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Get Down with ‘The Philly Sound’: The Ultimate Guide to Philadelphia Soul Music
03.30.2017
12:57 pm
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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…

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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03.30.2017
12:57 pm
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Rocksteady your soul: When the Old Grey Whistle Test went reggae

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Nicky Thomas delivers…
 
The Old Grey Whistle Test was only in its second year on BBC2 when producer Rowan Ayers presented this reggae showcase in Edinburgh in 1973.

The lineup is almost completely comprised of Jamaican artists who had settled in London after touring Europe off of hits they scored in the British charts. The notable exception is the specially flown-in MC Dennis Alcapone, who delivers two of the three original tunes in this collection of excerpts (the other is Winston Groovy’s “I’m a Believer”—the one written by Mulby Thompson of Trojan Records, not Neil Diamond). It’s pretty rare to see footage from this early on of a reggae MC like Alcapone in front of a live band—until the late ‘70s, they were pretty much relegated to chatting over instrumentals at sound system dances.

After the agile Cimarons cover Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” they back nearly all the other artists, until an all-white band pops up to back the Pioneers. The late Nicky Thomas offers up a compelling highlight with his paroxysmal covers of Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black” and The Four Preps’ “Love of the Common People.”

The program was hosted by Alex Hughes, who as Judge Dread had just scored three charting British reggae singles of his own—the lewd nursery rhymes “Big Six,” “Big Seven,” and “Big Eight”—and was the first white artist to have a reggae hit in Jamaica.

One can imagine how many mods, skinheads, soul boys and other riff-raff this broadcast kept off the street at the time.
 
Part 1
The Cimarons - “Ain’t No Sunshine”
Winston Groovy - “I’m A Believer”
Dennis Alcapone - “Cassius Clay” & “Wake Up Jamaica”

Part 2
The Marvels - “Jimmy Browne” & “One Monkey”
Nicky Thomas - “Is It Because I’m Black” & beginning of “Love of the Common People”

Part 3
Nicky Thomas - end of “Love of the Common People”
The Pioneers - “Higher & Higher” & “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
All Star Finale - “Freedom Train”

Pt. 1
 

 
Keep yr skank up: check out parts 2 and 3 after the jump…

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Posted by Ron Nachmann
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05.13.2012
03:17 pm
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Happy Birthday Beth Gibbons of Portishead
01.04.2012
01:34 pm
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Beth Gibbons, vocalist of both Portishead and Rustin Man, turns 46 today. Here’s to one of the best, most soulful, female voices English music has ever produced. After the jump a selection of her best clips, but let’s start with this haunting cover of the Velvet Underground:

Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man “Candy Says”
 

 
Thanks to Grizz Gom Jabbar Robinson.
 
After the Jump, videos for “L’Annulaire”, “The Rip” and “Glory Box” (live)...

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Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
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01.04.2012
01:34 pm
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The Boss: Nick Ashford tribute mix by Kirk Degiorio


 
Soul and pop music lost one of its greatest songwriters on Monday, with the passing of Nicholas Ashford, one half of the duo Ashford and Simpson. Have a quick flick through Ashford and Simpson’s songwriting resumé  and you’ll be pretty gobsmacked at some of the tunes they’ve had a hand in - they’re without a doubt one of the best songwriting duos of the modern age, writing huge hits for Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terell, Sylvester, Ray Charles, Marlena Shaw/The 5th Dimension and lots more.

London-based producer and dj Kirk Degiorgio has put together a special Nick Ashford tribute mix, featuring some of the man, and the couple’s greatest work. This is a fitting tribute indeed, and if you were in any doubt as to how good these guys were, wrap your ears around the following. Damn you cancer, but at least we know the man’s legacy will live on for a long time. 
 


 
Full tracklist after the jump…


Thanks to Kelvin Brown.

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Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
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08.25.2011
07:42 am
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Soul man Bilal takes it to the next “Levels” with a freaked-out Flying Lotus-directed video

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Innovative L.A.-based electronic music label Plug Research scored big-time when they signed Philly-raised soul singer Bilal Sayeed Oliver in the middle of 2009 to release his revelatory sophomore album Airtight’s Revenge. Bilal left his former label Interscope soon after they shelved his proposed second album, Love For Sale, based on their skepticism of its commercial potential and the fact that it was leaked before official release. Seems like an aphorism for the steady decline of the music industry to me.

Directed by stoned prodigal son Flying Lotus (damn, does that mean he did all that animation?), the recently released video for Bilal’s track “Levels” seems to evince how eagerly the singer has swallowed the red pill. This is some high high Afromythofuturistic material right here.
 

FULL SCREEN
The Sounds of VTech / Bilal Levels   

 
Get: Bilal - Airtight’s Revenge [CD]

 

Posted by Ron Nachmann
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01.25.2011
11:23 pm
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Another funk master gone too soon: R.I.P. Phelps “Catfish” Collins

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Sad news from Cincy is that Bootsy’s older brother Phelps Collins has lost his battle with cancer. This comes shortly after the equally bumming news of fellow Funkadelic guitarist Gary Shider’s passing.

The always-smiling rhythm guitarist started a band called the Pacemakers in 1968 and were soon scouted and picked up by James Brown to back him up. The brothers would record such classics as “Super Bad,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine,” “Soul Power,” and “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” before it became too much to deal with the Godfather. Then it was on to a wonderful decade with Parliament-Funkadelic and Bootsy’s Rubber Band, lacing masterpieces like “Flashlight” with his brightly sparking chikka-chikka. Phelps spent most of the past 20 years away from music, surfacing occasionally to play with groups like Deeee-lite and on soundtracks like Superbad.

He got some here at the famous L’Olympia with the JB’s in 1971, just before he and Bootsy said bye-bye to the Hardest Working Man…
 

 
After the jump: the bad-ass sounds of Phelps and Bootsy in ‘71 in between their tenures with the JBs and Parliament-Funkadelic!!
 

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Posted by Ron Nachmann
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08.09.2010
11:23 pm
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Cleveland’s Black Rock Legacy: Purple Image

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Today’s resurgence in black rock and Afro-punk has been accompanied by a boosted interest in obscure post-Hendrix black rock from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as shown by the rediscovery of Detroit bands like Death and Black Merda.

Elsewhere in the heartland, Cleveland’s late-‘60s soul and R&B scene (a role-call of which can be found in this bio for the Imperial Wonders) also boasted a clutch of guitar-centered rock bands, including the excellently named Purple Image. Rising from the 105th St. & Superior area (which took a big hit during the unrest resulting from the 1968 Granville Shootout), PI traded on a thumping, harder-than-Parliament psychedelic sound fortified by powerful group vocals and the two-guitar attack of Ken Roberts and Frank Smith. Unfortunately Purple Image’s excellent self-titled 1970 debut would be their one and only, becoming a rare black-rock nugget before it was re-released by the UK’s Radioactive label in 2007.

It would take another Midwestern black rocker to pick up the

purple

but that’s another story…
 

 
Get: Purple Image - Purple Image [CD]

 

Posted by Ron Nachmann
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07.17.2010
07:38 pm
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The King Meets the President in Africa: Michael Jackson vs. Fela Kuti

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The wonderful Tracii Macgregor at Gargamel Music hepped me to this latest project put together by New York hip-hop DJ/producer/scene-vet Rich Medina. Like any device, the mash-up/remix can yield a good amount of garbage (Gaga vs. Bieber, etc.), unless the sources are well-chosen and assembled.

It hardly gets better than pop king Michael vs. Nigeria’s Afrofunk prez Fela Kuti—much has been made of how Fela and James Brown mutually influenced each other, so the R&B/Afrofunk connection is hardly a surprise. Medina’s put together 10 rounds of it for The King Meets the President in Africa, which is downloadable for free. Unfortunately, the videos below are uncredited—if Rich did these as well, I’d consider him even more of a badman talent than I already do.
 

Thriller vs. Zombie from MJ Fela on Vimeo.

 

Billie Jean is Shakara from MJ Fela on Vimeo.

 

Posted by Ron Nachmann
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06.25.2010
06:19 pm
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The Equals: British Multiracial Soul

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Before he went off to make a mint singing about the main market street in Brixton, Guyanese-born London resident Eddy Grant put together the Equals, one of England’s most stomping multi-racial soul-rock bands.

Before the Equals scored their first hit in the UK with “Baby Come Back,” it went #1 in Germany, from which the first clip below originates, featuring a rather bossy 19-year-old Grant. It would take Top of the Pops a full year until they booked the Equals to perform the same tune. Oh yeah, they tossed over the song in clip #2 to a bunch of punks a few years after they recorded it in ’69.

Original North London skinhead psychedelia!
 

 

 

Posted by Ron Nachmann
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06.23.2010
01:27 am
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