Sweet Philly Soul

The CD cover for the Spinners' anthology The Very Best of Spinners.

Growing up in Eastern Iowa, my education in popular music came from three sources: radio (AM initially, FM later), records (first, 45 rpm singles, and then LPs), and artists appearing on TV. Seeing popular music actually played live was an absolute rarity, usually confined to whoever played the old All-Iowa Fair in Cedar Rapids, or the Great Jones County Fair in Monticello. My favorite radio stations as a kid were Cedar Rapids’ KCRG at 1600 (“The Big 16”) and KLWW (“The Rock in the Rapids”) at 1450, which both played all the top hits of the day. When FM started to become a force in Eastern Iowa, it was Iowa City’s KRNA, at 93.5 and subsequently 93.9, which caught my ear. I didn’t have a lot of money for records, but I did buy the occasional single in the early seventies – if memory serves, The Raiders’ "Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)" was the first I ever owned – before moving to albums a couple of years later. My album collection wasn’t particularly large, but then I played several of the same few over and over again anyway. I recall wearing the grooves pretty deep on albums by The Beatles, Three Dog Night, The Guess Who, and The Hollies. You know, basic rock stuff.

Area AM stations played a little bit of everything, that is, anything that was a Top 40 contender. As a result, I became familiar with many music genres: rock and roll, pop, folk, country, R&B, and, of course, rock in all its many permutations, such as blues, garage, psychedelic, and surf. I may have been introduced to them via local radio, but that didn’t mean I became well-versed in all of them. Frankly, I lived in white bread America and although I was familiar with the biggest hits of the major R&B artists of the time, my awareness barely scratched the surface. Sure, I knew the classic hits of artists like The Four Tops, The Temptations, and The Jackson 5, but I certainly wouldn’t have recognized the majority of tunes being played on the R&B stations of such relatively nearby urban centers as Chicago or St. Louis. That is, until television – more of a national medium than the local medium that was radio – began changing in the early seventies.

Television had numerous variety shows on network schedules in the fifties and sixties, but integration was slow, and slots for black artists on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show went to those that were considered safe or inoffensive. The same could be said for the musical guests invited to play (or lip sync) on the likes of American Bandstand or The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson. Then, starting in the mid-sixties, the conformity of fifties America, which had already begun to crack in the early sixties, got blown apart by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, inner-city rioting, the ascent of the drug culture, and the women’s liberation movement. In the midst of this seeming chaos, African-American culture began flowering. With greater freedom came greater expression in all mediums. In music, R&B (which had already been flourishing during the sixties at Detroit’s Motown Records and Memphis’ Stax Records, among others) increasingly crossed into the mainstream as both real and perceived barriers broke down between whites and blacks. Nowhere was this more apparent than on television.

Thanks to such trailblazers as Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Diahann Carroll, and Redd Foxx, network primetime television schedules started becoming more inclusive. The same went for late night schedules, as Johnny Carson and his competitors were now more inclined to welcome African-American guests to their talk shows. Then, on August 19, 1972, a live music show premiered on NBC named The Midnight Special. Among the guests on that first episode was the popular R&B group The Isley Brothers. That late Friday night show would display a color-blind policy over its eight-year run, with one or more African-American artists performing on each episode and often including hosting duties. I received my first real exposure to R&B artists through The Midnight Special, as well as other similar shows that were launched in its wake. Among the R&B artists who I would enjoy seeing were several that I would learn had come out of Philadelphia. In fact, there was already a name being applied to their style of music: Philly Soul.

The CD cover for Playlist: The Very Best of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.R&B, a term that had had a fairly distinct meaning through the end of the sixties, fast became an umbrella term that included such hybrid styles as soul, funk, and disco during the seventies. Soul music was being crafted in urban centers throughout the country, but Philadelphia helped lead the way. I recently checked out a CD featuring the best of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and it was as silky smooth now as it was then. Perhaps that’s because Philly Soul was largely a producer/songwriter movement in which the vocal and instrumental arrangements received primary focus. The vehicle for those productions was almost entirely African-American close harmony groups with years of prior singing experience. Hearing that CD really put me in the mood for more, so here are a few of the top acts of the classic Philly Soul era that deserve another listen. Some of these artists spent their entire recording careers in Philadelphia, others just passed through at some point, but they all helped create a bit of Philly Soul in the seventies.

The O'Jays formed in Canton, Ohio as a quintet in 1958, but didn’t find real success until the early seventies when, as a trio, they were signed by the legendary producer/songwriting team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon A. Huff to the pair’s own Philadelphia International label. The O’Jays enjoyed seven top twenty singles (1973’s “Love Train” peaked at #1) and eight top twenty albums during that decade.

Philadelphia’s own The Delfonics scored one of the first national Philly Soul hits when “La-La (Means I Love You)” rose to #4 in 1968. They had several other Top 40 hits, all of which were co-written by founding member/lead vocalist William Hart and famed Philly Soul producer Thom Bell, before they broke up in 1975.

Although Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes was named for founding member and original lead vocalist/choreographer/songwriter Melvin, he’d given up all of those duties by the time the Philadelphia quintet found fame after nearly twenty years as a unit. In 1970, Teddy Pendergrass joined the group, later moving to lead vocals. Like the O’Jays, The Blue Notes peaked in the seventies after being signed by Gamble and Huff and recording for the team’s Philadelphia International. "If You Don't Know Me by Now," which hit #3 in 1972, became their signature song.

Formed in 1954, Spinners were a Detroit group who recorded for hometown labels Tri-Phi and Motown throughout the sixties, though only a handful of their many singles ever broke into the Billboard Top 40. Success, however, came in Philadelphia, where producer/songwriter Thom Bell took them under his wing at Atlantic Records in 1972. At Atlantic, Spinners became the most successful Philly Soul group ever, scoring seven top five hits alone, including the #1 “Then Came You,” a collaboration with Dionne Warwick.

The Stylistics were created in 1966 when two members from both The Monarchs and The Percussions came together to form a quartet. The Philadelphia group signed with Avco Records around 1970 and had the good fortune of having the label entice Thom Bell to produce and co-write their first, eponymously-titled album, which yielded five charting singles, two of which climbed into the top ten. The hits would keep coming into the mid-seventies, including the "You Make Me Feel Brand New,” their biggest hit, reaching #2 in 1974.

Other artists associated with Philly Soul include The Manhattans, MFSB (an instrumental group), and The Three Degrees (a rare female group). CDs by these artists will be added as available. In the meantime, come to the Des Moines Public Library, checkout the groups above, and find out why Philadelphia is famous for more than steak sandwiches.