What is the sound of Philadelphia? As Kent Records’ exciting compilation Nothing But a House Party: The Birth of The Philly Sound 1967-1971 readily admits, there were many such sounds – the sound of teen idols Fabian and Frankie Avalon; of “South Street” and “The Mashed Potato” and Cameo-Parkway Records; of the doo-wop of The Dreamlovers, and before that, of Italian-American singers like Mario Lanza and Al Martino. But the sound of Philadelphia referenced here is the one with capital letters – TSOP, the style perfected by the Mighty Three of Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell. This new collection brings together 24 diverse tracks from the period immediately prior to the founding of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. Messrs. Gamble, Huff, and Bell are among the many familiar names present on this rarities-packed compendium, along with their compatriots like Bobby Eli, Norman Harris, Bobby Martin, and others. An unsung hero whose work is deeply felt here is Joe Tarsia, whose Sigma Sound Studios (opened in 1968) became the nexus of the new Philly soul.
Though known for plush orchestrations and smooth productions, TSOP synthesized many different elements. Philly soul was a direct antecedent of disco, and so, dancefloor anthems are one major part of this set including the title track. The Show Stoppers’ “Ain’t Nothing but a House Party” (1967) underscored a connection between Philly and Detroit, featuring the honking sax of sometime-Funk Brother Mike Terry. The storming “What You Gave Up,” written by Allan Felder and Norman Harris and recorded by The Continental 4, also boasts a driving Motor City-inspired rhythm. Another upbeat delight is The Intruders’ 1968 “Every Day is a Holiday,” from the early days of the Gamble and Huff hit factory.
Indeed, the names of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff appeared on many records coming out of the City of Brotherly Love, but they only became full-time partners at the behest of legendary record man Jerry Ross. Among the earliest successes from the new G&H team was Jerry Butler’s “Never Give You Up.” Butler brought his resonant brand of Chicago soul east, finding simpatico collaborators in the writer-producers and their top-tier arranger, Bobby Martin. His strings also gilded the aforementioned “What You Gave Up” as well as Honey and the Bees’ irresistibly pleading “Help Me (Get Over My Used-to-Be Lover),” and Cliff Nobles’ “Love is All Right” – which when shorn of its ill-fitting lyrics, became the smash instrumental hit “The Horse.” An alternate take of Winfield Parker’s buoyant “I’m on My Way,” musically arranged by Martin with vocal arrangements by Dee Dee Sharp, makes its debut here.
Nobody wrote, arranged or produced ballads with more aplomb than Thomas Randolph Bell. The Delfonics’ dramatic “You’ve Been Untrue,” originally released on the Cameo label, was a predecessor to Bell’s more famous productions with the group on Philly Groove Records (which, in turn, led to his groundbreaking work with The Stylistics and The Spinners), but the elements of “La-La Means I Love You” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time)” were already present: the thick, dense orchestral sound with unusual and unexpected, classically-influenced instrumentation; the crystalline falsetto of co-writer William “Poogie” Hart; the sleek, smooth production. Another early Bell production, “Goin’ Home to an Empty House,” was recorded in 1968 by singer-songwriter Herb Ward but not released until 1971 under the pseudonym of “Sunshine.” Though Ward’s identity might have initially been a mystery, there was no mistaking Bell’s rich, soaring, and cinematic strings. It’s one of the true rarities here.
Bobby Martin and Thom Bell frequently shared arranging duties together, splitting the duties on horns and strings, and often handling numerous songs in any one given day. Among their collaborative efforts from this prolific period are Gamble and Huff’s productions of Archie Bell and the Drells’ joyful single “My Balloon’s Going Up,” Brenda and the Tabulations’ ethereally swooning “That’s the Price You Have to Pay,” and Peaches and Herb’s sweet and silky “Let’s Make a Promise,” written by Bell, Gamble, and Miki Farrow. (Bell and Farrow wrote a handful of fine songs together including “Look the Other Way” as recorded by actress-singer Vivian Reed.) A rare Thom Bell/Norman Harris collaborative chart, The Ethics’ “Standing in the Darkness,” is reprised from a 1970 Vent Records single; it shows the Philly sound almost fully-formed.
The name of Len Barry (“1-2-3”) appears here on multiple cuts. With John Madara and Dave White, singer-songwriter and Dovells member Barry played a key role in establishing Philadelphia’s chart dominance. George Tindley’s uptempo soul stomper “It’s All Over but the Shouting” was co-written by Barry and Tim Moore of local Philly group Gulliver; Moore’s Gulliver bandmate Daryl Hall joined Barry as co-writer of Executive Suite’s “Christine.” Hall sang the yearning melody himself for Gulliver, but Executive Suite’s rendition finds it tailor-made for the falsetto-led group sound. Tim Moore also wrote the rhythmic “Rainmaker” while in Gulliver, but its initial recording came from the harmony soul purveyors The Moods, who eventually grew into The Trammps (“Disco Inferno”). One of the all-star cuts here is Len Barry’s bright, infectious “Girl, You’re Too Young,” written by Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble, and Archie Bell, and co-produced by John Madara, Tom Sellers, and Barry himself. This track was recorded in 1968, but perhaps due to Archie Bell and the Drells’ own version, it sat on the shelf until 2005.
Barbara Mason was, like Len Barry, a pioneering artist. In a time when it was rare for female artists, she wrote all of her Arctic Records hit singles. The “Yes, I’m Ready” singer also lent her songwriting talents to fellow Arctic artists The Ambassadors for the funky “Ain’t Got the Love of One Girl (On My Mind).” As a solo artist, she’s represented here by the commanding “You Better Stop It.” Rhode Island-born vocalist Freddie Scott had his biggest hit in 1962 with Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Hey, Girl,” but he continued to record throughout the 1960s for Bert Berns’ Bang label, from which Gamble and Huff’s independent production of “(You) Got What I Need” has been taken. This rare track proves a perfect marriage of singer and producer-songwriters, but Scott never worked with the duo again beyond this song and its flipside.
Not every track on this collection has the hallmarks of the eventual Philly sound, such as the deep soul-gospel of Lou Jackson’s “Peace to You, Brother.” Similarly, Oscar Weathers’ “Your Fool Still Loves You” has many hallmarks of the smoldering southern soul sound, but was written and produced by Van McCoy in his Philadelphia period, and features the future MFSB rhythm section at their finest. Moses Smith’s Cotillion Records rarity “Keep On Striving” offers just a subtle hint towards the future, as its positive message of self-reliance and determination would be associated with many of the best records to come out of Philadelphia in the 1970s.
Nothing But a House Party chronicles a fascinating period in the evolution of Philly soul and therefore of American popular music itself. Tony Rounce and Duncan Cowell have done typically superb jobs with liner notes and remastering, respectively. This set is available now at the links below!
- Ain’t Nothing But a House Party – The Show Stoppers (Party Time 1002, 1967)
- You’ve Been Untrue – The Delfonics (Cameo 472, 1967)
- It’s All Over But the Shouting – George Tindley (Wand 11205, 1969)
- Never Give You Up – Jerry Butler (Mercury 72798, 1968)
- Help Me (Get Over My Used-to-Be Lover) – honey and the Bees (Josie 1020, 1970) (*)
- Christine – Executive Suite (Jubilee 5705, 1970)
- Love is All Right – Cliff Nobles (Phil L.A. of Soul 313, 1968)
- Ain’t Got the Love of One Girl (On My Mind) – The Ambassadors (Arctic 150, 1969) (*)
- Peace to You, Brother – Lou Jackson (Spring 110, 1971)
- My Balloon’s Going Up – Archie Bell and the Drells (Atlantic 2663, 1969)
- That’s the Price You Have to Pay – Brenda and the Tabulations (Dionn 512, 1969)
- Rainmaker – The Moods (Wand 11224, 1970)
- Keep on Striving – Moses Smith (Cotillion 44075, 1970)
- Piper Must Be Paid – Sonny Ross (Event 202, 1971) (*)
- You Better Stop It – Barbara Mason (Arctic 154, 1969)
- Goin’ Home to an Empty House – Sunshine (Phil L.A. of Soul 359, rec. 1969, rel. 1972)
- Every Day is a Holiday – The Intruders (Gamble 240, 1969) (*)
- (You) Got What I Need – Freddie Scott (Shout 233, 1968) (*)
- Girl You’re Too Young – Len Barry (That Philly Sound TPS-R 101, rec. 1968, rel. 2005)
- Your Fool Still Loves You – Oscar Weathers (Top and Bottom 402, 1970)
- What You Gave Up – The Continental 4 (Jay-Walking 011, 1971)
- Let’s Make a Promise – Peaches and Herb (Date 1623, 1968)
- I’m on My Way – Winfield Parker (previously unissued alternate of Spring 116, 1971)
- Standing in the Darkness – The Ethics (Vent 1008, 1970) (*)
Mono except (*) stereo