There was clear irony in Bart Forbes’ cover artwork for MFSB’s Love is the Message. The 1973 album showed off Philadelphia International Records’ hallowed house band at its smoothest, espousing the gospels of peace, love, tolerance and unity. The cover illustration, however, depicts a skull clad in a military helmet, a mushroom cloud, a swastika, death, a howling dog, a Klansman and a grief-stricken man among its disturbing images. This was heady stuff, but then again, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s label never shied away from serious subjects even if they were presented palatably and accessibly. Clearly, Gamble and Huff hoped love would win out over society’s all-too-real ills, and if music be the food of love, the team played on with the beautiful sounds on this album, newly remastered and expanded by Big Break Records.
Love is the Message was the sophomore outing for MFSB. That’s “Mother, Father, Sister, Brother,” although some less familial variations exist, too! Though brief at just 35 minutes, the album showcases the many sides of the orchestra thanks to the arrangements from stalwarts Bobby Martin, Jack Faith and Vince Montana. (Montana would later decamp for Salsoul Records, taking most of the original MFSB line-up with him to form The Salsoul Orchestra.) Though not individually credited on the album, with Gamble and Huff preferring to let the mighty initials speak for themselves, musicians included Leon “Zack” Zachary (saxophone), Bobby Eli, Roland Chambers and Norman Harris (guitars), Ronnie Baker (bass), Larry Washington (percussion), Lenny Pakula (piano), Vince Montana (vibes) and Earl Young (drums). Don Renaldo, as always, provided the strings. Gamble and Huff produced most of the tracks, handing off “My One and Only Love” to its arranger, Vince Montana, and “Bitter Sweet” to its co-writers, Bruce Hawes and Jack Faith (who did arrangement duty, as well).
Without a doubt, the album’s pièce de résistanceis “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia),” also known as the theme from Don Cornelius’ Soul Train. In Bobby Martin’s potent and slick arrangement, “T.S.O.P.” distills all of the ingredients for Philadelphia soul into three-and-a-half minutes of musical bliss that anticipated disco. Earl Young’s distinctive drum patterns anchor the large and lush orchestral sound, with ample spotlights for the bass and guitar, plus the sweet, smooth and soulful vocals (from the Three Degrees!). The catchy and danceable melody, of course, is as irresistible as any, and the track crossed over to score mightily with listeners looking for pop, soul/R&B, funk and dance music. The single version went to No. 1 Pop and R&B in the U.S., and propelled the album to a No. 4 Pop/No. 1 R&B showing, as well.
But that’s not the only track to recommend Love is the Message. Read more after the jump!
The title song and second single is nearly a clone of “T.S.O.P.,” but that’s hardly a negative; it’s just as sophisticated and only slightly less memorable. Arranger Martin breathes new life into Diana Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning,” a creation of Michael Masser and Ron Miller. Masser, of course, would later team with another integral member of the Gamble/Huff team, lyricist Linda Creed, on songs like “The Greatest Love of All.” On “Touch Me,” a sinuous saxophone fills in for Miss Ross while churchy piano and organ join swelling strings in a dramatic, nearly seven-minute rendition of the song. The MFSB ensemble captures all of the nuances as well as the dynamics in the immaculately-crafted Motown standard.
Straight-ahead jazz also abounds. Frank Loesser and Burton Lane’s 1940 classic “I Hear Music” makes a brief appearance as “Zack’s Fanfare” (so named for the MFSB saxophonist) On “Cheaper to Keep Her,” arranged by Martin, organ, vibes and saxophone are the lynchpins of a sizzling swing take on this slab of Stax southern soul. Vince Montana’s orchestration for “My One and Only Love” is best enjoyed with the lights down low – this is sophisticated and smoky soul jazz. A more traditional Philly soul style melds with jazz in “Bitter Sweet,” an original ballad by Bruce Hawes and Jack Faith which veers into unexpected melodic directions. Montana again shines on vibes.
This uplifting album, alternately mellow and boisterous, has been expanded by three bonus tracks (although only two are listed on the back cover artwork). In addition to the 45 version of “Love is the Message,” Tom Moulton’s extended mix of the track is here, plus Moulton’s take on “T.S.O.P.” Rico “Superbizzee” Washington is on hand with informative liner notes, and Nick Robbins has remastered the whole album under the aegis of reissue producer Wayne A. Dickson. (The single version of “T.S.O.P.” and its B-side of “T.S.O.P.,” “Something for Nothing,” haven’t been included. That flipside first appeared on the self-titled MFSB debut album; perhaps that collection will arrive next from BBR!)
Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff firmly believed in the title song’s lyrics: “Love is the message that I sing to you/Love is the message that I bring to you/Love is the message for us all…” It’s a credo that is still relevant today, making the long-awaited reintroduction of this album on CD particularly welcome. Love is the Message arrives in the U.K. today and in the U.S. next Tuesday. It can be ordered below!
MFSB, Love is the Message (Philadelphia International LP 32707, 1973 – reissued Big Break Records CDBBR 0179, 2012)
- Zack’s Fanfare
- Love is the Message
- Cheaper to Keep Her
- My One and Only Love
- T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)
- Zack’s Fanfare (I Hear Music)
- Touch Me in the Morning
- Bitter Sweet
- Love is the Message (Single) (from Philadelphia International single 3547, 1974)
- T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia) (A Tom Moulton Mix)
- Love is the Message (A Tom Moulton Mix)