The title of The Salsoul Orchestra’s second album said it all – Nice ‘n’ Naasty. The soul-disco orchestra, originally under the baton of MFSB alumnus Vincent Montana Jr., could serve up nice, shimmering and lushly elegant soundscapes…and naasty floor-filling grooves that practically demanded you hit the dancefloor! Happily, the group has recently received a lavish tribute in the form of a sizzling 3-CD collection from Groove Line Records (the label responsible for the recent, definitive Change anthology). The Salsoul Orchestra Story: 40th Anniversary Collection chronicles the group via 37 ebullient tracks drawing on its many incarnations and leaders including Montana, Bunny Sigler, Ron Tyson, Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson, and Patrick Adams. Album cuts, extended disco versions, single edits and club mixes all are featured.
It’s no wonder that the set is dedicated to the memory of Montana; he set the sonic template that set The Salsoul Orchestra apart. As a vibraphonist, Montana was a core member of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records house band MFSB alongside the other remarkable musicians who would join him (some exclusively, some not) on his exodus to the New York-based Salsoul Records. These included Bobby Eli, Larry Washington, Jack Faith, T.J. Tindall, Ron Kersey, and the team of Ronnie Baker, Norman Harris, and Earl Young. The sound of The Salsoul Orchestra wasn’t identical to MFSB, not only due to the infusion of Latin salsa percussionists playing alongside Washington (congas) and Young (drums), but because Montana orchestrated in a different style for the group. MFSB frequently utilized five saxophones; Montana preferred two, combined with brass, at Salsoul. He also frequently doubled his vibes with Harris’ jazz-like guitar, for another distinctive element. But the strong musical personalities of the players and the sonic signature of Sigma Sound Studios (not to mention the vocal presence of The Sweethearts of Sigma, a.k.a. Evette Benton, Carla Benson and Barbara Ingram, and violinist Don Renaldo’s Horns and Strings) made the Orchestra’s initial sound completely recognizable as Philly soul – after all, Montana and his fellow musicians had created the style with Gamble, Huff, Thom Bell and company – taken up a notch.
The first disc of this comprehensive anthology might as well have been subtitled The Montana Years: 1975-1978, culling its tracks from The Salsoul Orchestra’s first four non-holiday long-players as well as odds and ends including the collaborative album Cuchi-Cuchi with Charo, the various-artists set Saturday Night Disco Party, and The Salsoul Strings’ How Deep is Your Love. Each spirited track showcases the impeccable musicianship and unstoppable rhythms that defined the immense, 40+-musician Salsoul Orchestra sound, opening with the explosive “Salsoul Hustle” (Montana’s funky answer to “T.S.O.P.”). It’s one of five tracks from the era-defining 1975 self-titled debut album also including a revival of the standard “Tangerine” and the infectiously imploring “Chicago Bus Stop (Ooh, I Love It).”
Four tracks have been plucked from The Salsoul Orchestra follow-up Nice ‘n’ Naasty. Montana indulged his eclectic sensibilities even more on Naasty, with the original album including non-disco tracks like the haunting instrumental “Nightcrawler” and a medley of pop hits “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Feelings.” This collection emphasizes the uptempo side of the group, so while those tracks are absent, the ones here are choice. Ronnie Baker’s “It Don’t Have to Be Funky (To Be a Groove)” has a touch of the up-tempo sound of The Spinners in its tight harmony vocals but also exemplifies the rapport between the cooking rhythm section and the swelling strings and horns. Baker also delivered the “naasty” bassline in Montana’s title track.
The 1976 holiday perennial Christmas Jollies (and its timeless “Merry Christmas All”) and the Carol Williams co-headlining LP ‘lectric Lady aren’t represented here, but The Salsoul Orchestra Story picks up on Disc One with three tracks from 1977’s Magic Journey. By this point, Montana had perfected the formula of showing off the many facets of his orchestra, from high-octane floor-fillers to ballads, and sincerity to glossy camp. The highlight then and now is the sublime Philly soul of “Run Away.” Led by powerhouse vocalist Loleatta Holloway, “Run Away” remains one of the finest songs to emerge on Salsoul. With its infectious melody, shimmering arrangement and urgent vocals, it’s unfathomable that the song stalled at R&B No. 84 and didn’t even dent the pop chart.
Holloway wasn’t the only vocalist to score a hit record with The Salsoul Orchestra’s backing. Cuchi-Cuchi, jointly credited to Charo and The Salsoul Orchestra, introduced the insinuating groove and immaculate arrangement of “Dance a Little Bit Closer.” (The song was originally demoed for Salsoul’s chiefs at Montana’s very first session.) Its lush strings, commanding brass, taut guitars and of course a vibes solo from Montana, added up to pure, sophisticated Philly disco. “Dance,” breathily sung in the heavily accented English that made Charo famous (or infamous?) on Laugh-In, makes room for asides in Spanish (“Loco, loco, loco!”) as the singer’s playful personality compensates for her lack of a commanding voice. She was rewarded with a Top 20 dance hit for the infectious track. This disc is rounded out by tracks saluting stage and screen from Montana’s Hollywood-and-Broadway tribute Up the Yellow Brick Road (“Ease on Down the Road,” from The Wiz) and a pair from Saturday Night Fever including a fine revival of The Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” as originally presented on The Salsoul Strings’ How Deep is Your Love.
Disc Two chronicles the evolution of The Salsoul Orchestra in the wake of Vince Montana’s departure from Salsoul Records in 1978. How would the Orchestra name survive without its guiding force? Perhaps seeking to ease the transition to another producer, the label kept 1979’s How High in the MFSB veteran family. It was largely cobbled together from the Philadelphia productions of Bunny Sigler, Ron Tyson and Ron Baker, with a couple of arrangements from Lenny Pakula as well. Perhaps ironically, the title track (one of four here from How High) was the only song not from the Philly contingent. It was the work of Colin Horton Jennings and Steve O’Donnell a.k.a. Cognac; some pressings even indicated the track artist as “Cognac Featuring the Salsoul Orchestra.” Regardless of the track’s origins, it’s very much disco in a Philly groove, even featuring the vibes that were a trademark of Montana’s productions. Ron Tyson co-wrote and produced the impressively orchestrated ballad “Stop and Think” showcasing the string section and lead guitar. The track wouldn’t have been out of place on one of MFSB’s albums, or for that matter, on a George Benson record.
Tom Moulton, whose beautifully-rendered so often mixes brought the Orchestra’s music to new life, took the helm with his frequent collaborator Thor Baldursson for Street Sense. The 1979 release was a transitional album in virtually every sense, bridging the gap between the Philadelphia era and the Orchestra’s two final albums from producer Patrick Adams (Phreek, Inner Life). For Street Sense, Moulton stayed in place at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios, utilizing a number of the studios’ key players (Earl Young, Keith Benson, Larry Washington, Don Renaldo’s Horns and Strings) to maintain musical continuity. But Moulton and arranger Thor Baldursson brought their own cutting-edge, contemporary style to Sigma as heard on the five tracks selected here. The catchy instrumental “212 North 12th” – Sigma’s address – is the quintessential Tom Moulton Mix here, the album’s most pure fusion of the Philadelphia brass-and-strings sound with Baldursson’s futuristic synths and the sleek, European flavor. The arc of Moulton’s mix allows each element of the Orchestra’s style to come into focus, individually and collectively. Closing track “Sun After the Rain,” co-written by Salsoul labelmate Bebu Silvetti, isn’t as intoxicatingly breezy as Silvetti’s earlier “Spring Rain” (which certainly inspired it to some degree) but applies its predecessor’s bright, refreshing mood in a more driving context. Street Sense almost marked the end of The Salsoul Orchestra, but after a hiatus, the label reactivated the name in 1982.
Three tracks from the Patrick Adams-produced Heat It Up conclude this disc. It was one of two Salsoul Orchestra albums led by Adams, including a sequel to Christmas Jollies. Adams engaged his usual studio band, The P.A. System, as The Salsoul Orchestra for Christmas Jollies II, adding Jeff Delinko and His Horns and Strings to add the requisite orchestral flourishes. Pleased with his work, the label sent Adams to work on a new, non-holiday Orchestra record. Most of the same musicians regrouped, and vocalists including Jocelyn Brown (of Inner Life) and Loleatta Holloway joined the line-up. Heat It Up reinvented the big-band disco sound for the synthesizer-driven eighties. Once again, Holloway had the standout track with the funky “Seconds,” co-written by Philly vet Ron Kersey and Sam Dees (and one of the albums few nods to the Orchestra’s roots). But Heat It Up would become the final album under the Salsoul Orchestra banner.
No compilation devoted to the group would be complete without tips of the hat to the disco tastemakers whose mixes have contributed so mightily to the music’s enduring power. So, the third disc has been dedicated solely to the work of Tom Moulton, Shep Pettibone, Mike Maurro, Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and Danny Krivit, all of whom took The Salsoul Orchestra’s original tracks in exciting new, extended directions. Previously unreleased mixes of “Salsoul Rainbow” by Moulton and “Tangerine” by Maurro make this disc even more essential.
Salsoul records promised that they would inspire listeners to “Dance Your Ass Off.” That might well happen in the case of The Salsoul Orchestra Story, though one is advised to get up and dance after reading the thick 24-page booklet enclosed within the set’s digipak. Compilation co-producer Malcolm McKenzie has supplied a lengthy essay touching on both the Orchestra’s history and his personal experiences including notes on all of the included songs. Illuminating, candid and insightful new interviews with Tom Moulton and Bobby Eli are also featured; happily, full credits for each album/track are present to recognize all of the talented musicians, arrangers and producers who shaped the Salsoul Orchestra sound. Co-producer Wayne Dickson, who also sequenced the collection, has remastered with Nick Robbins. (Note that most of the albums mentioned above are available in expanded editions produced by Dickson for Big Break Records.)
Disco, jazz, pop, soul, funk and R&B – indeed, a “Salsoul Rainbow” – all coalesced in the recordings of The Salsoul Orchestra. Groove Line’s new compendium is an exceptional, effervescent tribute to its lasting musical legacy. After all, as Vince Montana once implored in song, it’s good for the soul!
- Salsoul Hustle (Disco Version)
- Tangerine (Single Version)
- Salsoul Rainbow
- Chicago Bus Stop (Ooh, I Love It)
- You’re Just the Right Size
- Nice ‘n’ Naasty (Disco Version)
- Don’t Beat Around the Bush
- It Don’t Have to Be Funky (To Be a Groove) (Disco Version)
- Ritzy Mambo
- Run Away – The Salsoul Orchestra with Loleatta Holloway
- Getaway (Single Version)
- Alpha Centuri
- Ease On Down the Road (Single Version)
- Dance a Little Bit Closer (Disco Version) – Charo and The Salsoul Orchestra
- Night Fever
- More Than a Woman
- How High (Disco Version) – Cognac featuring The Salsoul Orchestra
- Resorts International
- I’ll Keep You Warm
- Stop and Think
- Sun After the Rain (Disco Version)
- Street Sense (Single Version)
- 212 North 12th
- Burning Spear
- Take Some Time Out (For Love) – The Salsoul Orchestra with Jocelyn Brown
- Comin’ at Cha – The Salsoul Orchestra with Carol Bramble
- Seconds (Special Club Version) – The Salsoul Orchestra with Loleatta Holloway
- Ooh, I Love It (Love Break) (12″ Shep Pettibone Mix)
- Tangerine (Mike Maurro Mix) (previously unreleased)
- Salsoul Hustle (A Tom Moulton Mix)
- Tale of Three Cities (Mike Maurro Mix) (previously unreleased)
- Salsoul Rainbow (A Tom Moulton Mix) (previously unreleased)
- It’s Good for the Soul (Walter Gibbons Mix)
- Magic Bird of Fire (Walter Gibbons Mix)
- Run Away (Danny Krivit Re-Edit)
- How High (Larry Levan Mix)
CD 1, Tracks 1-5 original versions from The Salsoul Orchestra, Salsoul 5501, 1975
CD 1, Tracks 6-9 original versions from Nice ‘n’ Naasty, Salsoul SZS-5502, 1976
CD 1, Tracks 10-12 original versions from Magic Journey, Salsoul SZS-5515, 1977
CD 1, Track 13 original version from Up the Yellow Brick Road, Salsoul SA-8500, 1978
CD 1, Track 14 original version from Cuchi-Cuchi, Salsoul SZS-5519, 1977
CD 1, Track 15 from Saturday Night Disco Party, Salsoul SA-8505, 1978
CD 1, Track 16 from How Deep is Your Love, Salsoul SA-8506, 1978
CD 2, Tracks 1-4 original versions from How High, Salsoul SA-8528, 1979
CD 2, Tracks 5-9 original versions from Street Sense, Salsoul SA-8516, 1979
CD 2, Tracks 10-12 original versions from Heat It Up, Salsoul 8552, 1982