The physical home of Philadelphia International Records may have fallen but as Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby reveals their great legacy won’t be forgotten.
On October 15, the sign outside of the building at 309 S. Broad Street in Philadelphia was lowered, the building having been sold for development and now ready to be demolished. Perhaps that won’t mean much to you, but it really should.
For this was the home of Philadelphia International Records, perhaps the greatest soul label of the 1970’s, picking up where Motown and Stax left off at the end of the 1960’s, and bringing a new, sophisticated soul sound into the homes of black America and the world.
And yet we didn’t see this news reported on many music sites. It just seemed to pass by. Why? If Motown’s Hitsville building in Detroit, or Stax’s Soulsville building in Memphis closed down, the sites would be lit up with the news. The Sound of Philadelphia building hosted The O’ Jays, Patti LaBelle, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, and when the Jackson 5 left Motown, where did Michael and his brothers end up? Philadelphia International, that’s where.
The label was formed in 1971 by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, two songwriters and producers who had previous success with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Wilson Pickett.
They formed Philadelphia International as a rival to Berry Gordy and Motown. Just as Motown became one of the definitive soul sounds of the 1960’s, Philadelphia International did for the 1970’s, successfully eclipsing Motown in the process.
Furthermore, the Philadelphia Soul sound they pioneered later became the basis of Disco; the lush strings, the thumping bass, and hi-hat rhythms all becoming notable stylistic motifs in the late-70s movement.
Sadly, the building was a victim of arson in 2010, and it’s structure was never able to be revived.
We believe the Sound of Philadelphia building should be a cultural landmark, a tribute to the great music that came out of it. So, in tribute to this astonishing label, here are ten Philadelphia International records that no soul fan should be without.
PIR, we wish you love, peace and soul…
1. Love Train (The O’ Jays)
Kenneth Gamble himself cites 1972’s Love Train as the ultimate PIR song (we’re sure that has nothing whatsoever to do with the royalty cheques), so it’s only fair that we list it first. He believes that the song’s message was paramount to what PIR was about; bringing people of all types together through a sheer love of music.
2. Me and Mrs Jones (Billy Paul)
Culled from the 1972 album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, this is one of the undisputed classic soul ballads, though it was mildly controversial at the time – the title should give away why (MRS Jones? If there’s a Mrs Jones, that means there’s a Mr Jones). Much of the song’s success is due to Paul’s silky vocals. The former jazz singer was already nearly 40 years old when he recorded the song, meaning he had more than enough life experience to bring the emotion needed to the forefront. For reference, Michael Buble recorded the song in 2007 and managed to make it one of the most soulless renditions of anything ever.
3. Wake Up Everybody (Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes)
The title track from the last Blue Notes album to feature Teddy Pendergrass on vocals, this one of the more overtly political songs released by the label. Lyrically, it’s a pretty simple affair. The title alone should clue you as to what the lyrics entail. But the slightly unconventional structure of the song is what truly makes it. Beginning as a subdued piano-led ballad, by the mid-point of the song it’s started to really jam, building to one of the greatest climax’s in soul. We maintain it is impossible not to feel Pendergrass’ ad libs.
4. Soul City Walk (Archie Bell & The Drells)
Archie Bell & The Drells signed to PIR in 1975, following Bell’s return from the Vietnam war. They immediately came out with this Philly classic. A favourite in early Disco clubs at the time, the brisk feel to the track struck a chord with club goers of the day. Of note, the smooth backing vocals of the Drells were effective enough to earn them the nickname “The Sweethearts of Stigma”.
5. Blues Away (The Jacksons)
This one is more of a curiosity than anything else. Amazingly, this is the first song ever written by Michael Jackson. The Jacksons had spent seven years at Motown under the name the Jackson 5. When they left the label wanting more creative control, they went straight to Gamble & Huff and slowly began writing their own material. It may not be one of the best PIR tracks, nor one of the best Jacksons tracks (if you want more successful PIR/Jacksons collaborations, then Show You The Way To Go or Enjoy Yourself may be the place to start), but it captures an interesting moment in musical history. A track that may be slightly unsure of itself, but shows a young man on the cusp of something special.
6. Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now (McFadden & Whitehead)
Gene McFadden and John Whitehead were originally songwriters and producers at the Sound of Philadelphia building, and were frustrated at Gamble & Huff for not allowing them to step into the spotlight. Funnily enough, that’s what they wrote this song about. Gamble has stated that he attempted to convince the duo to give the song to The O’ Jays. They refused and had a #1 hit on the R&B charts and a top 5 hit in the UK. The song was later adopted as an anthem for the black community in America.
7. Life On Mars (Dexter Wansel)
This is maybe the definitive PIR jazz-funk tune, owing much to the likes of Grover Washington Jr. This was only a minor hit, reaching #91 on the soul charts. Wansel began his time at PIR as a session player, and eventually became the company’s head of A&R. He hasn’t left behind the greatest of musical legacies, but tracks like this make us wish he had indulged a bit more. (N.B. This has nothing to do with David Bowie).
8. I Don’t Love You Anymore (Teddy Pendergrass)
Pendergrass’ first solo single after leaving Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, I Don’t Love You Anymore launched him as one of R&B’s biggest stars for a number of years. The uptempo track has one of PIR’s catchiest choruses and a groove that makes it impossible to keep still.
9. Am I Black Enough For You? (Billy Paul)
After the humungous success of the aforementioned Me and Mrs Jones, Paul practically BEGGED PIR to not release this as his next single. But Gamble was so damn proud of the song, that his pleads fell on deaf ears. Ironically, the song ended up too black for mainstream audiences and killed Paul’s career. However, the song became a favourite amongst black audiences, with pioneering gangsta rapper Schoolly D naming his 1989 album after the song, and a 2009 biographical film that chronicles Paul’s life since Me and Mrs Jones used this song as it’s title.
10. TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) (MFSB featuring The Three Degrees)
For anyone who loved soul music in America, there was only one show that provided the very best of the music they loved on television; Soul Train. Anyone who is anyone in R&B played Soul Train. And every week, millions of loyal viewers heard PIR’s house band MFSB provide the theme tune, and this was it. When released as a single, Don Cornelius, the man behind Soul Train, refused to allow any references to the show on record. Hence, the record was renamed TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia), thus providing a theme tune not only for Soul Train, but for PIR itself.