By 1975, Philadelphia soul had become too big even for the City of Brotherly Love. In the first half of the decade, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff had, along with the third member of their Mighty Three, Thom Bell, reinvented the sound of soul music. The Pennsylvania city had become synonymous with sweeping strings, punchy horns and the hi-hat cymbal of drummer Earl Young, offering up music that could be dramatic, sweet and funky, sometimes all within the same three-minute song! Bell had long kept a foot outside the Philadelphia International Records offices with his productions for Atlantic, Columbia, Avco and other labels, even while contributing arrangements for Gamble and Huff, especially in PIR’s early years. The crème of the Philly crop, though, could be found at Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios playing in MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother). PIR’s house orchestra, MFSB backed the likes of Billy Paul, The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and the Three Degrees for Gamble and Huff, and The Stylistics and The Spinners for Bell. Eventually, though, individual musicians and arrangers desired to step out of the Mighty Three’s shadow. Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker, Earl Young, Bobby Martin, Bobby Eli and a certain Vincent Montana, Jr. all began to strike out on their own, bringing their individual spins to the already-familiar orchestral, proto-disco sound. Enter Joe, Ken and Stan Cayre, the three brothers behind New York’s Mericana Records label.
What happened next is currently being surveyed on CD by Cherry Red’s Big Break Records imprint. The Cayres went on to form Salsoul Records, still one of the most beloved labels in dance, disco and R&B circles. Yet, until now, the mightily impressive Salsoul catalogue has never gotten the same kind of lavish treatment on CD as PIR’s for any number of reasons. Likely high among those reasons is the fact that the label hasn’t always had a major distributor, as the Cayres were initially turned down by CBS, Atlantic and Polydor! The existing CDs hardly seemed aimed at collectors, lacking deluxe packaging and fidelity to the original albums. Finally, though, this new reissue series aims to restore Salsoul to its rightful place in the soul music pantheon. Big Break has just launched its Salsoul campaign with four classic titles from the company’s catalogue, from The Salsoul Orchestra, First Choice, Instant Funk and Double Exposure, respectively. Each title has been definitively expanded with bonus tracks and new liner notes, allowing this music to be explored and enjoyed once more. (It’s no coincidence that Big Break has also been reissuing a number of PIR titles, including last month’s Love is the Message from the original MFSB line-up, featuring many of the players who went on to form the Salsoul Orchestra.)
After the jump: we pick up with the Salsoul story and take a look at all four titles!
The Cayres had poached artist Joe Bataan from the competing Fania label for their Mericana roster. Bataan named his 1973 Mericana debut Salsoul, meaning a blend of Latin/salsa and soul music. The name, in turn, inspired Mericana’s ambitious owners, who launched an entire Salsoul label with Bataan’s CBS-distributed Afrofilipino in 1975. (CBS was also the label distributing Philadelphia International.) Like everybody else in the music business, the Cayres took notice of the Gamble and Huff formula. How could the Philadelphia sound migrate to New York? When Vince Montana, vibraphonist par excellence with MFSB, approached the Cayre brothers about signing a new Latin act he’d discovered, they had other ideas for him. How about creating an orchestra for Salsoul?
Montana cannily took advantage of the financial and credit disputes occurring over at PIR. By the end of 1975, MFSB had morphed into The Salsoul Orchestra. Montana booked Sigma Sound and enlisted many of MFSB’s top players including Jack Faith (flute), Earl Young (drums), Ronnie Baker (bass), Bobby Eli, Norman Harris and T.J. Tindel (guitars), Ron Kersey (keyboards), Larry Washington (percussion) and Don Renaldo (strings), plus the Sweethearts of Sigma, vocalists Carla Benson, Barbara Ingram and Evette Benton. He filled out the orchestra with percussionists specializing in Latin styles, including salsa, and altered the makeup of the brass section to create a sound that was, at once, utterly similar to MFSB yet substantially different, too, and more explicitly aimed at the burgeoning disco market. Not all of the orchestra members burned their bridges with Gamble and Huff permanently; in fact, Faith came into his own as an arranger in the PIR period that spawned MFSB Mk. II, as the second iteration of the group is informally known. But Salsoul certainly made waves.
The Salsoul Orchestra (1975) explodes with the vibrancy of “Salsoul Hustle,” Montana’s funky answer to “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia).” In addition to that potent, instrumental mission statement, the bandleader also composed three other pieces, while Ronnie Baker offered “Get Happy” and “Tale of Three Cities.” The album was rounded out with two reinvigorated standards, “Tangerine” and “Love Letters.” Baker arranged his own compositions while Montana handled orchestration duties for the other songs, all of which are unified by their immense sound (42 musicians!), up-tempo groove and enormous spirit. You might have a hard time denying the sung request to “Do the bus stop!” in “Chicago Bus Stop,” and once you do give in, you’ll likely agree, “Ooh, I love it,” as the song goes. The dance beats only briefly slow down when Montana’s soft vibes take center stage on “Love Letters,” a fitting coda to a non-stop, energetic fest of orchestral R&B. Big Break adds a generous five bonus tracks, all single versions, including the single and disco mixes of “Salsoul Hustle.”
Though the ladies of First Choice never called Philadelphia International home, they too were surrounded by some of that label’s most illustrious talents. MFSB/Salsoul Orchestra guitarist Norman Harris had produced the girl group over at Stan Watson’s Philly Groove label, and when he formed Gold Mind Records under the Salsoul umbrella, First Choice lived up to their name for Harris! (Harris, of the Baker-Harris-Young production triumvirate, had previously set up Golden Fleece records under the PIR aegis.) 1977’s Delusions was the Gold Mind debut of First Choice (then consisting of Rochelle Fleming, Annette Guest and Ursula Herring) and today remains the group’s most beloved album. The sly “Doctor Love” became an R&B hit, while “Indian Giver” – both arranged and produced by Harris himself – had the same sophisticated sheen as Thom Bell’s best work, with Vince Montana contributing sparkling vibes and Jack Faith a mellifluous flute part. This isn’t a “disco” album proper, though it has many elements of that genre. Heavy funk is offset by strong balladry, including “I Love You More Than Before,” written, produced and arranged by another talent coming into his own, Ron Kersey. He was the mastermind behind a sassy, reinvented version of Stevie Wonder’s “Love Having You Around,” with some dazzlingly jazzy vocals from Ursula Herring. Another triple threat, Bruce Hawes, also made an impression. The co-writer of such Spinners hits as “Mighty Love,” “Games People Play” and “Love or Leave” wrote and arranged two songs, and arranged a third. Though Salsoul’s difficulty placing pop hits on the charts might have hindered the impact of Delusions, the LP nonetheless became an oft-sampled dance classic, expanded here by six bonus tracks (three original singles, and 12-inch mixes by Tom Moulton, Shep Pettibone and Frankie Knuckles). Delusions compares favorably both to First Choice’s earlier output and to the sophisticated R&B of PIR’s premier “girl groups” The Three Degrees and The Jones Girls.
Another Baker-Harris-Young charge was Double Exposure. The Philly foursome had actually begun their recording career at Stax’s Volt subsidiary, recording enough material for an album but releasing just one single. Another 45 followed for Branding Iron Records before Double Exposure caught the ear of Norman Harris. The busy Harris secured the group (James Williams, Joseph Harris, Charles Whittington and Leonard “Butch” Davis) a contract with Salsoul and ushered its members into Sigma Sound for a date with many MFSB/Salsoul Orchestra veterans including Ron Kersey, Bobby Eli, Vince Montana, Don Renaldo, Larry Washington and Baker, Harris and Young themselves. The extended, deliciously danceable “Ten Percent,” penned under hurried conditions by Allan Felder and T.G. Conway, made it all the way to No. 2 on the disco charts with its quintessential Harris groove. Mixed by DJ Walter Gibbons, the 12-inch disco release was one of the earliest commercially released 12-inch singles. Double Exposure’s debut album was titled after the hit song which preceded it, and Ten Percent the long-player flaunted the versatility of its members. The album is steeped not just in disco, but in pure soul. Bruce Hawes’ “Gonna Give My Love Away” is draped in lush strings and harmony vocals, with Hawes’ own production showing that he learned a few things from Thom Bell’s production of his Spinners tunes. Co-writer/arranger/producer Vince Montana’s “Just Can’t Say Hello” is another lovely, straightforward R&B throwback showcasing the balladeers’ vocal chops. A Gamble and Huff trademark was keenly felt on Allan Felder and Bunny Sigler’s “Everyman.” Its socially-conscious lyrics, grafted to a rousing melody and upbeat disco track, emphasized personal responsibility. On the cover of the album, Double Exposure looked a bit like the Motown acts of yore, dressed in natty suits and mid-step in choreography. Well, they even paid tribute to the Motor City in their music with Ron Kersey’s pulsating makeover of The Four Tops’ “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” with the Sweethearts of Sigma cooing in the backgrounds. “My Love is Free” is another Felder/Conway stomper in the same spirit of “Ten Percent.” The reissue’s six bonus tracks include that original, storming disco mix of “Ten Percent” plus the standard single mix, single versions of “Everyman” and “My Love is Free,” and 12-inch mixes from Joe Claussell and Tom Moulton of those two aforementioned songs, respectively.
Instant Funk migrated to Salsoul from Philadelphia International along with composer/producer Bunny Sigler. The nine-person band had cut an unsuccessful album at PIR but didn’t quite fit into the Gamble and Huff enterprise. Once cut loose, the group pursued its recording career at Salsoul. Sigler recognized their talent. The gritty unit also worked as a backing band for other artists including Sigler himself, and Salsoul labelmates Double Exposure and Loleatta Holloway. Instant Funk’s eponymous debut was slated for Norman Harris’ Gold Mind label, but in early 1979, Gold Mind was absorbed into Salsoul following mounting losses. Salsoul couldn’t have minded taking over the imprint’s roster when Instant Funk, the LP, went to No. 1 Disco, No. 2 R&B and No. 12 Pop! It’s the greasiest of the four Salsoul albums in this initial batch from Big Break, and the least traditionally in the “Philadelphia soul” bag (though it was cut at Sigma along with Philadelphia Music Works and Alpha International Studios). The breakout hit was the erotically-charged funk of “I Got My Mind Made Up” (with its memorable exclamations of “Say whaaat?”), a Top 20 Pop hit that reached pole position on the disco and R&B charts. Public Enemy, De La Soul and Tupac Shakur all drew on the song in the hip-hop/rap era. The album recalls James Brown in some places, Parliament in others, even Earth, Wind and Fire at times. There are quieter moments such as the ballad “Never Let It Go Away,” but Instant Funk’s debut is characterized by steamy disco-funk. “Wide World of Sports” is a brassy instrumental with machine gun drums and jazzy interplay, while “Dark Vader” may be the biggest and baddest Star Wars tribute record of them all. The theatrical opus riffs on the George Lucas film with its opening rap, before launching into the tale of a “tall black man” who’s “left his mark on the universe”: “Dark Vader’s comin’/He’s comin’ back/He said he would!” Meco, eat your heart out! This high-octane record is rounded out by five bonuses including the 12-inch remixes of “I Got My Mind Made Up” (of course!) and “Crying,” plus other singles and extended versions.
Nick Robbins has remastered each album for BBR. All four titles feature comprehensive new essays, as well. Rico “Superbizzee” Washington has annotated Ten Percent, J. Matthew Cobb has done the honors for Instant Funk and Delusions, and Christian John Wikane has handled The Salsoul Orchestra. Liner notes are always an integral part of the BBR package, and the work by these gentlemen lives up to the label’s usual high standards. Their superlative work is even more valuable because information on the Salsoul legacy isn’t as readily available as that of, say, PIR. The booklets are also lavishly illustrated with memorabilia scans, album artwork and photographs. One minor quibble: whereas all other aspects of BBR’s booklets excel, discographical information is frequently omitted for the 12-inch remixes (though not for the album and 7-inch singles). Especially when remixes are so important to the Salsoul catalogue, the discographical annotation for these seems essential. Finally, in a loving touch, original rainbow Salsoul labels are replicated on the face of each CD.
If you’re ready to dance your ass off (as the old slogan went!), the four Salsoul titles are available now. You’ll find order links just below. Hopefully this quartet is just the beginning of a full series from BBR. If you had ever boarded the love train but wondered just where it headed, these joyous reissues are meant for you.
The Salsoul Orchestra, The Salsoul Orchestra (Salsoul LP 5501, 1975 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0101, 2012)
- Salsoul Hustle
- Get Happy
- Chicago Bus Stop (Ooh, I Love It)
- You’re Just the Right Size
- Tale of Three Cities
- Salsoul Rainbow
- Love Letters
- Salsoul Hustle (Single Version) (from Salsoul single 2002, 1975)
- Tangerine (Single Version) (from Salsoul single 2004, 1975)
- You’re Just the Right Size (Single Version) (from Salsoul single 2007, 1976)
- Chicago Bus Stop (Ooh, I Love It) (Single Version) (from Salsoul single 2007, 1976)
- Salsoul Hustle (Disco Version) (from Salsoul single 2002, 1975)
First Choice, Delusions (Gold Mind LP GZS-7501, 1977 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0103, 2012)
- Dr. Love
- Indian Giver
- Love Having You Around
- Gamble on Love
- Chances Go Around
- I Love You More Than Before
- Let No Man Put Asunder
- Do Me Again
- Jimmy “D”
- Dr. Love (Single Version) (from Gold Mind single 4004, 1977)
- Love Having You Around (Single Version) (from Gold Mind single 4009, 1977)
- Indian Giver (Single Version) (from Gold Mind single 4009, 1977)
- Dr. Love (12” Tom Moulton Disco Mix)
- Let No Man Put Asunder (12” Shep Pettibone Remix)
- Let No Man Put Asunder (12” Frankie Knuckles Remix)
Double Exposure, Ten Percent (Salsoul LP 5503, 1976 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0109, 2012)
- Ten Percent
- Gonna Give My Love Away
- Baby I Need Your Loving
- Just Can’t Say Hello
- My Love is Free
- Pick Me
- Ten Percent (Walter Gibbons 12” Disco Mix)
- Everyman (Has to Carry His Own Weight) (Joe Claussell 12” Disco Version)
- My Love Is Free (Tom Moulton 12” Disco Mix)
- Ten Percent (Single Version) (from Salsoul single 2008, 1976)
- Everyman (Has to Carry His Own Weight) (Single Version) (from Salsoul single 2013, 1976)
- My Love is Free (Single Version) (from Salsoul single 2012, 1977)
Instant Funk, Instant Funk (Salsoul LP 8513, 1979 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0121, 2012)
- I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)
- Never Let It Go Away
- Don’t You Wanna Party
- Wide World of Sports
- Dark Vader
- You Say You Want Me to Stay
- I’ll Be Doggone
- I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl) (12” Remix)
- Crying (12” Remix)
- I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl) (Single Version) (from Salsoul single 2078, 1978)
- Crying (Single Version) (from Salsoul single 2088, 1979)
- Dark Vader (Pat Stapley Remix)