Have you seen that recent Geico Gecko commercial where the Gecko is in South Philly? He’s standing at the corner of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue, which just happens to be the holy land for cheesesteak lovers. On on side of the street we see Pat’s King of Steaks, and on the other Geno’s Steaks. In the decades-old argument about which place is best, I come down squarely on the side of Pat’s. After all, Pat and Harry Olivieri are widely credited with inventing the sandwich in 1930. The brightly lit Geno’s didn’t show up on the corner until 1966.
As for the commercial, it didn’t sell me any insurance, but it certainly made me hungry. So whether you’re on Team Pat’s or Team Geno’s, or even if you prefer the cheesesteak stylings of Tony Luke’s, Rick’s, or Jim’s, remember it’s “wit” if you want onions, and “wit-out” if you don’t.
So what does all of this have to do with music? As it turns out, cheesesteaks are just one of the things that Philadelphia does right. Another is music, and in particular Philly Soul. This week we’re taking a trip to the City of Brotherly Love to meet the wonderful singer Barbara Mason. Mason was born in Philly in 1947. By the time she was in her teens she was working in the music business. She was focused on songwriting, but released a few singles in the mid-’60s. Then in 1965 Mason had a huge hit with “Yes, I’m Ready,” one of the songs she had written. The Arctic Records release reached #2 on the Billboard R&B chart, and #5 on the Hot 100.
“Yes, I’m Ready” is widely considered to be one of the pioneering examples of the Philly Soul sound. The cast of musicians who helped to make the record great lends credence to the theory. Kenny Gamble sang background vocals. Norman Harris and Bobby Eli played guitar. Ronnie Baker was on bass, with Earl Young behind the drums. Gamble would go on to team up with Leon Huff and create Philadelphia International Records, and Harris, Eli, and Baker would become core members of MFSB.
As for Mason, “Yes, I’m Ready” was by far her biggest hit, but not the only one. She hit the Top 40 again in 1965 with “Sad, Sad Girl.” A couple of years later she was back on the charts with “Oh How It Hurts.” In the early ’70s Mason underwent a metamorphosis that toughened up her persona, while retaining her sweet soul voice. While Mason was recording for Buddah Records songs about sex and infidelity crept into her repertoire through songs like “Bed and Board,” “From His Woman to You,” and “Shackin’ Up.” At the time the world of soul music was getting funkier, and Mason’s music was no exception.
In 1973 Mason returned to the Top 40 (R&B Top Ten) with the Curtis Mayfield-written and produced single “Give Me Your Love.” In the years that followed, Mason had minor hits with records like “I Am Your Woman, She Is Your Wife” in 1978, and she made her final chart appearance with “Another Man” in 1984.