When the O’Jays sang “Music is the healing force of the world / It’s understood by every man, woman, boy, and girl” in their 1975 disco-soul classic “I Love Music,” they might as well have been quoting the mission statement of their label, Philadelphia International Records, locally owned yet globally influential. And for a few years in the early to mid-’70s, PIR’s music really did seem to be understood and embraced by people of all ages, genders, and colors, with hit songs like Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” and the O’Jays’ “Love Train.” They were all over the radio then, and they’re all over oldies stations now.
From 1973 to ’75 the label behind “Love Train” even provided the theme to TV’s Soul Train, a song otherwise known as “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” performed by MFSB and the Three Degrees. MFSB was the group name for the 30-odd studio musicians at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios who played on many of PIR’s singles and albums, and their name stood for Mother Father Sister Brother, another indication of PIR’s outlook; MFSB was made up of blacks, whites, and Italian-Americans, men and women, twentysomethings and even seventysomethings. And though the label’s roster was comprised almost exclusively of black artists, PIR was making music for everyone (because everyone’s got a soul, right?). The sound of Philly soul vibrated outward, not just geographically but through the decades that followed. When I first heard songs like Junior’s “Mama Used to Say” (1982), Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” (1991), or even Wheat’s “I Met a Girl” (2003), I immediately wanted to hear them again. When I eventually read up on the songs, a critic would inevitably say something like “Mining the sound of 1970s Philly soul …” I’ve known for a long time now that the sound of Philadelphia is a sound I’ll never outgrow. To paraphrase a song by the O’Jays, it’s got its hooks in me.
Last month Sony/Legacy released two new Philadelphia International compilations: The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits and Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records. The former doesn’t hold any surprises if you’re familiar with the label’s biggest hits — and in many ways the label is the two men who ran it, writer-producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The O’Jays get three tracks (“Love Train,” “Back Stabbers,” and “Use ta Be My Girl”), the Blue Notes get two (“If You Don’t Know Me by Now” and “The Love I Lost,” considered by some to be the first full-fledged disco song), and big names like Lou Rawls, Patti LaBelle, and post-Blue-Notes Teddy Pendergrass get one apiece. The good news is that the songs are presented in their original incarnations, not as radio edits, plus they’ve been remastered. As far as single-disc compilations of PIR’s biggest hits go, this is an excellent place to start, but if you can still find an inexpensive copy of 1997’s three-disc The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff & the City of Brotherly Love (1966-1976), that’s the best place to start.
The big thrill of the two releases — and I hope there’s more where this came from now that the PIR vaults are being opened — is Conquer the World, which focuses on songs from 1971 to ’75 that were recorded by Philadelphia International’s second tier of artists. As the back cover of the CD says, this compilation is “full of names that never went far beyond the neighborhoods and bars of Philadelphia,” and apparently no one at Legacy thought their names should go far beyond that back cover, since there’s no biographical information about them in the CD’s booklet. At least their music is intact, and the songs featured here provide a terrific glimpse at PIR singles that may not have made a dent on the R&B or pop charts but still managed to represent the sound of Philadelphia at its best, occasionally with more grit than was normally heard on the sophisticated singles of the O’Jays or the Blue Notes.
Last summer I got the chance to write about PIR Renaissance man Bunny Sigler for Jefitoblog; he’s represented on 6 of the 16 tracks on Conquer the World, either as a performer, writer, producer, or a combination of those roles. Sigler says in John A. Jackson’s 2004 book A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul that “Gamble saw more value in me as a writer,” but his songs on Conquer the World and The Best of Bunny Sigler: Sweeter Than the Berry (1996) prove what an electrifying, unexpectedly funny performer he is.
There are plenty of good tracks on Conquer the World, but the standout for me is Sigler’s ultra-funky “Theme for Five Fingers of Death,” which was used to promote the 1973 U.S. release of the popular kung fu film. The staccato string stabs produce heightened cinematic tension, some of the percussion sounds like it’s coming from Sigler knocking a pair of nunchuks together, and lines like “Give me Superfly, give me Shaft / With one chop I’ll cut ’em in half” are truly funny, making Carl Douglas’s 1974 hit “Kung Fu Fighting” look like a yellow belt in comparison. One of Sigler’s other tracks on Conquer the World is a duet from 1971 with Dee Dee Sharp, for which he was originally credited on the 45 as David Sigler because, according to him, Gamble “thought the name Bunny wasn’t a musical name.” No matter — this Bunny knew how to make listeners hop, jump, and get down in his own unique way.
Other artists featured on Conquer the World include Pat & the Blenders, whose “Hard Workin’ Man” is a strong blue-collar companion to the Isley Brothers’ “Work to Do”; Ruth McFadden, whose singing on “Ghetto Woman” often borders on demented laughter above the fuzz guitar and swirling strings; Ruby & the Party Gang, most likely a one-off studio creation of writer-producer Bobby Martin, though their song “Ruby’s Surprise Party,” a.k.a. “Hey Ruby (Shut Your Mouth),” has the same enjoyable battle-of-the-sexes vibe as Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’s “Tramp” and the Soul Children’s “Hearsay,” both of which are classics (as soulgeneration.co.uk says, “Ruby is the neighbour from hell but damn funky assed in her style”); and Carolyn Crawford, a former Motown performer whose “Good and Plenty” contains bouncy saxophone accompaniment and a locomotive vocal refrain of the title phrase.
These artists may not have conquered the world the way Philadelphia International’s most popular groups did, but now that they’ve finally entered the digital age, here’s hoping their wonderful soul music won’t get lost again.
Carolyn Crawford, “Good and Plenty” (from Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records)
McFadden & Whitehead, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (from The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits) *
* Due to technical difficulties on Popdose’s end, you’re getting this song from a source other than the Sound of Philadelphia CD. Sorry for the inconvenience. (Then again, you’re getting it for free either way. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da …) Also, Amazon.com lists a 16-track version of The Sound of Philadelphia that includes the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody” and the Jones Girls’ “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else,” but the actual CD has only 14 tracks.