England, Russia, China, Africa, Egypt, Israel…all of the above are stops on the O’Jays’ perennial “Love Train.” We all know that the train started in Philadelphia, home to Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, the song’s writer-producers, and Thom Bell, its co-arranger (with Bobby Martin). But a new release from Philadelphia International Records and Legacy Recordings reveals another pivotal stop: San Francisco. For one remarkable night, brotherly love washed over the city by the bay. Golden Gate Groove: The Sound of Philadelphia 1973 is a 14-track live set due in stores on January 31, revisiting a crucial night for a label basking in the glow of its biggest successes yet.
Recorded on July 27, 1973, the concert was held at CBS Records’ company convention, and featured performances from the T.S.O.P. all-stars including Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass, The Three Degrees, Billy Paul, and the O’Jays. But the vocalists weren’t the only stars onstage, as the MFSB (that’s “Mother, Father, Sister, Brother,” unless you prefer your acronyms of the blue variety, in which case you can use your imagination…) Orchestra that evening counted among its 35 members two architects of the Philadelphia sound: Leon Huff and Thom Bell on piano and organ, respectively. Huff and Bell were joined by a couple of Philly’s finest arrangers, Norman Harris and Bobby Eli (guitars), plus Earl Young (drums), Ronnie Baker (bass), Lenny Pakula (piano/keyboards), Jack Faith (saxophone), Vince Montana (vibes) and other notables. The group was conducted by another great duo, Bobby Martin and Richard Rome. In addition to supplying the orchestral bed for the vocalists, MFSB commanded the stage for two instrumental showcases: “Freddie’s Dead” and the familiar “T.S.O.P.” theme adopted by Soul Train.
What did this illustrious group have to prove? Hit the jump to find out!
Under a deal with CBS’ Epic division, the Philadelphia International team had already yielded a number of hits: The O’Jays “Back Stabbers” (No. 3 Pop, No. 1 R&B) and “Love Train” (No. 1 Pop and R&B), Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (No. 3 Pop, No. 1 R&B), Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” (No. 1 Pop and R&B). But as detailed in Ashley Kahn’s new liner notes for this release, the presentation to the CBS brass, including legendary label president Goddard Lieberson, was important in securing the ongoing promotion required to keep The Sound of Philadelphia at the vanguard of not just soul music or R&B, but popular music as a whole. In Kenny Gamble’s words, the concert “opened doors for not only Philly International’s groups but for other rhythm and blues artists at CBS. They were already the number one pop company. After that night—not right away but eventually—CBS became the number one company for R&B.”
Philadelphia International was a label with an identity; Gamble and Huff brought a consistency to the table as songwriters, producers and label heads. Thom Bell, their partner in Mighty Three Music, was making his own award-winning mark with non-PIR groups like The Delfonics, The Stylistics and The Spinners, as well as vocalists like Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis and Ronnie Dyson. But, as time allowed, Bell continued to contribute arrangements to hit records like “Love Train,” “Back Stabbers” and “I Miss You,” all of which are heard live on Golden Gate Groove. Bell was the perfect yin to Gamble and Huff’s yang, smoothing out the edges of their music with his sophisticated, string- and horn-driven charts. Together, the Mighty Three brought a new sound to soul music, certainly more lush but no less honest. Philadelphia International could be both funky and sweet, and paved the way for the disco revolution to come with the accessibility (and danceability!) of its productions.
So important was the San Francisco concert that Joe Tarsia, owner of the famed Sigma Sound Studios in Philly, even made the trip west to personally record the evening. (Tarsia, too, contributes a new note to the upcoming release.) Don Cornelius of Soul Train was lined up to emcee. Now, this rare evening in which some true titans of soul joined together for the first and only time, will be available commercially. Golden Gate Groove has been mastered by Mark Wilder.
It’s time to join hands, friends. The next stop for the love train is your local record retailer, and it’s scheduled for January 31!
Various Artists, Golden Gate Groove: The Sound of Philadelphia 1973 (PIR/Legacy, 2012)
- Introduction by Don Cornelius of Soul Train
- Freddie’s Dead – MFSB
- If You Don’t Know Me By Now – Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
- The Love I Lost – Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
- I Miss You – Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
- I Didn’t Know – The Three Degrees
- Dirty Ol’ Man – The Three Degrees
- T.S.O.P. – MFSB
- East – Billy Paul
- Me and Mrs. Jones – Billy Paul
- Back Stabbers – The O’Jays
- When The World’s At Peace – The O’Jays
- Sunshine – The O’Jays
- Love Train – The O’Jays