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Get Down with ‘The Philly Sound’: The Ultimate Guide to Philadelphia Soul Music
12:57 pm


Dick Clark

I’ve known Jason Thornton for most of my life. He’s one of the world’s consummate crate diggers and has amassed (and sold and then amassed again) a vinyl collection of epic proportions. He started collecting Elvis’ Sun Records 45s with his father when he was six years old, the two of them scouring garage sales and junk stores panning for plastic gold. By the time he was twelve, he was already an otaku-level “sophisticate” when it came to music, especially classic soul and doo-wop, rockabilly and what is now called “old skool” rap and hip-hop, but was then still a brand new thing. When I met him, he was part of a group of older record-obsessed friends in my hometown of Wheeling, WV. From time to time, when he was still in high school, he’d stay on my couch in New York and spend a few days vacuuming up amazing and obscure finds in lower Manhattan’s record stores with the zeal of a first-time visitor from Japan plotting out his record shopping with ruthlessly military efficiency.

Fast forward a… uh “few” years (okay thirty of them) and he’s a married middle-aged graphic designer working in the Boston area. In recent years Jason (the designer) and his partner Dave Moore (the writer/editor) an Englishman based in Spain have been publishing the well-respected There’s That Beat, a rare soul music fanzine. They were asked by the Swedish book publisher Premium Publishing to channel their expertise into a book on the history of Philadelphia’s music makers and the result is the absolutely mind-bogglingly detailed and comprehensive—not to mention freaking massive—guide to the City of Brotherly Love’s music scene ever published The Philly Sound: Philadelphia Soul Music and its R&B: From Gospel & Bandstand to TSOP. Chock full of rare photos, label scans, sheet music covers, vintage print ads and lots and lots of great stories, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever come along and top this truly definitive volume in the future. It’s nearly 700 pages, printed in color on thick glossy paper and weighs more than my dog, so I’m guessing about ten pounds.

And that’s the problem. For reasons related to the shipping costs of such a huge book, Amazon opted not to take on The Philly Sound: Philadelphia Soul Music and its R&B: From Gospel & Bandstand to TSOP, but you can buy it directly from the authors at the There’s That Beat  website.

I asked Jason and Dave some questions via email.

Dangerous Minds: A “music city”—be that Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, London or Kingston, Jamaica—presupposes an infrastructure to support the business and practical side of things (recording studios, a pool of good musicians, record labels, venues, radio stations, etc). What made Philly such a “strange attractor” for soul musicians?

Jason Thornton: Like most industrial cities, Philadelphia drew lots of black people from the south to seek jobs. Those people brought their talents up north to help create some incredible music, many honing their craft in church and under streetlamps. With the invention of the 45rpm record, it became very inexpensive for people to cut a record and get it into the marketplace. On top of that, the popularity of American Bandstand, a show that started locally and went national, was inspiring people to rush into recording studios and try for that unique exposure. Philadelphia was also a major distribution point for records getting out into the world and Dick Clark was financially linked to distributorships and record labels, not to mention all of the great influential DJs from the many radio stations that catered to black audiences. With all those factors combined, Philadelphia had the perfect terroir for all sorts of music and all of the vehicles in place to help it thrive.

Dave Moore: It was the city’s emergence as a pivotal gospel center via the music of The Ward Sisters, and The Dixie Hummingbirds, alongside Billie Holiday’s blues recordings during the era of the “race records”  that first put the city’s black artists on the musical map. With the rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the 50s, white record label owners were looking for white interpreters of this musical phenomenon and Philadelphia-born Bernie Lowe’s Cameo and later Parkway, identified the Italian teen idol as being a great commercial vehicle. His company dominated the record market on the back of American Bandstand with an artist roster that included Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Fabian.

After the Beatles and the British Invasion just about destroyed Cameo/Parkway’s business, waiting in the wings with a new kind of black music were the likes of Maurice Bailey Jr., Kenny Gamble, Joe Stevenson, Leon Huff, Thom Bell, Luther Randolph, Johnny Stiles and Weldon A McDougal III, John Madara and David White, Richard Barrett and Wally Osborne.  During the early sixties these musical entrepreneurs along with others, created a platform that delivered many of the classic Philly soul records of its golden era.  With one eye on Detroit’s successful Motown company,  the city’s musical landscape was sculpted by these people, some more successfully than others. The pinnacle of Philadelphia’s second musical coming came about when Joe Tarsia purchased a building on N 12th St just round the corner from 309 Broad St (the old Cameo Studio).

With Joe’s expertise as a sound engineer, the foundations of MFSB coming together at Frank Virtue’s Studio and Gamble and Huff enjoying success with the Intruder singles, the fuse of Philadelphia’s rocketing success was lit. International hits by Billy Paul, the O’Jays. Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, McFadden And Whitehead, Jerry Butler, The Jones Girls all ensured that Gamble and Huff’s “The Sound Of Philadelphia” took pride of place in the city’s musical achievements.

Over the decades who were the power players of Philly Soul?

Dave Moore: I guess the guys who really rose to the top of the city’s musical hierarchy are probably identified in three distinct groupings during the timeline of the 50s to the 70s.

Firstly, in the ‘50s, there were those that enjoyed the initial pop success i.e. Bernie Lowe, Kal Man and Dave Appell via America’s teenage awakening years and Dick Clark’s ascendancy with Bandstand. Although not all soulful outings, the labels they established would prove useful apprenticeships for many of the city’s future soul stars.

The 60s saw the emergence of the black influence both in front of and also behind the microphones and mixing board.  Jimmy Bishop’s WDAS radio show put him on top of the promotion pile and his Arctic label was unlucky not to recreate Berry Gordy’s success with Motown. Jerry Ross was enjoying much success with a number of acts and labels and the decline of Cameo/Parkway saw openings for Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell amongst a swathe of young ambitious entrepreneurs.

As the 70s emerged the undisputed crown kings of Philly Soul were The Mighty Three:  Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell.  Joe Tarsia had created the perfect cauldron at Sigma Sound Studios and with MFSB (and particularly Ronnie Baker, Norman Harris and Earl Young as its heartbeat), delivering unrivaled talent, The Mighty Three drove the juggernaut that was a worldwide international success: The Sound Of Philadelphia.     

Leon Huff, Thom Bell and Kenny Gamble

What are some songs that best exemplify the Philadephia sound? What was “the TSOP”?

Dave Moore: “The Sound Of Philadelphia” has become synonymous with the green record label bearing the same name owned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They could certainly lay a strong claim to be so. The music created by their company via Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studio was certainly an identifiable and unique sound of the time incorporating lush arrangements, bongo-driven intros, lavish string components and of course with the backing voices of the Sweethearts of Sigma, MFSB’s skills were allowed to breathe fully. If I had to select a solitary song that exemplified this cauldron of talent I’d plump for The O’Jays’ “I Love Music.” Comprising a tell-tale intro, metronome-like drumming from Earl Young, plus effervescent vocals from a real iconic singing group, the whole ensemble are at the top of their creative game.   
Much more after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Link Wray and his bizarre guitar on American Bandstand, 1959
02:50 pm


American Bandstand
Dick Clark
Link Wray

Link Wray Slinky
This Link Wray appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand from 1959 is great for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s kind of fun observing a bunch of palm-to-mouth teenyboppers as they try to decide what to do with themselves while watching a guy with some of the gnarliest guitar tone of all time rip it up in front of them. Wray is famous for supposedly “inventing” the power chord and for punching holes in his speakers to get the raunchiest recording sound possible. Yes, Wray had scored a hit in April of 1958 with his now ultra-famous and influential tremolo soaked instrumental swamp ballad, “Rumble” released just under a year before this American Bandstand appearance, but it was banned from the airwaves in some markets for being just too damned raw and for using the slang term (obvious now) for a gang fight. I’ve got to imagine, judging by the “I’m supposed to be liking this, right?” looks on the faces of the young audience, that they were a at least a little befuddled by the performance. At the time of this appearance in early 1959, Wray had just released the single for “Rawhide” (not the version you might be thinking of) that he and the band play on the show. Wray’s “Rawhide” is also just a cool instrumental in its own right.
Link Wray Guitarlin
Link Wray looking like a bad man with his 1958 Danelectro Longhorn “Guitarlin”
More importantly however (for me anyways) is that the clip also provides a chance to take a look at the source of Wray’s tone (half anyways, I’m not sure what kind of amp he was using), the ultra-bizzaro 1958 Danelectro Longhorn “Guitarlin” that Wray plays in the clip and with which he performed and recorded during the last few years of the fifties. Boasting a very long neck with an unprecedented 31 frets and a deep double cutaway that produces the “long horns” jutting out from the guitar’s oddly shaped body, the Guitarlin is something to behold in any decade, but this was pretty far out for 1959. It was so weird, in fact, that only about 200 were ever made between 1958 and 1968 according to one source. It was called a “Guitarlin” because the long neck allowed for narrow fret spacing close to the guitar body that could supposedly get the player into the mandolin tonal range.
Guitar Oddity: The weird looking Danelectro Longhorn “Guitarlin”
Guitarlin Close-up
Lipstick pickups and small fret spacing of the long necked “Guitarlin”
The two lipstick pickups that you see in picture above are just as responsible for Link Wray’s storied late fifties tone than the shape of the guitar, though. Why lipstick pickups? Because the electronics for them were literally housed inside metal canisters originally designed to hold lipstick. The pickups became standard issue on a variety of Danelectro guitars and on Silvertones, which Danelectro also manufactured and distributed for a time for Sears Department stores as cheap axes marketed towards beginners. The pickups produce a jangly, trebly tone that has become famous among collectors and retro sound enthusiasts and so many people use Silvertones today for recording and performing that it’s not even worth making a list. 

According to some guys who know a whole lot more than I do about this kind of thing, finding one of these original “Guitarlins” would set you back a couple of grand, mainly because Link Wray used one.

For those of you who care about such things, Link Wray was nominated for but not inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. 

You can read more about Link Wray, the Guitarlin and all kinds of other guitar trivia in Deke Dickerson’s Strat in the Attic: Thrilling Stories of Guitar Archaeology.

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Be Wild, Not Evil: ‘Mr. Guitar’ Link Wray tears it up at Winterland in 1974

Posted by Jason Schafer | Leave a comment
Anarchy on ‘American Bandstand’: When Public Image Ltd. met Dick Clark, 1980

John Lydon confronts America
All photos by John Brian King

American Bandstand with Dick Clark was a staple of American TV. Beginning in 1956, the clean-cut Clark hosted the program, staying at the helm for over thirty years. The show featured teenagers and young adults dancing to pop music, as well as musical acts. As previously acknowledged by Dangerous Minds, Clark had a fair amount of interesting up-and-comers appear on his show, including the Syd Barrett-fronted Pink Floyd, Captain Beefheart, and a young man by the name of Prince.
Dick Clark during PiL's performance
After the Sex Pistols imploded in early 1978, singer John Lydon would soon shed his “Johnny Rotten” skin, reinventing himself with a new band, Public Image Ltd. In April 1980, PiL were touring America for the first time, supporting album #2, which was a double LP. For Second Edition (originally released as Metal Box), the group abandoned the rock found on their debut, producing a sprawling post-punk opus that was both weird and danceable (think Can meets Chic). It’s an innovative and unique work—in other words, not exactly the kind of stuff that normally makes it onto American television.
Second Edition
Public Image Ltd’s appearance on American Bandstand aired on May 17th, 1980. Moments after “Poptones” begins, the camera catches Lydon sitting off to the side of the Bandstand podium, seemingly unsure what to do. Soon he’s up and dancing about, trying to involve the studio audience.
John Lydon and the audience
But the crowd ain’t cooperating, so Lydon takes the next step, heading into the throng (ala Iggy) to force the issue.
John Lydon in the audience
The timid audience, largely consisting of teenagers, seem both excited and scared by the singer, and they take even more encouraging to break TV protocol, with Lydon physically pushing, shoving, and finally pulling spectators onto the platform. All the while, the former Rotten isn’t even bothering to keep up with the lip-syncing—a very punk thing to do, right? Well, there was a reason for it and all the anarchy, which Lydon later explained in his autobiography:

It all got off on the wrong foot when we arrived and they suddenly informed us that it would be a mimed thing. Our equipment hadn’t arrived in time, apparently, but we soon got even more upset when they said, ‘Oh no, you couldn’t play it live anyway, just mime to the record.’

They’d made up some edited versions of “Poptones” and “Careering,” and gave us a cassette to check it out beforehand. ‘Oh my God, they’ve cut it down to that? I don’t know where the vocals are going to drop. What are we supposed to do?’ None of us knew. Just thinking about trying to sing it like the record was…aarghh! You can fake it with an instrument but you can’t as the singer. ‘Okay, so you’ve cut out the point and purpose, it’s like removing the chorus from the National Anthem, just because it makes for an allotted time slot on a TV show. That’s arse-backways!’

PiL backstage
The calm before the storm: PiL backstage

More after the jump…

Posted by Bart Bealmear | Leave a comment
Dick Clark R.I.P. - Pink Floyd on American Bandstand

Shit, another legend bites the dust.

On the surface Dick Clark looked about as hip as Dick Nixon and as a kid I thought Clark was somewhat dubious as a purveyor of youth culture, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate his massive contribution to rock history, particularly when he went out on the limb and booked edgy acts on American bandstand, including Pink Floyd Public Image, Captain Beefheart, Bubble Puppy, Love, and X.

Here’s something I’d never seen before and I think it demonstrates just how on top of the rock scene Clark could be. Pink Floyd on American Bandstand

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Captain Beefheart on the Hot Line at American Bandstand, 1966!

In 1966, among releases by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, and the Sandpipers, Jerry Moss—the “M” in the label name A&M—gave the OK to release a buzzy, growly cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” by a cadre of misfits called Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band.

The single apparently became enough of a hit in L.A. to raise the eyebrow of Dick Clark, who features the tune for the kids to jump around to after a penetrating fan interview with Dear Leader below. Unfortunately, even though Clark had moved American Bandstand from Philly to L.A., Don Van Vliet & co. were kept at phone’s length for this “appearance.” One would think the band could have ambled over to ABC Television Center for an appearance, but who the hell knows what the circumstances were?

Posted by Ron Nachmann | Leave a comment