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Extended Analysis

Various Artists: Love Train - The Sound Of Philadelphia

By Published: August 12, 2009
Various Artists

Love Train—The Sound of Philadelphia

Legacy/Philadelphia International Records


Love Train, 71 songs sprawled across four CDs, brings together a mass of music that has already been anthologized in a variety of forms over the years, though not as exhaustively or attractively. The package accomplishes two things. First, it successfully situates the classic Philly sound as an integral link in the chain of soul music's development, particularly in the interim between the flowering of the form in the 1960s, and the many paths it would follow in the 1980s and beyond. Second, Love Train provides a clear way of thinking about the music that erupted from the Sigma Sound Studio in South Philadelphia under the tutelage of impresarios Leon Huff, Kenny Gamble and Thom Bell.

First, how does Philadelphia fit into soul-music's history? To answer this question, it's useful to refer to a book that is as close a thing as we have to a "theory of soul music," Peter Guralnick's excellent Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (Back Bay, 1986). Soul, Guralnick would argue, sprang from the sacred but profane trinity of Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Ray Charles
1930 - 2004
, Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke
1931 - 1964
and James Brown
James Brown
James Brown
1933 - 2006
; it was a fundamentally African-American and Southern phenomenon, with hot spots in Memphis, in Alabama, in Georgia; it was gritty and emotive. Guralnick, in the first edition of his treatise, was guardedly positive about the smoother soul of Al Green
Al Green
Al Green
, and casually dismissive of the slicker Motown sound, two clear antecedents of the main Philadelphia current.

There are links here to Guralnick's favored vein: late-career highlights from Jerry Butler ("Only the Strong Survive"), Wilson Pickett ("Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You") and Joe Simon ("Drowning in the Sea of Love"), three bona fide exemplars of the classic 1960s soul music tradition. Not to mention Lou Rawls
Lou Rawls
Lou Rawls
1935 - 2006
, whose commercial heyday is chronicled herein, but whose raucous vocal contributed the grit to many a Sam Cooke record in an earlier incarnation. And Leon Huff's 1980 nugget "I Ain't Jivin,' I'm Jammin'" is R & B as Ray Charles would have recognized it, as is the pure blues of "The Big Hurt," the B-side of "Do It Any Way You Wanna," a 1975 hit by People's Choice.

But by and large, the Philadelphia sound is not associated with the gritty southern soul lineage in the popular imagination. Its most distinctive feature is elaborate orchestration, provided by the Sigma Studio house band, MFSB ("Mother, Father, Sister, Brother"), the subject of a brief reminiscence by guitarist Bobby Eli—who wrote Blue Magic's "Sideshow"— in the accompanying booklet. Love and care was lavished upon the arrangements, especially those prepared by classically-trained Thom Bell. There were one-hit wonders, to be sure, but among the artists represented here are consistently excellent groups including the Spinners, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, the O'Jays and the Stylistics.

The songs that defined the Philly Sound were more or less evenly split between two varieties. On the one hand, there were the muscular dance numbers with fast tempos, but always with the baroque Philly orchestration: the O'Jays' "Put Your Hands Together" or "I Love Music"; the Spinners' "Rubberband Man" or "Mighty Love"; McFadden & Whitehead's later "Ain't No Stopping Us Now." This vein would reach its apotheosis with the many hits of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, featuring the ferocious vocals of Teddy Pendergrass; it is told that MFSB drummer Earl Young would invent the disco beat—"four on the floor and that 'pea soup' high hat pattern," according to guitarist Eli—for them, heard to great effect on "Bad Luck" and other Melvin numbers here.

On the other hand, there were the slow, bittersweet laments (whose roots surely lay in Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' 1965 hit "Ooh Baby Baby"); the Stylistics' "Break Up to Make Up"; the Manhattans' "Kiss and Say Goodbye"; Billy Paul's magisterial, adulterous ode, "Me and Mrs. Jones."

Roughly speaking, the productions by Gamble and Huff favor the tough disco tunes, while Bell leans toward the ethereal, string-laden productions, though there are many exceptions to this rule of thumb—and many other producers whose work is represented here.

In their consistently professional orchestration, the high quotient of slow jams and disco numbers alike, the music here seems a clear successor to the Memphis experiments of Al Green, infused with Motown influences. Gamble, Huff and Bell take the music in a direction that likely runs afoul of Peter Guralnick's aesthetic principles, but one that is clearly seminal for the soul music that would follow it in later decades. Indeed, by extending the temporal coverage to the early 1990s, this collection makes clear the forward linkages between the Philly classics and what would come later: Michael Jackson's Off the Wall (Epic, 1979), the S.O.S. Band, the Gap Band, Cameo, DeBarge.

There are some real gems, both familiar and obscure, like the O'Jays' album cut "Sunshine," reminding us that many of the Philly Soul records functioned as albums, and not merely singles-plus-filler: this was true of most of the Spinners' discs, of Harold Melvin's To Be True (1975), the O'Jays' Backstabbers (1972), from which "Sunshine" was drawn.

There remain nevertheless some quibbles with the song selection. For starters, the almost hallucinogenic slow jams are under represented: where is Blue Magic's "Sideshow," the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New," Norman Connors' "You Are My Starship"? In large part, the root of the problem is that this collection is a chronicle of Philadelphia International Records, the label founded by Gamble and Huff in 1971, and not a chronicle of the Philly Sound itself. The two subjects don't overlap exactly: Philadelphia International didn't embrace the sound of the city the way Motown embraced the sound of Detroit. Emblematic of this is Gamble and Huff's failure to secure Bell to an exclusive contract with the label. As a result, some of Bell's off label productions are not here, nor are other classic expressions of the Philly Sound.

Beyond orchestration and the mix of sweet and savory songs, a third element, not immediately obvious, of the Philly Sound emerges from listening to so much of it at once, and that is a gnawing sense of social disintegration. These are not protest records, like so many singles that immediately preceded the Philly soul high-water years; there is rarely anything overtly political, except for relatively anodyne sentiments like that expressed by the vaguely anthemic "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" (e.g. "we're on the move").

But in the interstices of more than a few songs here, there is an edge that stems from a social fabric falling apart under relentless pressure of a decaying economic structure. In the background of some of the stories about relationships lurks unemployment, debt troubles and even homelessness. Not in the form of a general critique, but as part of the lived experience of the songs' protagonists. There is something bizarrely jarring about Teddy Pendergrass, with his aggressive sexuality, singing over a pulsing disco beat, about losing his house, as he does on "Where Are All My Friends?" This should have been a party song— indeed, it almost is a party song, but Pendergrass cries out "I need a loan!" between choruses.

Similarly, the O'Jays' "Backstabbers" deplores the fraying network of trust; when that great Gamble and Huff production entered the charts in July 1972, the unemployment rate for adult men in the US was 3.8 percent, but stood at 8.2 percent for African-American men. By the time Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes charted their paean to "Bad Luck" in March 1975, male unemployment in the US had climbed to 7.8 percent—versus 14.3 percent for African- American men.

The characteristic sweet, slow songs of the Philly Sound can be better understood in this context as well. The most characteristic of the Stylistics' songs, with their snail-like tempos, swelling strings and syrupy falsetto vocals declaiming timeless tales of innocent love, sound in this setting like a deliberate attempt to go back to a sweeter time in popular culture, to retreat from a grim and gritty daily reality of layoffs and relationships succumbing to overwhelming stress.

This element of anxiety adds a tinge of greater depth to these finely crafted songs. And it is a tinge of more than merely historical interest. In June 2009, unemployment in the US had reached 9.5 percent—higher than at any time during the grim times that served as the backdrop, and sometimes as the subject matter, of these soul classics. Among African- American men, the rate was 16.4 percent

Tracks: CD1: Expressway (To Your Heart); La-La—Means I Love You; Cowboys to Girls; Hey, Western Union Man; Ready or Not Here I Come (Can't Hide from Love); Only the Strong Survive; Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time); Brand New Me; Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You; You're the Reason Why; Drowning in the Sea of Love; I'm Stone in Love with You; I Miss You; Back Stabbers; Sunshine; I'll Be Around; Slow Motion, Pt. 1; Me and Mrs. Jones; If You Don't Know Me by Now; Love Is Here. CD2: Love Train; Break Up to Make Up; Family Affair; It's Forever; Time to Get Down; There's No Me Without You; I'll Always Love My Mama; The Love I Lost; I Wanna Know Your Name; Dirty Ol' Man; Put Your Hands Together; Thanks for Saving My Life; Mighty Love; Be Thankful for What You Got, Pt. 1; For the Love of Money; Where Do We Go from Here; T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia). CD3: Then Came You; Love Is the Message; When Will I See You Again; Where Are All My Friends; Picture Us; Bad Luck; Give the People What They Want; Billy's Back Home; Hope That We Can Be Together Soon; Do It Any Way You Wanna; The Big Hurt; Let Me Make Love to You; Wake Up Everybody; I Love Music; Don't Leave Me This Way; Let's Groove; Livin' for the Weekend. CD4: Kiss and Say Goodbye; I'm Not in Love; You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine; The Rubberband Man; Enjoy Yourself; Free Love; I Don't Love You Anymore; See You When I Git There; Use Ta Be My Girl; Close the Door; Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now; You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else; Hurry Up This Way Again; Love T.K.O.; I Ain't Jivin,' I'm Jammin'; It's Gonna Take a Miracle; If Only You Knew.

Personnel: artists include The Soul Survivors; The Delfonics; The Intruders; Jerry Butler; Dusty Springfield; Wilson Pickett; The Ebonys; Joe Simon; The Stylistics; Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes; The O'Jays; The Spinners; Johnny Williams; Billy Paul; The Futures; MFSB; The Manhattans; The Three Degrees; William DeVaughn; The Trammps; Bunny Sigler; People's Choice; Dee Dee Sharp; Lou Rawls; The Jacksons; Jean Carn; Teddy Pendergrass; McFadden & Whitehead; The Jones Girls; Leon Huff; Deniece Williams; Patti LaBelle; plus scores of semi- legendary session musicians.

Note: unemployment figures are drawn from the web site of the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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