MFSB – a.k.a. Mother, Father, Sister, Brother (or a rather more off-color series of four words, depending on whom you ask) – remains one of the all-time great aggregations of studio musicians, right up there with The Funk Brothers, The Wrecking Crew, and The Nashville Cats. The legacy of the Philadelphia International group has just been celebrated by Cherry Red’s Robinsongs imprint on a new 2-CD, 32-track anthology entitled The Definitive Collection.
The talented, versatile musicians at the core of the original MFSB, including guitarists Bobby Eli and Norman Harris, organist Lenny Pakula, vibraphonist Vince Montana, Jr., percussionist Larry Washington, drummer Earl Young, bassist Ron Baker and others, could play thrillingly in any style without ever losing their effortlessly elegant and deeply funky sound. Don Renaldo’s Horns and Strings brought lustrous enhancement to the powerful rhythm section. This collection, drawn from the group’s seven primarily instrumental solo albums released between 1973 and 1980, hits many of the high points from perhaps the greatest group ever to merge symphonic soul with dance and funk.
The Definitive Collection has been sequenced in non-chronological fashion so as to kick off with signature songs “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)” (best known as the theme from Soul Train) and “Love is the Message,” both from the sophomore album also entitled Love is the Message. In Bobby Martin’s potent and slick arrangement, “T.S.O.P.” distills all of the ingredients for Philadelphia soul into three-and-a-half minutes of musical bliss that anticipated disco. Earl Young’s distinctive drum patterns anchored the large and lush orchestral sound, with ample spotlights for the bass and guitar, plus the sweet, smooth and soulful vocals (from the Three Degrees!). The catchy and danceable melody, of course, is as irresistible as any, and the track crossed over to score mightily with listeners looking for pop, soul/R&B, funk and dance music. The single version went to No. 1 Pop and R&B in the U.S. and propelled the album to a No. 4 Pop/No. 1 R&B showing, as well. “Love Is the Message” is a near-clone of “T.S.O.P.,” but that’s hardly a negative; it’s just as sophisticated and only slightly less memorable.
Four cuts have been pulled from 1973’s self-titled debut album including sizzling, Philly-ized takes on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” a purely instrumental spin on “Back Stabbers” (the O’Jays’ original of which featured many of the same musicians), and Leon Huff’s moody, languid “Lay in Low.” Unfortunately, Thom Bell’s majestic, oft-sampled “Something for Nothing” from MFSB is altogether absent here.
Four of the eight tracks on Love is the Message have been reprised for this collection. As well as the aforementioned “T.S.O.P.” and “Love is the Message,” the short fanfare from saxophonist Zack Zachary opens Disc Two. “Bitter Sweet” is a composition from co-arrangers Jack Faith and Bruce Hawes which lives up to its title with its wistful, cinematic fusion of horns and strings plus evocative vibes from Montana.
1975’s Universal Love yields a further five songs out of eight. The Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff-written instrumental “Sexy” more than lives up to its name. Its inviting, introductory guitar riff is anchor to the full-on swell of the entire orchestra as orchestrated by Bobby Martin. The track vividly showcases the glistening strings, powerfully charged horns (including Zach Zachary’s standout saxophone riff) and infectious dance rhythms that gave The Sound of Philadelphia its shine. Gamble and Huff also wrote the grandly cascading “MFSB” which echoes 1972’s landmark “TSOP” with its dynamic, driving groove and rich instrumentation. Like the earlier song, “MFSB” could only be the work of the titular orchestra.
Bobby Martin teamed with guitarist Harris to pen “T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care).” Distinguished by its brief ballad introduction, its soaring strings mesh with smooth sax and funky percussion. Like “MFSB,” “T.L.C.” has a relaxed, irresistible swagger. Gamble and Huff’s “My Mood” offers soft and sweet notes on which to chill out, spotlighting Montana’s cool vibes. Originally recorded by Kentucky group The Nite-Liters, “K-Jee” is doubtless one of the famous tracks on this collection thanks to its inclusion on the record-breaking soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.
Philadelphia Freedom, also from 1975, is represented here with seven tracks. It allowed the band to pay homage to Elton John’s hit single, itself a tribute to their work. The album welcomed composer-arranger Dexter Wansel to the MFSB team and featured such diverse selections as Gamble and Huff’s brash “The Zip” and rose-colored “South Philly,” plus Gamble and Martin’s upbeat “Brothers and Sisters.” The following year’s Summertime would prove to be the final album played by MFSB Mk. I, and it was released after the Salsoul Records exodus (led by Messrs. Montana, Baker, Harris, and Young) had begun. From Summertime, this set has culled a sizzling take on the Gershwins’ title track; the mellow “Sunnin’ and Funnin'” and grooving “We Got the Time” from the team of Gene McFadden, John Whitehead, and Victor Carstarphen; and Gamble and Huff’s rhythmic “Picnic in the Park.”
MFSB reinvented themselves with a new, self-titled album in 1978: MFSB – The Gamble and Huff Orchestra. Production was spread across various teams and individuals, including Wansel (“Dance with Me Tonight,” the 12-inch version of which is included here), John L. Usry, Jr. (“To Be in Love”), and Thom Bell (“Let’s Party Down”), who had recently returned to the PIR fold but recorded his contributions in his home of Seattle, not Philadelphia. Although the LP didn’t feature credits for the musicians, the Philly sessions are believed to be the work of players including James Herb Smith and Dennis Harris (guitar), Quinton Joseph (drums), Miguel Fuentes (percussion) and the gifted Dexter Wansel, whose profile within PIR was growing. The final MFSB album, Mysteries of the World, was crafted by Wansel and Jack Faith in 1980, with members of Wansel’s own band appearing alongside stalwarts like Lenny Pakula, Don Renaldo, and background vocalists The Sweethearts of Sigma. Highlights here include Wansel and Cynthia Biggs’ beautiful vocal ballad, “Tell Me Why,” Wansel’s funky “Manhattan Skyline,” “Mysteries of the World,” and “Fortune Teller,” and James Smith and Joel Bryant’s Old San Juan.
The Definitive Collection contains a 12-page booklet which, much to its detriment, lacks any discographical annotation as well as proper credit for the producers (primarily Gamble and Huff until the last two albums) and arrangers. Thom Bell, Norman Harris, Bobby Martin, Dexter Wansel, and Jack Faith – just to name a few – each brought their own distinctive style to the orchestrations they penned, which were then brought to life by their MFSB mates.
Though Charles Waring’s essay is by and large informative, it’s marred by a number of proofreading and/or content errors. The spelling of keyboardist Pakula’s first name is Lenny. Baker-Harris-Young didn’t leave PIR to form their own Golden Fleece Records in 1975; Golden Fleece was a PIR offshoot as of 1973, and B-H-Y left PIR for Salsoul Records in 1974. (Gold Mind Records was Harris’ Salsoul imprint, founded in 1976.) “Let’s Party Down” was not written by Thom Bell, but by Thom’s nephew Leroy and his musical partner Casey (not Cheryl) James. Thom did, however, produce it. The Jones Girls’ 1981 song is “Nights Over Egypt,” not “Night in Egypt.”
Alan Wilson has remastered this set in fine fashion. It’s impossible to go wrong with MFSB, and this collection is no exception; the group’s music continues to pulsate with life and electricity. One only wishes that a bit more depth had been granted in the booklet to make this the kind of comprehensive, collector-oriented career overview the music deserves. As a sampler or starter, however, The Definitive Collection is an exciting set from start to finish.
- Zach’s Fanfare # 2
- T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia) – featuring The Three Degrees
- Love is the Message
- Philadelphia Freedom
- Family Affair
- Get Down with the Philly Sound
- Back Stabbers
- Bitter Sweet
- T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care)
- Brothers and Sisters
- The Zip
- Lay in Low
- My Mood
- South Philly
- Zack’s Fanfare
- Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto – featuring The Philadelphia International All-Stars
- Let’s Party Down
- Mysteries of the World
- Manhattan Skyline
- Sunnin’ and Funnin’
- Picnic in the Park
- We Got the Time
- To Be in Love
- Tell Me Why
- Fortune Teller
- Old San Juan
- Freddie’s Dead
CD 1, Tracks 1, 5, 8, 12-13, 16 and CD 2, Track 1 from Philadelphia Freedom, Philadelphia International PZ 33845, 1975
CD 1, Tracks 2-3, 10 & CD 2, Track 1 from Love is the Message, Philadelphia International KZ 32707, 1973
CD 1, Tracks 4, 7, 11, 15 & 17 from Universal Love, Philadelphia International KZ 33158, 1975
CD 1, Tracks 6, 9, 14 & CD 2, Track 15 from MFSB, Philadelphia International KZ 32046, 1973
CD 2, Track 2 from Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto, Philadelphia International JZ 34659, 1977
CD 2, Track 3 from Philadelphia International 12-inch single 2Z8 3668, 1978
CD 2, Tracks 4 & 11 from MFSB – The Gamble & Huff Orchestra, Philadelphia International JZ 35516, 1978
CD 2, Tracks 5-6, 12-14 from Mysteries of the World, Philadelphia International JZ 36405, 1980
CD 2, Tracks 7-10 from Summertime, Philadelphia International PZ 34238, 1978