I’m going to Philadelphia tomorrow. It’s exciting for me, so exciting that I’m writing the column a day early so that I can go. I haven’t been there since I moved to Rhode Island, which is closing in on four years ago now, but since I’m spending this month in southern New Jersey, only an hour away from Philadelphia, it’s a no-brainer for me.
My love for Philadelphia goes back to my childhood in this area. I got to know a lot of Philly kids because Atlantic City was where they would come for their summer weekends. As I’ve said in this column several times before, it was those Philly kids who instilled in me the love for soul music that remains with me to this day. While the rest of the world was celebrating the British Invasion, and the psychedelic ’60s, the Philly kids were waving the banner for soul.
Everything points to some Philly Soul for this week’s column, right? And although Jerry Butler is from Chicago, it was in Philadelphia that he made some of my favorite records, and he did so in the company of two Philly guys, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. There have been at least three stone classic versions of this week’s song, “A Brand New Me,” but Jerry’s 1969 take was first, and was made in Philadelphia. The other two came from no less than Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin. Not a bad pedigree for a song I’d say.
You can hear all three versions below and tell me which one you like best in the comments.
Butler first got together with Gamble and Huff in Philadelphia in 1968. He was already a big star at that point, with hits like “For Your Precious Love,” “He Will Break Your Heart,” “Moon River,” and “Make It Easy On Yourself” behind him. The three men, working with arranger Thom Bell who would go on to huge success as a songwriter and producer in his own right, created an album masterpiece called The Iceman Cometh, “Iceman” being the nickname bestowed on Butler by the legendary Philadelphia DJ Georgie Woods, and a completely fitting one at that.
The Iceman Cometh included three of Butler’s biggest hits, “Hey, Western Union Man, “Only the Strong Survive,” and “Never Give You Up.” All of them were Top 20 hits on the Pop chart, and the latter two were #1 on the R&B chart. Clearly a follow up was in order, and the team got back together to record Ice on Ice in 1969. It wasn’t easy to match the success of The Iceman Cometh, and they didn’t, but Ice on Ice was a great album anyway, spawning hits, albeit lesser ones, like “Moody Woman,” and “A Brand New Me.” The Iceman Cometh and Ice on Ice have been compiled, with bonus tracks, on a album called The Philadelphia Sessions which is well worth having.
“A Brand New Me” was written by Butler, along with Kenny Gamble, and Theresa Bell, a pseudonym that Gamble and Huff used a great deal for publishing purposes, and not to be confused with Thom Bell. It wasn’t a big hit for Butler, not quite reaching the Top 100 and oddly not hitting the R&B chart at all. Still, it’s a great record, and it spawned a stunning cover by Dusty Springfield that was a much bigger hit, reaching #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969. Incidentally, Springfield’s version is a Philadelphia product too, produced by Roland Chambers for Gamble-Huff Productions.
The following year Aretha Franklin put her take of “A Brand New Me” on the B-side of her single of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Like Butler and Springfield before her, Franklin killed it with her version. The record was a huge hit, reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #1 on the R&B chart. Alright, the A-side is probably what convinced most people to buy the record, but if they turned it over, and many did, there was a great treat on the other side as well.
Gamble and Huff went on to enormous success with their Philadelphia International Records. Thom Bell had success of his own, producing the Stylistics and the Spinners among many others, and being one of the leading lights in the Philly Soul scene of the ’70s. Butler, Springfield, and Franklin became legends.
One great song, three great versions. Which is your favorite?