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Gettin’ Down With The Philly Sound


Kayne West, the producer-turned-rapper, has brassy, arrogant and winning Muhammad Ali/Miles Davis-like charm. He’s called out President George W. Bush and has a fairly predictable habit of declaring himself the winner at music award shows — even when the prize goes to someone else.

Still, he showed proper humility to the music gods at Philadelphia International Records, home of The Sound of Philadelphia. West had the good sense to deflate his ego and license — not steal — a sample groove from “Cola Bottle Baby,” an obscure 1980s Edwin Birdsong tune from the Philly International catalogue, in order to power up hit single “Stronger.”

Although not as celebrated, the Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP) rounds out the trinity of R&B that also includes the Motown sound of Detroit, and the Stax sound of Memphis.

Motown music, personified by the Supremes, Temptations and Four Tops, crossed over into the American mainstream soon after its creation. Stax music was the anti-Motown, sweaty and Southern compared to Motown’s Northern cool. Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Johnny Taylor and the Staple Singers were Stax artists.

Detroit vs. Memphis R&B is different as oil vs. water, yet both sounds had this in common: Each genre was powered by a small house band of very talented and, to some still unknown, musicians, Motown’s Funk Brothers or Stax’s racially mixed band led by the Booker T. and the MGs rhythm section. Meanwhile, Philly sound arrangements distinguished themselves from Detroit and Memphis with a 10-piece orchestra of string and brass players. This orchestra that rotated up to 70 musicians was way different from how Motown and Stax operated

But all of these record companies share “message” songs, anthems that called black people to action. “Wake up Everybody” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, was TSOP’s match to Motown’s “What’s Going on” by Marvin Gaye, said Chuck Gamble. I’ll offer Stax’s “Respect Yourself” by the Staple Singers.

The Philly sound of Patti LaBelle, the O’Jays, and Teddy Pendergrass had a lot of Stax’s raw emotion, but definitely lots of Motown’s assembly line-like craftsmanship. And in many ways, the Philly Sound brought that bravado and attitude that was the pre-cursor to Kanye West’s success today in music and business.

Still, the Philly Sound is on my mind because this month I toured the recording studios on South Broad Street with colleagues from the Trotter Group, a society of columnists.

We’re writers and hams. Every time Chuck Gamble, nephew of co-founder Kenny Gamble, told an anecdote about one of the recording stars, we sang a few bars of hit songs like Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” or the Intruders’ “Cowboys to Girls.” Gamble appeared amused rather than annoyed by our playful interruptions.

We peeked inside several 10-by-12-foot recording rooms insulated with shag carpet on the floor and additional carpet on the walls. In a slightly bigger room where the orchestra backed the singing groups or solo artists, Gamble told us we were standing in the space where Patti LaBelle once broke a microphone with her voice and rumbled all of the glass in the room.

Inside the control booth, engineer Craig White turned up the O’Jays “For the Love of Money” then isolated the soulful shouts of vocalists Eddie Levert and Walt Williams. Then White added the bass, percussion and brass tracks that flavored the musical broth.

Chuck Gamble’s uncle, singer Kenny Gamble, plus creative partner Leon Huff, the pianist, were the visionaries of TSOP’s golden era in the 1970s. Back then, the label averaged 30 records a year, and during 1971-72, sold 10 million, said the nephew, a company executive.

Today, Gamble and Huff preserves and resells their vintage songs. New-school recording artists like Kanye West benefit from the old-school treasure chest. Philadelphia International published 3,500 songs and in that mix 70 of the tunes were No. 1 Pop and R&B hits.

Like 1960s Motown hits that became ubiquitous in the 1980s in movies like “the Big Chill,” 1970s Philly sounds routinely turn up in the opening of “The Apprentice” (the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money”) or Coors commercials (the O’Jays again crooning “Love Train”).

Philadelphia International executives boast that every 14 minutes somewhere in the world a Gamble and Huff song is playing on the radio. I asked the Gamble nephew if there’s a Philly Sound project in the works along the lines of the various Motown TV specials, and last summer the PBS Stax documentary “Respect Yourself.”

Yes said Gamble, a PBS program is in production for release sometime in 2008-09. It ought to be called, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” a tribute to McFadden & Whitehead’s signature Gamble & Huff tune.

Share  Posted by Wayne Dawkins at 9:29 AM | Permalink

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