Though London, England is some 3,500 miles away from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the United States, the spirit of the City of Brotherly Love is alive and well thanks to Cherry Red’s Big Break Records label. Two more remarkable artifacts from Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International empire have recently arrived from BBR, and though both titles have previously been available on CD, these new reissues are their best representations in the format yet.
Fans who only know The O’Jays from their massive hits like “Love Train” and “Back Stabbers” might be surprised by the cover image of 1970’s The O’Jays in Philadelphia (CDBBR 0229) in which the “classic trio” of Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell are joined – suitcases in hand – by a fourth O’Jay, Bobby Massey. The group actually began its life in Cleveland, Ohio in 1957 as a quintet. Bill Isles departed during The O’Jays’ Imperial Records stay, and Massey was out before the group signed with Philadelphia International. But Massey did participate in one Gamble and Huff production, recorded during the infancy of Philly soul for the duo’s pre-PIR Neptune Records label – The O’Jays in Philadelphia.
Hit the jump as we spin The O’Jays in Philadelphia – plus MFSB!
Gamble and Huff were hands-on for The O’Jays’ Philly debut, writing or co-writing eight of its eleven tracks. The third central figure in the story of The O’Jays in Philadelphia was Thom Bell. The orchestral mastermind was the third member of publishing concern Mighty Three Music with Gamble and Huff, and his ties with the duo ran deep. So while Bell’s greatest successes as producer were outside of the Philadelphia International fold – for the Stylistics on Avco, the Spinners on Atlantic, and Deniece Williams on Columbia, just to name three – he played a major role with the company and its precursors, usually in an arranging capacity. Six of the eleven tracks on O’Jays in Philadelphia were Bell’s handiwork, some in collaboration with another gifted arranger/producer, Bobby Martin. Martin (whose own charts include “Me and Mrs. Jones”) handled four more tracks on his own, with the final arrangement going to Richie Rome. This is one of the albums on which the seeds of the PIR sound were planted, and like the triumphs to come, it was recorded at Sigma Sound with Joe Tarsia engineering. The original LP’s jacket proclaimed “The scene was set in Philadelphia – the land of giants.” If Gamble, Huff, Bell, Martin and The O’Jays weren’t yet giants in 1970, they all soon would be.
The O’Jays in Philadelphia offers a pleasing blend of ballads and up-tempo tracks, the latter of which pointed the way to PIR’s proto-disco. Thom Bell handled his share of both. The opening track, “One Night Affair,” was first released as the very first Neptune single in 1969; it reached a peak of No. 15 R&B/No. 68 Pop. It begins with a searing electronic siren sound before trademark strings swirl around hot percussion licks and a funky bassline. The sound of the dramatic Gamble and Huff song anticipates another composition which Bell would later arrange for the group, “992 Arguments,” but the lyric might have been too unapologetic with Eddie Levert proclaiming with no remorse, “I’ll hit and run/I’m a son-of-a-gun!” (“I’ll never let you under my skin/’Cause I don’t want to be hurt again,” Levert sings, making his unrepentant lover a bit more sympathetic!) “One Night Affair” was one of three arrangements by Bell and Martin in collaboration; they would later arrange “Love Train” together. Their “I’ve Got the Groove” is a sexy, funky workout with Massey, Powell and Williams answering Levert’s lead (“Come on, try me!”). For the album’s most unusual track, “Branded Bad,” Bell supplied percussion and guitar to recall the sounds of a classic western. This darkly brassy track, performed with full-on fervor by Levert on lead, was released as a single prior to the LP’s issue, and almost made the R&B Top 40 (No. 41!).
Bell’s ballads are, unsurprisingly, delectable. “Let Me in Your World” is one of the album’s strongest tracks. It’s unfathomable that this passionate song written by Gamble and Huff with Allan Felder was relegated to a B-side. It’s truly a link between Bell’s past work with The Delfonics and subsequent productions for The Stylistics. Keni St. Lewis and Ugene Dozier wrote “You’re the Sweetest Thing Since Candy,” for which Bobby Martin crafted, naturally, a sweet backing. Martin also scored Gamble and Huff’s ebullient “Looky Looky (Look at Me Girl),” which anticipates the harmony sound of Philly boys Daryl Hall and John Oates. Just as good is the sleek “Deeper (In Love with You)” with more pitch-perfect group vocals and Martin’s swinging band behind them.
The penultimate track on O’Jays in Philadelphia, a straightforward medley of Bobby Russell’s “Little Green Apples” and George Harrison’s “Something,” exhibits the O’Jays’ versatility, not to mention their tight harmonies. But these oft-covered pop hits seem like a step backward surrounded by so many soulful originals. The album bounces back with its closer, “It’s Too Strong,” that blends Levert and William Powell’s complementary voices.
For this edition remastered by producer Wayne A. Dickson, Christian John Wikane has contributed a loving and insightful essay, drawing on new contributions from Bobby Massey. BBR has also included Bob Palmer’s liner notes for the Philadelphia International reissue of the original Neptune album. Alas, as on Legacy’s previous U.S. CD from 1994, there are no bonus tracks. Most missed is the non-album B-side “There’s Someone Waiting (Back Home),” which supported “One Night Affair” on that inaugural Neptune single. In addition, the 45 mix of “One Night Affair” runs about ten seconds longer than the album version here, and it would have also made for an appropriate extra. BBR has lovingly recreated the original Neptune cover artwork for the very first time on CD, er, howevand the album’s rear jacket art has also been reprinted in this handsomely-designed and copiously-annotated package.
The O’Jays in Philadelphia has been joined by an expanded edition of the first album by Philadelphia International’s house band, MFSB. That’s Mother-Father-Sister-Brother, unless you prefer the saltier alternative that’s been mooted by some of the band members…! MFSB (CDBBR 0228), originally released in 1973, shows off the prodigious talents of MFSB Mk. I, including Huff on piano; Lenny Pakula on organ; Ronnie Baker and Anthony Jackson on bass; Bobby Eli, Norman Harris, T.J. Tindall, Roland Chambers and Reginald Lucas on guitar; Earl Young, Karl Chambers and Norman Farrington on drums; Larry Washington on congas; Eddie Green and Harold Williams on piano; Zach Zachary on saxophone; Tony Williams on saxophone and flute; Don Renaldo’s famous Horns and Strings; and the one and only Vince Montana on vibes. Producers Gamble and Huff turned to the crème of the crop for arrangements: Thom Bell and Bobby Martin, of course, along with the equally-impressive Pakula, Harris and Montana.
With just six lengthy tracks, MFSB included familiar cover versions from in and out of the PIR family as well as a couple of smart originals. Its arrangements were structured to allow the musicians to stretch out, shine, and indulge in solos. As a result, even the most familiar songs were Philly-ized from their original versions. Opening cut “Freddie’s Dead” took the Curtis Mayfield anthem from his score to Super Fly and gave new dimension to the gritty R&B song. The seven-minute rendition is constantly shifting, with swing and Latin sections, and showcases are built in for electric piano, Montana’s vibes and Zachary’s saxophone. “Freddie’s Dead” might have been the inspiration for the unsettling cover image of a coffin with a needle resting in it, and indeed, that artwork might have surprised some listeners looking for the trademark sweet Philly soul. Though a smooth element is certainly found within the grooves, it’s just one side of MFSB. For Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” the orchestra lathers on the funk, with impressive guitar work throughout.
Arranger Thom Bell returned to his sumptuous, symphonic Delfonics sound for the theatrical “Something for Nothing.” He co-wrote this majestic, melodic instrumental with Gamble and Roland Chambers, and it’s the most dramatic track on MFSB. Though Bell arranged the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers,” Bobby Martin and Lenny Pakula teamed up to reinvent it for the same musicians who played on that seminal track. Here, “Back Stabbers” is one of the less impressive tracks, if only because it doesn’t stray too far from the original, and well, it’s difficult to top perfection! (Vince Montana does cut loose on the vibes during the course of the 6+-minute track!) MFSB’s other original composition, “Lay in Low” by Norman Harris, Gamble and “Me and Mrs. Jones” co-writer Cary Gilbert, is deftly arranged by Harris. A slow-burner, it spotlights Zachary’s sinuous sax to good effect. Piano (both electric and acoustic), vibes and subdued strings lend it a smoky, late-night, ripe-for-romance atmosphere.
Buddy Bernier and Nat Simon’s 1936 “Poinciana,” as arranged by Vince Montana, closes out MFSB with a juxtaposition of a breezy melody and grand strings. Though future efforts would be more explicitly dance-oriented than the jazz-Latin pop-soul of MFSB, the album captures all of the flavors that made the group so influential to the sound of popular music. And Montana clearly didn’t forget the lessons of this Top 20 R&B album. When he decamped from Philadelphia International to form The Salsoul Orchestra with many of the players heard on MFSB, he included two standards on that disco orchestra’s first long-player, treating them with the same grace, reverence and spirit as he did on “Poinciana.”
Like The O’Jays in Philadelphia, MFSB has been elegantly reissued by BBR. Producer Dickson has remastered, and Steven E. Flemming, Jr. goes into the album’s background in his essay. The full-color booklet is nicely illustrated with label scans and photographs of MFSB in action. One bonus track has been included, the A-side “Family Affair,” in its edited version. (The 45 of the edited “Freddie’s Dead” is pictured within the booklet, but isn’t included. It too would have made a worthwhile addition.) The single of “Lay in Low,” the B-side of “Family Affair,” may have been left out because the timing appears identical to the album version. (U.S. Legacy’s 2002 reissue of MFSB included one bonus track, the live “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” from The Three Degrees Live, which isn’t reprised here. “TSOP” appeared on sophomore album Love is the Message, so it’s not a great loss. That LP has already been reissued by BBR, with different bonus tracks.)
The Sound of Philadelphia continued to grow and evolve in the years following the original release of these two albums, but these exemplars of the city’s pioneering, soulful style shouldn’t be overlooked. Both are available for order at the links below!
- One Night Affair
- You’re the Best Thing Since Candy
- Branded Bad
- I Should Be Your Lover
- Looky Looky (Look At Me Girl)
- Deeper (in Love with You)
- Let Me in Your World
- Just Can’t Get Enough
- I’ve Got the Groove
- Something/Little Green Apples
- It’s Too Strong
- Freddie’s Dead
- Family Affair
- Something for Nothing
- Lay In Low
- Family Affair (Single Version) (single A-side – Philadelphia International ZS7 3528, 1973)