Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Golden Gate Groove: The Sound Of Philadelphia Live 1973 (SONY CMG )




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UK release date 09.04.2012


Word association…If I say “Philadelphia” and you say “cheese spread,” it means you weren’t born in the 70s, you live in a cave with no power or means to hear music, or you are stone deaf. It should actually prompt you to say “The Sound of…” before it.

What Berry Gordy and mega songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland did for Detroit and Motown, Gamble, Huff and Bell did for Philadelphia. Creating an entire sound that defined a City, a decade and for me, as fresh today as it was then. Timeless.

1973 witnessed soul music undergo a significant change. 18 months earlier, with the Vietnam War raging and the Watergate scandal erupting, the US airwaves & r&b charts saturated with ghetto funk, hard r&b stylings and junkie paranoia. Yet within this spiky climate of anger & social unrest, a new, string-drenched, smoother soul sound came out of Philadelphia.

In the summer of 1973, Philadelphia International Records staged a showcase with a four-day conference at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. Gamble & Huff were determined to leave a lasting impression on their Columbia bosses (Philadelphia International had signed to Columbia Records back in 1971), and felt it imperative that the cream of the label’s artist roster perform - under the guidance of the MFSB Orchestra - all 35 musicians, which included giants such as Earl Palmer on drums, Norman Harris & Bobby Eli on guitars, Ronnie Baker on bass, Vince Montana on vibes and producer Thom Bell on organ.

It was the only time the full MFSB orchestra played a live show. They were as important to the Philly sound as the Funk Brothers to Motown, Booker T and MGs for Stax, The Wrecking Crew – drummer Hal Blaine’s “first call” session set in LA - for a raft of recordings including Phil Spector’s “Wall of sound” output and The Beach Boys’ records. (A new book, The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best Kept Secret, by Kent Hartman, is published by Thomas Dunne Books: St. Martin's Press this month, February, 2012.)

Kenny Gamble called it, “a historical night in music—the beginning of a major change for rhythm and blues in America.” The whole show was recorded, but forgotten about for almost 40 years, until the master tapes were recently re-discovered, dusted off and the magnificent sounds of the label’s biggest acts sprang to life. The result is a glorious musical slice of soul history, released for the very first time.

The album begins with the audience’s cheers - among the 1500 guests were Johnny Winter, Carlos Santana and The Isley Brothers - a fanfare, and Soul Train creator, the late Don Cornelius, as master of ceremonies. Incidentally, Soul Train would use MFSB’s ‘TSOP’ as its theme tune.

“Ladies and gentlemen…” We hear the big band sounds of the famed, Grammy-winning MFSB Orchestra, and we are off. They offer an instrumental, “Freddie’s Dead,” the Curtis Mayfield song, the first single from his 1972 film soundtrack to Super Fly. It’s more swinging big band jazz than the trade mark Philly sound, to be honest. Closer to a Quincy Jones early big band score. It does conjure up memories of huge lapels, platform shoes and velvet jackets for me (yeah, what I wore last weekend!) The song laments the death of Fat Freddie, a character in the film who is run over by a car.

According to the book A House on Fire: the rise and fall of Philadelphia Soul, by John A. Jackson, the MFSB name means "Mother, Father, Sister, Brother", because according to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, despite the diversity at Philadelphia International Records, all were connected musically.

We are then introduced to “the group of entertainers that probably most exemplify the magic touch that exists at Gamble, Huff and Bell Productions. They took the material and beat it up, attacked it like starving men who had been in a desert for days….Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes.” Bernard Wilson, Lawrence Brown, Lloyd Parks & Theodore Pendergrass, Jr.

Their biggest hit, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” is delivered in sparkling, classy form. Great vocals, great gospel-like harmonies. Reminding us all what a truly great, great, great song that is from the pen of Mr Kenny Gamble and Mr Leon Huff. No cover version is a patch on the original (Hucknall murdering it in 1989.) Its depth of soul, passion, emotion. Teddy is untouchable on this song. As good here live, as on the record. At the end of the song, someone says “Theodore Pendergrass….We call him teddy bear!”

We lost Theodore “Teddy” Pendergrass in Jan 2010, aged just 59. In 1982, he was severely injured in a car crash in Philadelphia, when the brakes failed on his 1981 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, causing the car to hit a guard rail, cross into the opposite traffic lane, and hit two trees. He was paralysed from the waist down. After his injury, he founded the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, a foundation that helps those with spinal cord injuries.

The group gives us “The Love I Lost,” which features the beautiful strings from MFSB, and the lead vocal sends shivers down the spine, with that gruff soul delivery. Auto-tune not invented, or required, back then. On this track and the entire album, it seems to me that little would have been done after the event, to doctor the recordings. Maybe a bit of editing, and we hear it as it was performed on the night. A true record of what a Philly concert was all about.

I have seen and worked with Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Billy Paul and the Three Degrees, (while Sheila Ferguson was still with them,) on a UK Philly tour as official photographer. I also reviewed it for a few newspapers. They were all lovely people, amazingly talented and it was a fantastic show every single night of the tour. That was circa 1986, I think. So this concert here on this album, really brings back lovely memories for me. As I am sure it will for many people around the world. The production quality is very good and a pretty even listen, compared to most live offerings.

“I Miss You,” is the song that kicked off Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ global success. Their first number one. A song originally written for The Dells, rejected by them, so when Kenny Gamble heard how Teddy sounded remarkably like Dells lead singer Marvin Junior, he decided to build the song with Pendergrass. Teddy then only 21, singing much of the song in a raspy baritone wail that became his trademark.

The record also featured Lloyd Parks falsetto in the background, and Harold Melvin adding in a rap near the end of the song - as Pendergrass kept singing, feigning tears. There’s a lot of talking the lyrics and ad-libs on this version, towards the end of the track.

Philly’s answers to The Supremes are introduced after the Bluenotes leave the stage. Now, there’s an issue to clear up here. The press notes I have with my review copy, give the line-up as Fayette Pinkney, Shirley Porter & Linda Turner. But you can clearly hear the girls introduce themselves as Sheila (Ferguson), Fayette (Pinkney) and Valerie (Holiday).

The line-up stated by the blurb was only in existence in 1963, when the group first formed. So it was impossible for it to be that line-up in 1973. Right, that’s cleared that up then. There have been an amazing 14 different women in that group since it formed. Always a trio, and famous in the UK for being known as “Charlie’s Angels,” after it was revealed they were HRH Prince Charles’ favourite group.

The girls sing “I Didn’t Know,” where the lead vocal is a little lost in the mix, swamped by the backing of MFSB and the other vocals. They then sing “Dirty Ol’ Man,” which for me is not one of their best. They deliver lovely vocals here though. Their big crossover hit single, “When Will I See You Again,” was not released until the year after this concert.

MFSB play the instrumental “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” and I love this one. I drove my parents nuts with it blasting out of my bedroom over and over! Here in 1973, it had been written but not yet released. The introduction then tells us we are about to hear, “one of the greatest song stylists in the world…Mr Billy Paul.”

Back to the time I was snapping pix of Billy, on a theatre roof in London in the 80s. I took what is one of my favourite photographs I have ever taken in my career. Black and white. Still got it. Billy dressed from head to toe in black leather, including cap and trousers. Walking over a black metal fire escape, towards me and over some puddles.

It is a gritty shot, like it was shot in New York not London, and he looks like he is about to rip my head off and eat it! He was in great voice in those days too. Still very active, and only last year he dueted with Sir Cliff Richard on his “Soulicious” CD, and came over to join Cliff and a host of soul stars on the Arena tour. Still sounding mighty today at 77-years-old.

Here, he gives us “East.” To show his versatility, (he was originally a jazz singer) it is not the smooth soul ballad one may expect after his mega success with “Me and Mrs Jones.” He digs into some scat singing three quarters of the way through this track. Then we get the classic. The one he still gets asked for all over the world. “Me and Mrs Jones,” the Grammy-winning smash hit from 1972. You hear the crowd’s cheers as they recognised the opening bars of this song. He dedicates it to his manager, who he says gave him the name Billy Paul, his real name being Paul Williams. He does falter a couple of times on the higher notes, but it doesn’t matter a jot. It is honest, and a true classic.

Billy’s gone, and we get The O’Jays. Eddie Levert, Walter Williams & William Powell. But, they do not get an introduction, for some reason. “Back Stabbers.” For me this song and this production treatment, defines the whole Philly sound at its very best. I remember overhearing a conversation some years ago at a soul “all-nighter” at Nottingham Palais, where a guy was asking a woman he clearly fancied, what music she liked. He went through a long list of artists, and she kept saying, "No.”

The final name on his list was The O’Jays. When she nodded her head from side to side yet again, in frustration, this guy muttered, “Well, if you don’t like the O’Jays, who DO you like?” As though this was the ultimate test for any woman to have a chance of getting close to him. That they must like the O’Jays, or it just wouldn’t work! This track gets the loudest applause of the night, but I am pretty sure that woman from Nottingham wasn’t there!

The O’Jays sing “When The World’s At Peace,” with perfect harmonies, and a great lead vocal. Lovely groove on drums. The horn phrasing puts me in mind of my fave band, Tower of Power. Listen out for the guitar lick from the Ohio Players’ “Who’d She Coo?”

This is one of the high spots of the whole CD. I think they are a very under-rated vocal group and their output should be re-visited and celebrated. The band locks into some serious business, while the group encourages crowd participation. They follow-up with “Sunshine,” a forgotten slowie ballad. It is classy, but does go on a bit too long.

But then, the prize…….”Love Train.” Ahhhh….now you’re talking. “People all over the world, join hands…….”Blissful song. Nice rendition.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of this iconic label and their gorgeous sound, what better way to mark it than to find this tape in the dusty vaults, and offer it to the world on this CD.? Thank you for the music Philly baby……..

Now, where did I put that plate of toast and cream cheese?

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