If you don’t know Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes by now, Cherry Red and SoulMusic Records have just the right collection for you. Be for Real: The PIR Recordings (1972-1975) brings together the four albums recorded by the group for Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records on two CDs, plus a six-song bonus disc.
Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes came to Gamble and Huff’s newly-formed label in 1972 after having bounced from label to label including Landa, Arctic, and UNI. Melvin had known Gamble and Huff since childhood, and in fact, the group had recorded their “What Can a Man Do” at Arctic. The Blue Notes were signed to PIR after Gamble and Huff took in their supper club act at a club in Camden, New Jersey (right outside of Philadelphia). The lineup at the time of their signing included Melvin, Lawrence Brown, Lloyd Parks, Bernard Wilson, and drummer-turned-lead vocalist Teddy Pendergrass.
Their debut album, I Miss You, opens SoulMusic’s box. It was the second LP on PIR and launched the label’s first major single. That single was, of course, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” one of six songs written or co-written by Gamble and Huff for the album. (The seventh selection, Morris Bailey’s “Ebony Woman,” had the G&H imprimatur, as they had earlier recorded it with Billy Paul for their Neptune label.) That pleading ballad, however, was just one of the strong tracks on an album filled with them. Arrangements in the soon-to-be-famous silky soul style were penned by Thom Bell, Bobby Martin, and guitarist Norman Harris, with Harris, Huff, Ronnie Baker (bass), Larry Washington (congas), Earl Young (drums), Bobby Eli (guitar), Roland Chambers (guitar), Lenny Pakula (organ), Vince Montana (vibes), Don Renaldo (strings), and Sam Reed (horns) all contributing to the musical tapestry as MFSB. “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” went to No. 1 R&B/No. 3 Pop, and the album also made the top five on the R&B albums survey.
Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes were on their way, with 1973 follow-up Black and Blue utilizing the same winning formula. The LP, featuring charts by Bobby Martin, Norman Harris, Lenny Pakula, and Vince Montana again featured strong originals written by Gamble and Huff alongside a pair of tunes by Huff with the up-and-coming duo of Gene McFadden and John Whitehead (“Concentrate on Me,” “Is There a Place for Me”) and even a throwback to the group’s supper club days with John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Cabaret.” The standout, though, was the pulse-pounding “The Love I Lost,” for which Earl Young’s four-on-the-floor beat arguably inspired the entire genre of disco. The urgent track was a second R&B chart-topper and top ten Pop hit for the Blue Notes.
1974 saw the departure of Lloyd Parks, who was replaced by Jeremiah Cummings. There was another change, as the Blue Notes’ first album of 1975, To Be True, bore the billing “Featuring Theodore Pendergrass” on the front cover in an admission of the lead singer’s importance within the quintet. But the group indeed remained true to themselves on this taut 8-song album produced and largely written by Gamble and Huff. The two PIR leaders wrote four of the tracks themselves, with a fifth bearing a co-writer’s credit for Huff. The album also continued the group’s relationship with writers Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Carstarphen. The sound of To Be True was largely shaped by the all-too-unsung Bobby Martin. Though Martin shared duties on previous Blue Notes albums, he was responsible for arranging the group’s two major crossover hits, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” and “The Love I Lost.” He knew how to write to the strengths of the talented and inventive players in MFSB, and utilized them to the fullest. While the LP was filled with strong material (the fiery “Where Are All My Friends,” the dramatic title track, the Sharon Paige duet “Hope We Can Be Together Soon”), the standout was “Bad Luck.” Building on the sound and style of “The Love I Lost,” the infectious anthem is quintessential Philly soul. Every sophisticated element coalesces in vibrant and immediate fashion: from the dramatic intro by Ronnie Baker (whose bass drives the song’s momentum) and Earl Young to the swelling blasts of orchestration, passionate vocals, and proto-disco rhythm. “Bad Luck” went to No. 4 R&B, No. 15 Pop, and No. 1 Disco/Dance, propelling To Be True to top the R&B chart.
The Blue Notes’ second album of 1975 might be their most justifiably acclaimed: the triumphant Wake Up Everybody. This R&B Albums chart-topper also reached No. 9 on the pop survey, largely thanks to the strength of the powerful, socially aware title track (No. 1 R&B/No. 11 Pop). Wake Up Everybody served as the swan song for Pendergrass, who subsequently embarked on a fruitful solo career at PIR. Stalwarts Bobby Martin, Norman Harris and Ronnie Baker were the album’s arrangers, and it also boasted the debut of “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” penned by Gamble and Huff with Cary Gilbert. This song, of course, would find greater fame a year later when covered at Motown by Thelma Houston in a more overt disco arrangement. Houston’s version reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 in April 1977 and remains a beloved disco anthem. Sans Pendergrass, Melvin moved his group over to ABC Records, but they were unable to channel the PIR magic despite continuing to record at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios with some of the same personnel.
Be for Real: The PIR Recordings (1972-1975) adds a bonus disc with six tracks. These include a cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” first released on the various-artists compilation Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto; Tom Moulton’s extended remixes of “Bad Luck” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way;” and live versions of “The Love I Lost,” “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” and “I Miss You” as recorded at the CBS Records convention in San Francisco, 1973. No single edits (some of which have been issued on previous expanded editions of these albums) have been included.
It’s all housed in a clamshell case, with each disc in a mini-sleeve featuring the albums’ front and back covers and Side A and B labels in a collage. A 20-page booklet includes Kevin Goins’ detailed liner notes drawing on a new interview with Jeremiah Cummings; reissue producer David Nathan’s personal reflections on the group; and credits and discography. Credits for the arrangers of each track are unfortunately omitted; these distinctive talents shaped the sound of these records as much as producers Gamble and Huff did. Musician credits are also absent but the individual members of MFSB were only named on I Miss You as subsequent albums bore the “Music by MFSB” credit instead. Nick Robbins, who remastered some of these LPs for Cherry Red’s Big Break imprint, also oversaw the sound for this collection.
For those who don’t already have this material, Be for Real: The PIR Recordings (1972-1975) features three discs of some of the greatest soul music ever recorded at a reasonable price. As such, it’s to be recommended.
I Miss You (PIR KZ 31648, 1972)
- I Miss You
- Ebony Woman
- Yesterday I Had the Blues
- If You Don’t Know Me by Now
- Be for Real
- Let Me Into Your World
- Let It Be You
Black and Blue (PIR KZ 32407, 1973)
- The Love I Lost
- It All Depends on You
- Concentrate on Me
- Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back)
- Is There a Place for Me
- I’m Weak for You
- I’m Coming Home Tomorrow
To Be True (PIR KZ 33148, 1975)
- Where Are All My Friends
- To Be True
- Pretty Flower
- Hope That We Can Be Together Soon
- Nobody Could Take Your Place
- Somewhere Down the Line
- Bad Luck
- It’s All Because of a Woman
Wake Up Everybody (PIR PZ 33808, 1975)
- Wake Up Everybody
- Keep On Lovin’ You
- You Know How to Make Me Feel So Good
- Don’t Leave Me This Way
- Tell the World How I Feel About ‘Cha Baby
- To Be Free to Be Who We Are
- I’m Searching for a Love
CD 3: Bonus Tracks
- Everybody’s Talkin’
- Bad Luck (Tom Moulton Mix)
- Don’t Leave Me This Way (Tom Moulton Mix)
- The Love I Lost (Live)
- If You Don’t Know Me by Now (Live)
- I Miss You (Live)
Track 1 from The Philadelphia International All-Stars, Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto, PIR JZ 34659, 1977)
Tracks 2-3 from Philadelphia Classics, PIR PZG 34940, 1977
Tracks 4-5 from Live on Stage, PIR FZ 37683, 1981
Track 6 from Golden Gate Groove: The Sound of Philadelphia Live in San Francisco 1973, PIR/Legacy 88691906232, 2012