The legacy of Philadelphia International Records is as mighty as the famous three men most associated with the label: co-founders and songwriter-producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff and songwriter-producer-conductor-arranger Thom Bell. The three men didn't do it alone, though; the PIR story involves the dozens of talented artists, musicians, songwriters, producers, and arrangers who passed through the doors of engineer Joe Tarsia's Sigma Sound Studios on North 12th Street in Philadelphia, creating magic on a daily basis. That tale - one of symphonic soul and social conscience - is brought to vivid life for the label's 50th anniversary on Vinyl Me, Please's mammoth new box set, VMP Anthology: The Story of Philadelphia International Records. The latest in the record club's Anthology series, the box follows previous label-themed volumes for Motown, Blue Note, Stax, Ghostly International, Metal Blade, and most recently, Vanguard Records.
The eight-album set (which is currently sold out at VMP though a waitlist is open and a second pressing appears possible) chronicles the evolution of PIR during its first, electrifying decade through the following LPs, all lacquered and AAA-mastered directly from the original tapes and cut, plated, and pressed on 180-gram colored vinyl (with each title in a different hue) at RTI:
- The O'Jays - Back Stabbers (Philadelphia International KZ 31712, 1972)
- Billy Paul - 360 Degrees of Billy Paul (Philadelphia International KZ 31793, 1972)
- MFSB - Love is the Message (Philadelphia International KZ 32707, 1973)
- The Three Degrees - The Three Degrees (Philadelphia International KZ 32406, 1973)
- Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes - Wake Up Everybody (Philadelphia International PZ 33808, 1975)
- Dexter Wansel - Life on Mars (Philadelphia International PZ 34079, 1976)
- The Philadelphia International All Stars - Let's Clean Up the Ghetto (Philadelphia International JZ 34659, 1977)
- Leon Huff - Here to Create Music (Philadelphia International NJZ 36758, 1980)
The opening track of The O'Jays' Back Stabbers (U.S. Pop No. 10/R&B No. 3) epitomized the PIR approach. "When the World's at Peace," by Gamble, Bunny Sigler and Phil Hurtt, imagined a time "when it's safe to walk the streets/when we learn to care for those lost in poverty/there would be no need for our daughters and our sons/to march up and down the streets singing 'we shall overcome'..." Eddie Levert put his all into his throaty lead vocal, its throbbing urgency matching the hard-driving funk rhythms. "Hate, be still/Love, get behind me," he implored. 1972's Back Stabbers established the Ohio trio then consisting of Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell as Philadelphia International's leading group. The LP's ten songs reflected a powerful social conscience as expressed by the unassailable musicianship of MFSB, producers Gamble, Huff and Sigler, and arrangers Thom Bell, Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker, Lenny Pakula, and Bobby Martin.
Thom Bell, already well-known for his lush work with The Delfonics and The Stylistics, provided the lion's share of arrangements on Back Stabbers, including the now-famous title cut penned by Huff and the team of Gene McFadden and John Whitehead. No song had ever sounded like "Back Stabbers" - and that was before the O'Jays even entered at the 39-second mark. Huff's stark, ominous piano intro gave way to an evocative, heavy meld of MFSB's rhythm and Bell's orchestration. Jazz guitar and conga and timbale-driven Latin percussion set the stage for The O'Jays' impassioned warning about those sinister back stabbers "smiling in your face." The song is ostensibly about a relationship, sung by an outside observer, but with a universality familiar to all listening ("It might be your neighbor...") The song brought out the best in MFSB - including organist Pakula, bassist Ronnie Baker, drummer Earl Young, percussionist Larry Washington, guitarists Bobby Eli, Norman Harris, and Roland Chambers, and vibraphonist Vince Montana. Credit, too, to Philadelphia mainstays Don Renaldo and His Horns and the Strings who brought the orchestration to life. The O'Jays were rewarded with their first major hit, a No. 1 R&B and No. 3 Pop smash.
Bell matched the intensity of "Back Stabbers" with the stunning "992 Arguments," written by Gamble, Huff, McFadden and Whitehead. Horns and strings swirl with majesty and turbulence over the realization that, well, all these arguments need to stop...now. MFSB cut loose on "992" in an exhilarating frenzy and extended instrumental breakdown that handily anticipated disco. But the riches just kept coming on Back Stabbers, from the edgy "Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind of People" to the honeyed ballad "Sunshine."
Bobby Martin provided the buoyant chart for the lusty "Time to Get Down" sung by Walter Williams to a loved one with whom he was ready to commit - not just in the bedroom, but in life - and on "Listen to the Clock on the Wall." The latter's portrait of adultery (from one cheating lover to another) came once more from the team of Gamble, Huff, McFadden and Whitehead; Martin's arrangement with its clock-like ticking captures the pensive atmosphere with immediacy. Despite the varied arrangers, the uniform, in-the-pocket sound of MFSB kept Back Stabbers cohesive. Norman Harris arranged the richly introspective "Who Am I," featuring a shimmering, water-like guitar effect from Bobby Eli and haunting background vocals conceived by Bunny Sigler, co-writer with Phil Hurtt. Gamble and Huff's "(They Call Me) Mr. Lucky," arranged by Ronnie Baker, is a lightly swinging, happily mid-tempo respite from the darker themes visited elsewhere on the album.
But the final, jubilant track of Back Stabbers might have best encapsulated the message PIR was bringing to the world: "Love Train." Gamble and Huff penned the infectious anthem which, in just under three minutes, pleads for international peace in the brightest, boldest manner possible. The arrangement was a rare collaboration between Thom Bell and Bobby Martin; though Martin is credited solo on the LP, both men were credited individually on single releases. (Bell cleared up the mystery in recent years by confirming that it was a joint arrangement.) "Love Train" masterfully united pop and soul much in the way the eternally vibrant music of Motown had been doing for a decade prior; the song would also help establish Philadelphia International as the prime purveyor of the seventies' most potent pop-soul sounds.
As they had with The O'Jays, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had worked with Billy Paul before founding PIR. A recording artist since 1959, Paul had opened for artists including Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Dinah Washington, and even won an amateur night at the Apollo. Paul was performing at Philadelphia's Cadillac Club in 1967 when Gamble first spotted him. His first albums with Gamble focused on adult pop and jazz, but Gamble and Huff sensed that Paul could be at the vanguard of the smooth, orchestral R&B style that would come to be known forevermore as "Philadelphia soul." Paul made his Philadelphia International debut with 1971's Going East, a true transitional effort. Though Going East barely cracked the Billboard 200, Gamble and Huff didn't give up. The following year, they crafted 360 Degrees of Billy Paul (No. 17 Pop/No. 1 R&B), penning four originals out of eight tracks.
The centerpiece, of course, was the smoldering "Me and Mrs. Jones," a No. 1 Pop/No. 1 R&B phenomenon written by Gamble, Huff and Cary Gilbert, and arranged by Bobby Martin. Less commercially successful but no less significant was the driving "Am I Black Enough for You?" also from Gamble and Huff. It made clear that the artist and producers might have made music for the masses but they never lost sight of their roots. Though Paul later regretted releasing it as the follow-up to "Me and Mrs. Jones," the anthem remains a remarkably powerful expression of Black pride. More in the vein of "Mrs. Jones" was a reworking of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," with string and horn charts from Norman Harris. Another familiar song was tackled via Elton John and Bernie Taupin's then-recent "Your Song," given a distinct treatment from Paul and Lenny Pakula. Carole King and Toni Stern's chart-topping "It's Too Late," from King's breakthrough Tapestry, lent itself to many R&B reworkings by artists such as The Isley Brothers but it's most fascinating to compare Paul's languid, gritty version, arranged by Pakula, with Thom Bell's hauntingly beautiful treatment for The Stylistics. Billy Paul never scored another No. 1 album after 360 Degrees, but the well-rounded artist never stopped pushing the envelope at PIR with subsequent albums including War of the Gods and Got My Head on Straight.
The musicians collectively known as MFSB (for Mother, Father, Sister, Brother - though a more off-color meaning for that acronym has also surfaced!) brought their distinctive style to Back Stabbers and War of the Gods, not to mention countless other records from the PIR hit factory. There was clear irony in Bart Forbes' cover artwork for the band's 1973 sophomore album on PIR, Love is the Message (No. 4 Pop/No. 1 R&B/No. 4 Jazz). The LP itself boasts Philadelphia International Records' hallowed house band at its smoothest, espousing the gospels of peace, love, tolerance, and unity. The cover illustration, however, depicts a skull clad in a military helmet, a mushroom cloud, a swastika, death, a howling dog, a Klansman and a grief-stricken man among its disturbing images. This was heady stuff, but then again, Gamble and Huff's label never shied away from serious subjects even if they were presented palatably and accessibly. Clearly, Gamble and Huff hoped love would win out over society's all-too-real ills, and if music be the food of love, the team played on with the beautiful sounds on this album.
Though brief at just 35 minutes, the album offered the many sides of the orchestra thanks to the arrangements from stalwarts Bobby Martin, Jack Faith and Vince Montana. (Montana would later decamp for Salsoul Records, taking most of the original MFSB line-up with him to form The Salsoul Orchestra.) Though not individually credited on the album, with Gamble and Huff preferring to let the mighty initials speak for themselves, these consummate musicians included Leon "Zack" Zachary (saxophone), Bobby Eli, Roland Chambers and Norman Harris (guitars), Ronnie Baker (bass), Larry Washington (percussion), Lenny Pakula (piano), Vince Montana (vibes), and Earl Young (drums). Don Renaldo, as always, provided the strings. Gamble and Huff produced most of the tracks, handing off "My One and Only Love" to its arranger, Vince Montana, and "Bitter Sweet" to its co-writers, Bruce Hawes and Jack Faith (who did arrangement duty, as well).
Without a doubt, the album's pièce de resistance is "T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)." When it became the theme to Don Cornelius' Soul Train, it defined a generation. 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, once again, anticipated disco. Earl Young's distinctive drum patterns anchor the large orchestral sound, with ample spotlights for the bass and guitar, plus the sweet, smooth and soulful vocals from the Three Degrees, whose own debut album also features in the Anthology. 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., but that's far from only track to recommend on Love is the Message.
The title song (and second single) is nearly a clone of "T.S.O.P.," but that's hardly a negative; it's just as sophisticated and only slightly less memorable. Arranger Martin breathed new life into Diana Ross' "Touch Me in the Morning," a creation of Michael Masser and Ron Miller. Masser would later team with another integral member of the Gamble/Huff team, Thom Bell's frequent lyricist-collaborator Linda Creed, on songs like "The Greatest Love of All." On "Touch Me," a sinuous saxophone fills in for Miss Ross while churchy piano and organ join swelling strings in an extended, nearly seven-minute rendition of the song. The MFSB ensemble captures all of the nuances as well as the dynamics in the immaculately-crafted Motown standard.
Straight-ahead jazz also abounds. Frank Loesser and Burton Lane's 1940 classic "I Hear Music" makes a brief appearance as "Zack's Fanfare" (so named for the MFSB saxophonist). On "Cheaper to Keep Her," arranged by Martin, organ, vibes, and saxophone are the lynchpins of a sizzling swing take on this slab of Stax southern soul. Vince Montana's orchestration for "My One and Only Love" is best enjoyed with the lights down low - this is sophisticated and smoky soul-jazz. A more traditional Philly soul style melds with jazz in "Bitter Sweet," an original ballad by Bruce Hawes and Jack Faith which veers into unexpected melodic directions. Montana again shines on vibes. It all adds up to an uplifting, alternately mellow and boisterous excursion with some of the finest musicians playing anywhere in America.
The Three Degrees' roots in Philadelphia stretched back to the group's founding in 1963. By the time the trio - since 1967, consisting of founding member Fayette Pinkney, Valerie Holiday, and Sheila Ferguson - hooked up with Gamble and Huff, they were already a well-known commodity. Their style of sweet soul immediately clicked with the producers' sweeping, symphonic sound, making for a solid, auspicious debut on PIR. With the inevitable MFSB handling the music, arrangements were provided by Bobby Martin, Lenny Pakula, Norman Harris, and Richard Rome.
The centerpiece of the eponymous The Three Degrees (No. 28 Pop/No. 33 R&B), "When Will I See You Again," swept the group to the top of the Cash Box Pop chart and the Billboard AC survey not to mention No. 2 Pop (stalled by Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting") and No. 4 R&B. Lead singer Sheila Ferguson initially found the dreamy slice of yearning romance composed by Gamble and Huff, to be too simple - "It took no talent to sing it," she remembered insisting - but it's that deceptive simplicity that makes it so alluring. Swathed in Bobby Martin's sumptuous strings and guided along by gentle percussion and percolating bass, The Three Degrees sighed and cooed their way into listeners' hearts with the ballad.
Bunny Sigler, a PIR artist in his own right, co-wrote two of the strongest album cuts via the grooving "I Didn't Know" and atypically dramatic, slow-burning epic "If and When." The lone misstep is "I Like Being a Woman," a trifle from accomplished songwriters Joseph B. Jefferson and Bruce Hawes (The Spinners' "Mighty Love," "(They Just Can't Stop It) Games People Play") that flips the script on the liberated woman of "Dirty Ol' Man." Instead, this singer proclaims "Somewhere I read 'Woman must be free'/I can't go that way/I need my man more and more each day" before asserting "I am but a slave" and taking on women's liberation in a spoken-word monologue "[It's] cool, it's got its good points and its bad points..."
The balance of the LP showcased the trio's diversity, from the swaggering swipe at a "Dirty Ol' Man" to the socially-conscious "Year of Decision," another passionate, uptempo Gamble and Huff tune imploring "This is the year to make your decision/You gotta get it together/Yes, this is the year to open up your mind/If you've been holding back, kind of slack, now's the time to get the things you need/There ain't no reason why you should be shy/People have died to set you free." This message of empowerment was much more in line with the PIR ethos than "I Like Being a Woman," and earned the Three Degrees another minor U.S. hit (and a much bigger one in the U.K.). The trio would only record one more studio album and two live sets for PIR, and Fayette Pinkney would leave the lineup in 1976 to be replaced by Helen Scott (who had previously spent a stint in the group and remains a member today).
Like The Three Degrees, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes came to PIR in 1972 after having appeared on numerous labels. Melvin had known Gamble and Huff since childhood, and in fact, the group had recorded their song "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. VMP's Anthology picks up their story with their fourth studio album and second of 1975: Wake Up Everybody (No. 9 Pop/No. 1 R&B).
Wake Up Everybody isn't only one of the most justifiably acclaimed of The Blue Notes' career, but also of the Philadelphia International discography. The powerful, socially aware title track by John Whitehead, Gene McFadden, and Victor Carstarphen (No. 1 R&B/No. 11 Pop) anchored this seven-song suite which proved to be the swan song for lead vocalist Teddy Pendergrass, who subsequently embarked on a fruitful solo career at PIR. "Wake Up Everybody," with its forceful lyrics, melodic build, and commanding arrangement by Bobby Martin, spoke powerfully and passionately to listeners in 1975. It still does so today: "The world won't get no better if we just let it be/We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me..." Its stirring and optimistic call for action at the individual level called out politicians, drug dealers, and businessmen, and made its plea to all: "Ain't don't matter what race, creed or color/Everybody, we need each other." It's since been recorded by artists including British singer Sonia, John Legend and The Roots, Keb' Mo', and Thelma Houston. The latter artist, too, would figure into the story of Wake Up Everybody.
"Don't Leave Me This Way" was penned by Gamble and Huff with "Me and Mrs. Jones" co-writer Cary Gilbert, and heard on Wake Up Everybody in a sterling Norman Harris chart. But despite the strength of the Blue Notes' performance (which reached No. 3 on the Billboard Dance survey), it didn't take off until Motown's Thelma Houston recorded it. Her more overtly disco rendition reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 in April 1977 and became her biggest hit.
Wake Up Everybody also featured a pair of tracks with vocalist Sharon Paige, "You Know How to Make Me Feel So Good" and "I'm Searching for a Love." Paige would continue her association with the Pendergrass-less Blue Notes when the group moved over to ABC Records. Despite continuing to record at Sigma Sound with some of the same personnel, the Blue Notes never again channeled the magic of their time with Gamble and Huff as epitomized on Wake Up Everybody. The album, too, can be viewed as a line of demarcation within the Anthology.
Arriving home after a tour of duty in Vietnam, Philadelphia native Dexter Wansel first made a splash at The House That Gamble and Huff Built in 1973 as a member of Yellow Sunshine. An eight-piece band also counting MFSB guitarist Roland Chambers and his brother Karl (late of Don Kirshner's Toomorrow) among its members, Yellow Sunshine delivered a potent brand of funk-rock that stood out in the sleek and soulful PIR landscape. Gamble and Huff recognized the young keyboardist-composer's talent, and soon he was placing songs with the label's major artists like Billy Paul, Archie Bell and the Drells, Jean Carn and Lou Rawls. Outside of PIR, he took on songwriting and session assignments for Carl Carlton, Evelyn "Champagne" King, Major Harris and Gabor Szabo.
Philadelphia International itself was going through major changes. Famed arranger Bobby Martin, an architect of the Philly soul sound, was soon to leave the label to pursue greener pastures elsewhere. Against a backdrop of credit and financial disputes, gifted MFSB vibraphonist Vince Montana delivered a blow when he led an exodus to New York-based Salsoul Records. To create The Salsoul Orchestra (the label's equivalent to MFSB), Montana enlisted the likes of Jack Faith (flute), Earl Young (drums), Ronnie Baker (bass), Bobby Eli, Norman Harris and T.J. Tindall (guitars), Ron Kersey (keyboards), Larry Washington (percussion) and Don Renaldo (strings), plus background vocalists The Sweethearts of Sigma, vocalists Carla Benson, Barbara Ingram and Evette Benton.
Not all of the Salsoul Orchestra players burned their bridges with Gamble and Huff permanently; Eli remained a loyal member of both MFSB and The Salsoul Orchestra, Renaldo continued to provide horns and strings for PIR and Salsoul Records, and Faith came into his own as an arranger in the PIR period that spawned MFSB Mk. II (as the second iteration of the house band is informally known). But the birth of The Salsoul Orchestra, fusing more pronounced Latin and disco elements to Philly soul's trademark sweeping style, certainly made waves.
Around this time, Dexter Wansel had formed his own band, The Planets, reflecting his interest in matters off-Earth. As he had already become an integral part of the label as a musician and a songwriter, Wansel was signed to PIR as an artist as the label sought to redefine its identity following the departure of Montana, Baker, Harris and Young. Wansel's remarkable debut LP Life on Mars (No. 44 R&B, and no relation to the David Bowie song) arrived in 1976 featuring The Planets backing him on all but two tracks. This alone gave the album a very different sound than the "typical" PIR platter featuring the singular sound of the original MFSB.
Life on Mars' contemporary fusion of jazz, funk, R&B, and even light disco augured for a new Philly Sound. Wansel played keyboards, ARP, and synths in addition to handling lead vocals, writing, and producing the LP; his fleet touch on the keys is evident throughout, including on the upbeat instrumental "Stargazer" (the lone cut arranged by someone other than Wansel, veteran MFSB flautist Jack Faith.) He was supported on the propulsive, rhythmic title track and the funk workout "You Can Be What You Wanna Be" were the members of the band Instant Funk, PIR artists who later also recorded for Salsoul. Though primarily an instrumental album, Mars found room for vocal highlights like the dreamily beautiful "One Million Miles from the Ground." The Sweethearts of Sigma provided the background vocals for the LP, with two members of MFSB Mk. II - Charles Collins and Joe Johnson - providing additional percussion. Terri Wells, of PIR group City Limits, took the lead vocal on the soft, yearning ballad "Together Once Again" with lyrics by Vinnie Barrett. By 1978, Wansel had been appointed to an A&R capacity at PIR, and his progressive, innovative influences would be keenly felt through the label's changing output.
One thing never changed, though - the label's commitment to social justice. That commitment is underscored in the albums chosen for this box set, including the 1977 various artists collection Let's Clean Up the Ghetto. Kenny Gamble penned the note which adorned the LP's stark sleeve: "Ghetto: Dirty neighborhoods and crime infested cities are not only physical conditions, they are mental conditions also. Anything physical has to first start as a thought, then it is manifested in reality. Our streets, which are called the Ghetto, are product of the mental conditions of this system - lack of education, lack of direction, mixed-up priorities of the powers that be. The only way we can clean up the physical Ghetto is to first clean up the mental Ghetto..." Gamble and Huff brought together the label's biggest stars - Billy Paul, The O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, and newer signees Dee Dee Sharp Gamble (then Kenny's wife), Lou Rawls, and Archie Bell and The Drells - as The Philadelphia International All-Stars. Over an urgent Wansel arrangement, the familiar voices traded off verses pleading for action: "You can no longer intend on the man downtown to take care of business like he's supposed to/If all of us would get it like it's supposed to be/As far as cleanliness, you know, and safety/We gotta get together and do it ourselves/That's the only way it's gonna be done..."
The anthem was joined by nine additional socially-conscious songs, some of which (including The Three Degrees' "Year of Decision," The Intruders' plush rendition of Gil Scott-Heron's "Save the Children," and Dee Dee Sharp Gamble's revival of The Five Stairsteps' "Ooh Child") had previously appeared on PIR platters. The themes reflected in such tracks as Teddy Pendergrass' "Now Is the Time to Do It" (ostensibly a song of romantic affection) and Billy Paul's "New Day, New World Comin'" reflected Gamble's twin messages of action and positivity; The O'Jays' ironically breezy "The Big Gangster" warned that it won't be long before the swaggering gangster in question gets caught while Archie Bell and The Drells' "Old People" urged the young to take care of the elderly. The label took action itself in donating 100% of the net profits from the original album release to fund community development programs. Numerous other PIR tracks would have fit snugly on this compilation, not least of all The O'Jays' rousing "Message in Our Music," but Let's Clean Up the Ghetto is a reminder of the values that the label sought to promote via its frequently upbeat, universally accessible melodies and lyrics.
Like Kenny Gamble and Thom Bell, Leon Huff had begun his career as an occasional recording artist. Leon "Fingers" Huff released singles on the Mercury and Jamie labels before concentrating on the songs and productions on which his career would be built. In 1980, Huff (just 37 years old at the time) entered Sigma Sound to record his very first LP. Kenny Gamble's name was conspicuously absent from Here to Create Music; Huff wrote every song on the primarily instrumental album himself save one with Paul Martin, Jr., and also produced and provided the rhythm charts as well as some of the horn and string charts. Though short (clocking in at around 35 minutes), it packed in plenty of Huff style.
After the nondescript disco opener "Your Body Won't Move If You Can't Feel the Groove" - featuring cameos from then-current PIR artists Eddie Levert, Teddy Pendergrass, McFadden and Whitehead, The Jones Girls, and The Futures - Here to Create Music happily settles into not just one groove, but many. As if to show off the many sides which went into his music over the years, the album features the onetime "Fingers" leading the proceedings on acoustic and electric piano, organ, and keyboards. He delightfully tickles the ivories on the swinging "I Ain't Jivin', I'm Jammin'" and appropriately-titled "Tasty," strikes a cinematic note on the ethereal, orchestral "No Greater Love" (with a guest appearance by Steve Wonder on harmonica), and cuts loose with an easygoing but funky groove on "Tight Money." He takes the sinuous route on "Low Down, Hard Times Blues," one of many numbers displaying his dexterity on the keys, and writes a stately, romantic ballad in the form of "This One's for Us." The album's closer, "Latin Spirit," makes for an irresistible fusion of jazz, funk, and salsa. Though the songs are largely devoid of lyrics, Huff's intentions are always in evidence.
Here to Create Music didn't make many waves at the time, perhaps due to its lack of a strong single (ironically, something Gamble and Huff could dependably create). But it's an unexpectedly personal statement from an artist who always chose to speak through his music and a testament to his versatility and musicianship.
The Story of Philadelphia International Records is beautifully packaged, up to the high standards of VMP's past anthologies. The eye-popping, sturdily-crafted slipcase is emblazoned with the label's 50th anniversary logo treatment, and every album is housed within a beautiful tip-on jacket replicating the original artwork including the gatefold for The Three Degrees. (Unfortunately, we're obliged to point out that "Philadelphia" is misspelled as "Philadelplhia" on both the front cover and the spine of the copy we received.) Original LP labels are replicated, too, while the inner sleeve is a custom design "advertising" for the albums within the box set. Additional replica inserts are provided for 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, Wake Up Everybody, and Here to Create Music with lyrics for the first two, and a photo gallery of musicians, personnel, and friends for the third. An insert explains the immersive aspect of the collection; four podcasts available for download and/or streaming spotlight two LPs apiece.
All albums have been lacquered and AAA-mastered directly from the original tapes by Bernie Grundman; the 180-gram RTI pressings were quiet and the sound appealingly dynamic. Instrumental clarity is quite remarkable, a testament to not only Grundman's work but the prowess of the original producers and engineer Joe Tarsia. Every lick laid down by MFSB springs to vivid life from the speakers.
A full-size 24-page booklet, appealingly printed on thick stock, has scholarly liner notes from Philadelphia journalist Niela Orr emphasizing the label and artists' place within the pantheon of African-American art and society in the latter part of the twentieth century and beyond; Orr also delineates the connections between PIR's talents and contemporary musicians, filmmakers, and authors. The essays (comprising an introduction and album-by-album remarks) are accompanied by numerous photos from the Sony Music Archives.
The story goes much deeper than these eight albums, of course. There are numerous equally worthy entries in the PIR catalogue both from the artists represented here as well as from Lou Rawls, Patti LaBelle, Dick Jensen, Monk Montgomery, Jean Carn, The Jacksons, Phyllis Hyman, and many others. One of those worthy titles, Teddy Pendergrass' 1978 album Life Is a Song Worth Singing, has already been reissued by VMP. (Those seeking out more PIR might also consider Snapper Music's ongoing CD box series of the label's studio albums. Volumes One and Two are available now, with the third forthcoming in 2022.) But The Story of Philadelphia International Records presents a compelling cross-section of the remarkable music that made good on the city's moniker of The City of Brotherly Love. Indeed, love is the message, and it's heard loud and clear on these enduring albums that speak to mind and heart, body and soul.
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