Cherry Red’s Big Break Records imprint has turned back the clock to 1979 for a pair of titles from the legendary roster of Philadelphia International Records.
BBR has continued its journey through the catalogue of the late Teddy Pendergrass with an expanded reissue of his third PIR solo platter, simply entitled Teddy. Overseen by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, the 1979 album followed in the footsteps of its predecessor, the previous year’s R&B chart-topper Life Is a Song Worth Singing, in featuring notable contributions from Thom Bell and Dexter Wansel as well as from the duo of Gene McFadden and Jerry Whitehead. All of these disparate talents crafted a stylistically consistent record of both bedroom ballads and funky dancers that still stands tall among the peaks of Philadelphia soul.
Teddy opened with two of the lush, sultry bedroom odes for which the former lead singer of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes was becoming known. Both “Come Go with Me” (not the Del-Vikings oldie) and “Turn Off the Lights” were penned and produced by Gamble and Huff and arranged by longtime MFSB flautist Jack Faith in lavish orchestral splendor. Pendergrass’ passionate, rough-hewn vocals contrasted with the plush settings, exuding pure lust and ardor. “All I Need is You,” co-written and produced by Sherman Marshall and arranged by Dexter Wansel, finds the singer in a similarly emotive, seductive vein, with Wansel’s shimmering chart providing the luster.
Producer Thom Bell, fresh off his remarkable streak of successes with The Spinners, contributed two tracks. “I’ll Never See Heaven Again” was written by Thom’s protégés, nephew Leroy Bell and Casey James, and arranged by his younger brother Anthony Bell. A surprisingly relaxed outing, it features one of Pendergrass’ most comfortable leads, no less fervent in its yearning but much more understated in its approach. Leroy Bell and Casey James also wrote the dramatic “Set Me Free,” decorated with a truly epic, rhythmically driving arrangement from Thom in the tradition of “Life is a Song Worth Singing.”
McFadden and Whitehead delivered one of the most danceable cuts on Teddy, “If You Know Like I Know.” Pendergrass practically snarls his swaggering lead, holding his own with the brassy production. Gamble and Huff wrote and produced another uptempo song, the blunt entreaty to “Do Me.” With taut guitar licks, slinky bass and a wending saxophone all contributing mightily to John Usry’s killer chart, Teddy makes no secret of his romantic intentions on this pulsating track. Gamble, Huff and Usry also provided the closing song, “Life is a Circle.” On Life is a Song, Usry had arranged “Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose,” and he clearly took that advice for this percolating closer.
Melding Pendergrass’ gritty, persuasive voice with a strong crop of songs and productions, Teddy became the artist’s second R&B No. 1 and his third of four consecutive platinum sellers. BBR’s reissue adds all four of the album’s associated single versions: “Turn Off the Lights” (R&B No. 2/Pop No. 48) b/w “If You Know What I Know,” and “Come Go with Me” (R&B No. 14) b/w “Do Me.”
Edwin Birdsong’s self-titled album, released on Philadelphia International three months before Teddy in March 1979, could hardly have been more different than that LP. It didn’t feature the famed MFSB rhythm section or The Sound of Philadelphia’s trademark smooth orchestration, and wasn’t even recorded in Philly. Instead, Edwin Birdsong (recorded in New York City) was delivered to Gamble and Huff as a near-complete release, making it one of the most atypical entries in the rich PIR catalogue.
A mélange of funk, disco, soul, rock, and jazz, Edwin Birdsong was composed, produced, and arranged by the artist, a frequent collaborator of jazz great Roy Ayers. The singer-keyboardist was joined by a band consisting of Kenee Wilson (drums/vocals), Chuck Anthony (guitars/vocals), Ronald Drayton (guitar/vocals) and Tony Bey (bass/vocals) on eight original lyrically sparse, groove-packed songs. His scorching style was epitomized by the connected opening tracks, “Cola Bottle Baby” and “Phiss-Phizz,” blending Parliament-style funk with scorching rock guitar and dancefloor-ready riffs. (“Cola Bottle” is best known today as the basis of Daft Punk’s hit “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”) Though those steamy tracks as well as “Freaky Deaky Sities” centered on love and sex, the bold disco of “Kunta Dance” had a bit more gravitas. It was inspired by Kunta Kinte, the central character of Alex Haley’s Roots. Over a nonstop rhythm, Birdsong channeled the power of music as a plea to reclaim that which had been stolen from his ancestors in the era of slavery.
Each track on Edwin Birdsong has its own lyrical and musical identity. “Lollipop,” with its candy-themed imagery (“Don’t want to be your sucker/Want to be your lover”), is in the vein of “Cola Bottle Baby” on which Birdsong compares a beautiful woman to a bottle of soda. The space-funk “Goldmine” is a more close relation to “Kunta Dance” as it tackles a serious subject – the unfortunate use of drugs as a means of heightening one’s awareness – within a dance framework. Birdsong employed listeners to look inside their own minds to reach the next level on this typically propulsive, driving track.
In a marked departure from the rest of the album, Edwin Birdsong concludes with a pair of slower tracks steeped in a fusion style. “Autumn Eyes” has a spacey feel redolent of Birdsong’s earlier work with Roy Ayers, with airy keyboards and burbling bass surrounding Birdsong’s soulful lead; the chorus even has a “yacht rock” flavor to it. “Lollipop (Slow)” takes the album track and recasts it in a slower (but not quite slow) mold with acoustic piano and a more traditionally melodic quality. BBR’s reissue – the first stand-alone release of this title outside of Japan – is expanded with a generous five bonus singles: the 12-inch versions of “Phiss-Phizz,” “Lollipop,” “Goldmine,” and “Freaky Deaky Sities,” as well as Part 1 of the 7-inch edit of “Kunta Dance.” None of these tracks charted, and indeed, perhaps Birdsong’s style was too far-removed from what was expected of artists on the familiar green PIR label. Yet Edwin Birdsong holds up precisely because he made the music on his own terms.
Both of these Philadelphia International classics are housed in deluxe Super Jewel Boxes and feature new remastering by reissue producer Wayne A. Dickson. Copious annotation has been written by the label’s resident wordsmith, Christian John Wikane. For Teddy, Wikane interviewed Dexter Wansel and Thom Bell, with both offering keen insights into their creative process and Pendergrass’ enduring legacy. For Edwin Birdsong, the artist contributed his own recollections of the special period of time that produced his only PIR platter. Showcasing both the classic Sound of Philadelphia as well as a personal spin on funk and dance, Teddy and Edwin Birdsong are invaluable additions to any R&B shelf.
- Come Go with Me
- Turn Off the Lights
- I’ll Never See Heaven Again
- All I Need is You
- If You Know Like I Know
- Do Me
- Set Me Free
- Life is a Circle
- Turn Off the Lights (Single Version) (Philadelphia International single ZS8-3696, 1979)
- Come Go with Me (Single Version) (Philadelphia International single ZS9-3717, 1979)
- Do Me (Single Version) (Philadelphia International single ZS9-3717, 1979)
- If You Know Like I Know (Single Version) (Philadelphia International single ZS8-3696, 1979)
- Cola Bottle Baby
- Kunta Dance
- Freaky Deaky Sities
- Autumn Eyes
- Lollipop (Slow)
- Phiss-Phizz (12-Inch Disco Version) (Philadelphia International 12-inch single 2Z8-3671, 1979)
- Lollipop (12-Inch Disco Version) (Philadelphia International 12-inch single 4Z8-3709, 1979)
- Goldmine (12-Inch Disco Version) (Philadelphia International 12-inch single 2Z8-3671, 1979)
- Freaky Deaky Sities (12-Inch Disco Version) (Philadelphia International 12-inch single 4Z8-3709, 1979)
- Kunta Dance (Part I) (Single Version) (Philadelphia International single ZS9-3659, 1978)