Columbia in 1971, Philadelphia International Records, was already a sure thing artistically. But their vision was bigger: they wanted to retain both creative and financial control of their company — something that no black-owned label had ever been able to do. Gamble and Huff ended up not only changing soul music; they changed the face of the record industry.

With its combination of gutbucket soul vocals, orchestral strings, and jazz rhythms, Philly Soul ruled the charts through the seventies and early eighties. Gamble and Huff wrote and produced a record-breaking number of smashes, making Philadelphia International Records one of the most successful companies in the city, as well as one of the most profitable black-owned businesses in the country. The hits didn’t stop: Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs Jones,” the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” to name a few. The iconoclastic Thom Bell stayed independent, writing and producing for the Delfonics, Stylistics, and the Spinners.

The Sound of Philadelphia is the sound of home to me. Growing up on the edge of North Philly, it was almost impossible not to hear “The Love I Lost,” wafting over my family’s back fence, or “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” blasting from a passing car Caddy. Hanging out with soul singers clad in head-to-toe lizard skin, feeling my family’s fortunes rise and fall with the charts… Well, it might not have been a typical childhood, but it was mine.

Whether growling like Sam and Dave, operatically thrilling and trilling like his hero (and fellow Philly native) Mario Lanza, or crooning like Smokey Robinson, Bunny Sigler — aka Bundino Sigilucci, Bunny Siglowitz, and Bunny O'Sigler (depending on the holiday) — is Philly Soul. Not to mention that he used to wear a Dracula cape and/or a Moses robe in the studio, drove a car called the Bunnymobile, and will break into Ave Maria at the slightest provocation.

A successful songwriter for PIR artists including the O'Jays, and Wilson Pickett, Bunny's own albums too often languish in vinyl-only obscurity. While this disc may not be his wild seventies funk, these Jackie Wilson-style soul burners will get you dancing around the house singing into your hairbrush. Confidential to Paul McCartney: listen to Bunny singing "Yesterday." And eat your heart out.

The cover for these rare Philly instrumentals might seem weird. Who is that old guy, and why is he holding a (record freaks, chill) ridiculously rare Gamble label 45? Ben Krass was a purveyor of cut-rate suits, locally infamous for starring in his own Benny Hill-style TV commercials. Oh, and for being the only person in Filthy-delphia willing to invest in barely-out-of-his-teens Kenny Gamble's first foray into the record biz.

As for extended info about these mostly mysterious songs…Even my trusty bible of early Philly Soul, Tony Cummings's The Sound of Philadelphia, has little to offer other than that the Panic Buttons are a "blue-eyed" (white) group. It is also safe to assume that the funkiest of these tracks — i.e.: all the stuff by the Interpretations — is actually the MFSB rhythm section. The guys had to do something in the 45 minutes a day they weren't playing on PIR tracks, right?

Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Cindy Birdsong must be about 15 years old on these tracks. While these doo-wop/R&B twisters don't give any obvious indications that the 'Belles would one day sprout bronze lamé wings and voulez vous their way to funk history, that's okay. The group's early hits are all accounted for on this collection, and Labelle's voice is already eerily powerful -- "Please Hurry Home" will give you chills. Even on the more typical tracks, there are seriously special only-in-Philly moments. Check out the piano solo on "Itty Bitty Twist" (an uncredited Leon Huff or Thom Bell?), and Patti's break-the-glass finish on "Bridal Gown." Local faves "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," will remind listeners how much the early sixties were still, culturally, like the fifties. Bring on the lamé.

These songs are just adorable, holding their own next to early sides of other girl groups out of New Orleans or Chicago. Unfortunately, as with every early compilation listed here, there are no personnel listings for the songs, but I can happily guess that every musician on these cuts went on to record with MFSB. That's probably the legendary rhythm section of Ronnie Baker on bass, Earl Young on drums, Vince Montana on vibes, and (depending on the day) Norman Harris, Roland Chambers, and Bobby Eli on guitar. Any track listed as written by Huff most definitely means Leon, which indicates he's also playing keyboard — and that Gamble and Thom Bell are probably somewhere around as well. Lucky us.

If 13th and Pine seems an odd choice for this list, just listen to the opening bars of "Loosen Up/Under the Ice" — a Philly-style take off on Archie Bell and the Drells soul classic "Tighten Up." Before front man Todd Rundgren rocketed to psychedelic rock stardom (and his future as Liv Tyler's step-dad), he was in a Philly blues/R&B band called Woody's Truck Stop — along with my dad. Which I tell you not as much to brag, as to illustrate yet again how interwoven the City of Brotherly Love's music scene was, is, and always will be. By the way, 13th and Pine is the Center City corner where Todd and the boys lived back when they started the band. Sorry, those stories are classified.

One look at Drowning in the Sea of Love's supa-dupa soul-psychedelic cover in my parents' record collection, and of course I threw it on the turntable immediately. What I heard surprised me. Philly Soul goes country? In fact, Drowning is a great example of what Gamble and Huff did best: taking a "mature" singer whose hit-making potential seemed tapped-out, and then playing to his strengths. While the title track hit No. 3 on the Billboard R&B charts, the whole record deserves a lot of listening. About half the tracks are penned by the songwriting team of Bunny Sigler and Phil Hurtt, the others by Gamble and Huff themselves. "If" is an especially poignant social-ills ballad, and Simon's cover of "You Are Everything" takes the Stylistics to church way below the Mason Dixon line — and brings the Philly strings along on the field trip.

The Three Degrees' breathy repeated mantra of "People all over the world," and "Let's get it on, it's time to get down," on their No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit "TSOP" exemplifies latter Philly Soul to me: refined yet raw and sugar-sweet. Even more than with most girl groups, the Degrees' sound was a sum-of-their-parts blend; they're sirens, not soloists. Though the line-up switched almost as many times as the ladies changed their diaphanous get-ups, you're hearing Fayette Pinkney, Valerie Holiday and Sheila Ferguson on the cuts from the group's '70s heyday. "When Will I See You Again?" with its heartbreaking lyric and gorgeous music, is understandably their most famous single. Other highlights: a cool cover of the Spinners' "I'll Be Around," and the saucy "Dirty Old Man."

Young, fresh and bursting with seemingly relentless disco optimism, First Choice were natural dance floor queens. Sometimes posited as rivals to the supposedly smoother Three Degrees, First Choice's Rochelle Fleming, Joyce Jones and Annette Guest hardly sound rough-edged. If the grooves feel familiar, it's because many of these tracks boast MFSB guitarist Norman Harris as producer. The Afrobeat opening and street-yet-silly title of "Newsy Neighbors" is pure TSOP, and "This is the House" is Martha and the Vandellas-esque. Fans of sound-effects heavy soul will appreciate both the gunning engine on "Hustler Bill," and the sexy soul song convention-reversing masculine moaning on "Don't Fake It."

Warning: Jaguar Wright is one of the best soul singers in the world, with a voice that melds the ferocity of Patti Labelle with the depth of Chaka Khan. I have stood three feet away from Jag while she was singing, feeling as if the top of my head was going to blow off; I've also heard her take down the stadium at Jones Beach while supposedly acting as a side act for the Roots.

Fave tracks on the cleverly titled Divorcing Neo include the cover of soul classic "Woman to Woman," and Jag's own bone-chilling composition, "Do Your Worst." Both tracks exemplify the singer as sort of the next generation-Philly Soul "devil" to Jill Scott's angel (check out Who Is Jill Scott? (Words And Sounds Vol. 1) if you don't know what I mean). As Jaguar herself explains, "Please just throw it down before I have to go and buy your moms a new black gown."

Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia


This box is not only one of the best values on eMusic, it's also a perfect intro to Philly Soul. The four discs cover PIR basics ("Love Train" and "If You Don't Know Me By Now," to name two obvious choices), and this is also the only place on eMusic to hear such crucial artists as the Spinners ("Rubberband Man" and "I'll Be Around" are standouts), and Dusty Springfield (yes, she cut a whole record in Philly, and yes it is as good — maybe better? — than Dusty in Memphis). You also get early Gamble/Huff/Bell confections including 1967's "Expressway to Your Heart," by the Soul Survivors (complete with honking horns), and 1968's tragi-comic "Cowboys to Girls," by the Intruders. And be sure to check out a couple of famous career revivers: Jerry "the Iceman" Butler's "Only the Strong Survive" — pre-Elvis, mind you — and the almost ludicrously funky "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You" by Wicked Wilson Pickett.

Collectors' Item

Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes

Purists may scoff that I've chosen a Best Of compilation for this group, rather than the more obvious Wake Up Everybody. I guess I can't resist that vinyl-sounding dusty opening on "The Love I Lost": solo organ (Leon Huff, probably), and then each member of the rhythm section joining in, one by one, until Earl Young swishes his way through what could be the first disco back beat on record. The Bluenotes personnel can be confusing. Harold Melvin founded and led the band, but that's not his gruff voice singing lead — it's onetime drummer Teddy Pendergrass, before he went solo. What a voice he has here. Listen to "If You Don't Know Me By Now" after a fight with your lover and if you don't weep, you are made of stone. And be sure to check out looong versions of "Bad Luck" and "Miss You." Between McFadden and Whitehead's lyrics and Teddy's extended vamps, the songs are perfect vignettes of inner city life.


Teddy Pendergrass

How do I describe this record? Take Barry White's unselfconscious love-man persona, add a dash of Al Green's gospel roots, mix with full-on last-days-of-disco hedonism, add a paper umbrella, and sip while lying in a Jacuzzi. There is just something about listening to a man instruct you to rub him "down with hot oils, baby!" I mean, gosh. It's no surprise that at Teddy's Ladies Only concerts in the '70s, fans showered the singer with panties and stuffed bears. Heavy breathing aside, this is a fabulous record that most (younger) soul freaks don't seem to know too well, though back in the late '70s, Teddy was Gamble and Huff's premier solo act. This is probably because his career was cut short after he became paralyzed in a car crash in 1982. Check out the later records as well — his voice is still miraculous — but also be sure to listen to the amazing "Love TKO" on 1980's TP.

MCFadden & Whitehead

McFadden & Whitehead

John Whitehead and Gene McFadden were both dear friends of my family, and both passed away in recent years. I was lucky enough to interview them and hear them sing in the studio many times. Therefore, it's tremendously difficult for me to capture this record in a blurb. They sang together from the time they were teenagers, backing Otis Redding on his last tour and then coming home to Philly to write hits for Teddy Pendergrass and the O'Jays, among others. They wrote "Back Stabbers," PIR's first No. 1 hit in 1972. In 1979, their "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" was the label's last. That song is known as the "unofficial black national anthem" (as opposed to the "official" genteel hymn, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"). See Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor for a longer riff on the tune — John and Gene would have loved it.

The Jacksons

The Jacksons

It's always shocking to me when even die-hard soul fans don't know that, after leaving Motown in the mid '70s, and before Michael made Off the Wall, the Jacksons took up musical residence in City of Brotherly Love. This lack of awareness is probably because The Jacksons (1976) and Goin' Places (1977) were not monster hits in the vein of, say, ABC. But really, who's counting? The world's most famous siblings hardly waited out their awkward adolescences in silence. Instead, they recorded Gamble and Huff tracks, hung with writers/producers Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Dexter Wansel, and — for the first time in their already formidable careers — played their own instruments and penned some of their own songs. My personal faves here are "Show You the Way to Go" and "Enjoy Yourself." However, how can my heart not drop to hear Michael, voice almost cracking, sing his own lyric, "Circumstances have me in a terrible fix," on "Dreamer"?

That's How I'll Be Loving You

Bunny Sigler

I've already said my piece about Bunny, so I think I will take this opportunity to let the man speak for himself: "I was the seventh child born with a tooth on the day after Easter, plus they heard me crying in my mother's womb before I was born. So they knew I would sing." As tempted as I may be to leave you with that, and just let you listen to this fabulous record, I have to add that the title track, with its churchy chords and caramel-sweet vocal is one of those dream "lost" classics. "Shake Your Booty" somehow brings Sesame Street to Studio 54. And mere words cannot describe Bunny's slowed-down street-preacher cover of the O'Jays "Love Train." Switch off the lights, turn up the volume and get ready for goosebumps.

Love Is The Message


When Kenny Gamble wrote the theme for Soul Train, PIR's rhythm guys had been playing together for years. "T.S.O.P." showed that the group was the tightest rhythm section north of Memphis, and the best (yes, I'm biased) pop strings and horns anywhere. MFSB's core included (but was not limited to): Norman Harris, Roland Chambers and Bobby Eli on guitars, Ronnie Baker on bass, Vince Montana on vibes, Earl Young and Karl Chambers on drums, and Leon Huff and Lenny Pakula on keyboard — not to mention violinist Don Renaldo leading the strings and horns. Like Motown's Funk Brothers and Stax's Booker T and the MG's, the group named themselves, but with a Filthydelphia twist. MFSB stands for Mother Father Sister Brother, or Mother Fucker Son of a Bitch, if you're in the loop. Most of Love is the Message's arrangements are by Bobby Martin, but I would be remiss if I didn't add credits for Vince Montana and first flute Jack Faith.

Here To Create Music

Leon Huff

If Kenny Gamble is the voice of the Sound of Philadelphia, Leon Huff is the body — actually, make that the hands. Born in Camden, New Jersey, Huff taught himself to play by listening to the radio, and to his mother accompanying their church choir. Eventually, he became a session player on songs by the Ronettes, and other bubblegum acts. He and Gamble met in their teens, and the rest, as they say, is history. When I went to interview Huff, he invited me to meet him at the PIR office on North Broad Street. As a young assistant led me through the labyrinth of gold and platinum record-hung hallways, I heard boogie-woogie piano playing, it seemed, all around me. I didn't realize it wasn't a recording, until I got to the studio. There, at the instrument, sat Leon Huff. As I approached, he finished with a glissando. "So what would you like to know?" he asked. Now you, too, can experience something like that amazing moment.

Travelin' In Heavy Traffic

Don Convay

Gamble and Huff's makeovers were always strokes of production genius. They'd sign up artists who'd been huge pre-British Invasion, and Philly-fy them with songs custom-written for their specific vocal chops — and maturity. This gave new professional life to Wilson Pickett and Jerry Butler, so why not try it with the lesser-known soul man Don Covay? Covay's musical life could give Bunny Sigler and McFadden & Whitehead a run for their money. He was a behind-the-scenes southern soul legend, writer of smashes for, among others, Aretha Franklin ("Chain of Fools"), and small but beloved hits for himself ("Mercy, Mercy," also covered by the Rolling Stones). The Dexter Wansel-produced Travelin' is an odd record. Covay channels Mick Jagger on the title track — though reportedly, Mick's whole sound is based on copying Don — and doesn't always hold a tune. But "No Tell Motel" is pure funk fun, and "Six Million Dollar Fish" is weirdly stirring.

Ebony Woman

Billy Paul

Another anomaly from the Philly International vaults. Everyone knows Billy Paul for the illicit love ballad "Me and Mrs Jones." While Paul sang the hell out of that song, he was, in a sense, cheating with it on his own true love: jazz. Before signing with Gamble and Huff, Paul played with jazz greats from Charlie Parker to Nina Simone. Ebony Woman showcases the singer's elastic tenor voice, with pared down jazz combo arrangements on some truly inspired covers. Any version of "Windmills of Your Mind" is amazing, and who knew "Mrs. Robinson" could get so beatnik cool? Billy Martin did the bigger arrangements here (unfortunately I cannot locate the identities of the players on most of these tracks).

Gonna Take A Miracle

Laura Nyro & LaBelle

I am ashamed to say that I didn't know about this record until recently. Where had it been all my life? Miracle is one of the most feminine records I have ever heard, but it refuses to conform to "women's music" stereotypes. It's not Labelle at their sexy Nightbirds funkiest, or Nyro at her most girl-singer introspective. Instead, here is a collection of covers, sung by a still-young New Yorker who grew up with her ear pressed to the R&B station on her transistor radio. Meanwhile, home in Philly, Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash were selling their hearts to the junkman, and teasing out their bouffants. Then came the Women's Movement, without which this record would have been impossible. Miracle feels more like the early-'70s coming-of-age feminist novels — Fear of Flying or Memoirs of an Ex Prom Queen — than it does like other records of the era. And that's a beautiful thing.

Ship Ahoy

The O'Jays

It was ridiculously hard to choose one O'Jays album for this roundup. How could I pass over Back Stabbers? I mean, "Love Train," come on! Or Family Reunion, with its cover of the band surrounded by a multi-culti throng including a Hassidic man and a blonde girl holding a Raggedy Anne? Or So Full of Love, with "Used to be My Girl" and Bunny Sigler's raunchy "Strokety Stroke"? I ended up picking Ship Ahoy because is it my favorite Philly Soul record, period. But why? Is it the Roots-reminiscent title track, the eco-disco "This Air I Breath"? Or "For the Love of Money," one of the most sampled songs ever? No. It's "Hooks In Me," another Bunny composition. When I first heard it as a teenager, I thought: This song is life. Even now that I understand the best relationships are peaceful, hearing Eddie Levert lead-up to the chorus makes me remember that revelation. Which, in the end, of course, turned out to be about the music.

Don Cello is my father, and the hilariously appropriate nickname is from Jay-Z. When he told me he was doing this record, I knew it was a phenomenal idea. He was already collaborating with these amazing artists. How could he not get everyone together? Even if this collection/collaboration did not represent my DNA, I would still include it. It's a time capsule of Philly Soul's second golden age. Back in the '80s and early '90s, it was hard to tell if Philly Soul would rise again. We should have known: of course it would. The older players and singers were still around — New Jack just hadn't played to their strengths. And there was a younger generation on the way, honing their chops the way musicians always will, in church and school choirs, piano lessons, their parents' basements and living rooms. I obviously love everything on this disc, but several songs are bittersweet. John Whitehead, Gene McFadden and Eddie Levert all passed away in the last few years. They are missed.