In the fall of 1971, Philadelphia International Records launched its long-playing series with Billy Paul’s Going East, and the title opus in which the velvet-voiced crooner spins a slow-burning yarn of slavery. It was hardly Top 40 fare (Paul would have to wait till producers/songwriters/label entrepreneurs Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff gifted him “Me and Mrs. Jones” the following year) but signaled the dramatic experimentation with which the label would define TSOP, or “The Sound of Philadelphia.” Socially conscious, even spiritual lyrics would rest comfortably on a jazz-influenced bed of orchestral splendor, as smooth as it was funky. With the very next PIR album, the label would start a nearly-unbroken string of music that’s as classic today as it was relevant, then: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ self-titled debut (“If You Don’t Know Me By Now”), The O’Jays’ Back Stabbers (“Back Stabbers,” “Love Train”), 360 Degrees of Billy Paul (“Me and Mrs. Jones”).
Each one of those artists and songs can be heard on a remarkable time capsule that’s newly arrived from Legacy Recordings and Philadelphia International. Golden Gate Groove: The Sound of Philadelphia, Live in San Francisco 1973 (88691906232, 2012) is somewhat paradoxical, capturing a 1973 night in the City by the Bay introducing the brightest stars from the City of Brotherly Love. But in any setting, boy, can these Mothers (and Fathers, Sisters, and Brothers) play! It’s the first (but hopefully not the last) volley from Legacy in the 40th anniversary celebration of Philadelphia International Records.
Recorded on July 27, 1973, the concert was held at CBS Records’ company convention inside the plush environs of the Fairmont Hotel. Previous performers at the convention included Bruce Springsteen and Engelbert Humperdinck. Joe Tarsia, the owner of Philly’s hallowed Sigma Sound Studios and the concert’s engineer, recalls in the liner notes that the event was attended by everyone on the CBS roster from Perry Como to Edgar Winter. (What a sight that must have been!) And nearly everyone associated with the success of Philadelphia International was up there, on that stage. Vocalists included Melvin and the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass, The Three Degrees, Billy Paul, and the O’Jays. The MFSB Orchestra that evening counted among its 35 members two-thirds of the city’s “Mighty Three,” Leon Huff and Thom Bell on piano and organ, respectively. Huff and Bell were joined by a duo 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. Bobby Martin and Richard Rome, two more arrangers with key contributions to the Philadelphia sound, took turns conducting.
Gamble and Huff considered the evening a crucial one to secure ongoing promotion at CBS Records for their fledgling label despite its already-proven hitmaking ability. That urgency is evident in the performances. (Thom Bell was the third partner in Gamble and Huff’s publishing company, and a frequent face at the label despite his outside productions for The Stylistics, The Spinners, Ronnie Dyson, New York City, Johnny Mathis and so many others.) Hit the jump to meet the evening’s emcee, the one and only Mr. Don Cornelius!
Don Cornelius traded his Soul Train that evening for Gamble and Huff’s “Love Train” as the evening’s master of ceremonies. It’s appropriate that the concert, and Golden Gate Groove, opens with a full-blast dose of the MFSB Orchestra. A rock-solid instrumental version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” turns up the sinuous, jazzy horn solos, with light funk coursing through the melody as each section of the large orchestra shows off. The orchestra also contributes an abbreviated version of “M.F.S.B.,” better known as the Soul Train theme. Things heat up with Teddy Pendergrass leading Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” Passionate performances of the ballad and the up-tempo “The Love I Lost” aren’t radically different from the familiar studio versions. But the performers are clearly feeding off the audience, as is MFSB, wringing each ounce of emotion out of the Bobby Martin arrangements. Thom Bell provided the orchestration for the epic “I Miss You,” which Pendergrass punctuates with smoldering, lengthy raps.
Billy Paul might have been the most atypical artist at the label, a jazz singer since before his teen years and a serious-minded social commentator. (A 2008 documentary about Paul’s career, Am I Black Enough For You?, was titled after his radical follow-up single to “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The song was also included on the hit 360 Degrees of Billy Paul album. Believing passionately in the message of the song he co-wrote with Leon Huff, Kenny Gamble reportedly resisted advice from Thom Bell and even Paul himself to pick a more commercial song as the follow-up to “Mrs. Jones.”) His performance of “East” is raw and powerful, including a scatting, jazz-infused interlude. Of course, “Me and Mrs. Jones” was inevitable, and in its opening rap, Paul touchingly confesses his real name of Paul Williams.
The shortest set comes from The Three Degrees, with Fayette Pinkney, Sheila Ferguson and Valerie Holiday offering two energetic tracks (“I Didn’t Know,” “Dirty Ol’ Man”) off their eponymous PIR debut. But the centerpiece, and lengthiest set of the evening, belongs to The O’Jays. The Ohio trio of Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell had been performing together since the 1950s, but scored their biggest successes under the sure hand of Gamble and Huff in Philadelphia.
Even as Thom Bell was crafting hit after hit for The Spinners for the Atlantic label, he contributed pivotal arrangements to the O’Jays’ Top 10 debut album for PIR, Back Stabbers. It’s said that Bell handed the players at Sigma Sound fully-annotated orchestral scores whereas his partners Gamble and Huff were more likely to work out “head” arrangements with the players, and Bell’s lush, expansive arrangements are on display in the O’Jays’ set. Bell and the Levert/Williams/Powell triumvirate pulled out the stops for the aggressive “Back Stabbers” as well as the silky “Sunshine.” Bell teamed with Bobby Martin for the O’Jays’ anthemic “Love Train” while Martin provided the chart for the muscular “When the World’s at Peace.” This four-song set encapsulates what made Philadelphia International so revolutionary. Gamble and Huff, as producers and writers, crafted songs musically complex and lyrically relevant yet steadfastly accessible and deeply soulful, and inspired their stable of songwriters and arrangers to do the same. The music coming from Sigma Sound was universal, and so was the producers’ outlook; Gamble once famously quipped, “I don’t see black or white. I see green!” when queried about the practice of using musicians of all colors.
Producers Rob Santos and Leo Sacks have created a high class package befitting the music. The 12-page black-and-white booklet offers a detailed essay by Ashley Kahn about that San Francisco evening, extensively drawing on interviews with Kenneth Gamble and others. Mark Wilder has mastered the 14-song set, and though the sound isn’t studio quality, it successfully captures the ambiance of the live performance.
The O’Jays imagined what it might be like “when the world’s at peace.” That day “when love will rule the world” still hasn’t come, but the message in the music of Philadelphia International Records still rules on Golden Gate Groove.
Golden Gate Groove arrives on Tuesday, January 31! And don't miss our news on a Philadelphia International compilation from our friends across the pond!