Soul music of the 1970s is finally being treated like jazz. Instead of allowing the genre to founder on flat-sounding CDs issued in the early 1990s, labels are reaching into their vaults and intelligently remastering the classics. In many cases, these re-issues are receiving the full treatment, complete with updated liner notes and personnel listings. One label that's taking this superb music seriously is Sony Legacy, which just released the first six CDs in its Total Soul Classics series. For me, these CDs are like the reappearance of old friends.
The first round of Total Soul CDs are Here to Create Music (Leon Huff), Wake Up Everybody (Harold Melvin), Back Stabbers (The O'Jays), 360 Degrees of Billy Paul (Billy Paul) and two incomparable albums by Teddy Pendergrass: Teddy Pendergrass and Life Is a Song Worth Singing. All six were originally released on Philadelphia International Records, a label founded in 1971 by prescient songwriters and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
Gamble and Huff had great timing. Originally launched to capitalize on the success in 1970 of male singer-seducers Curtis Mayfield (Curtis), Isaac Hayes (The Isaac Hayes Movement) and Tyrone Davis (Turn Back the Hands of Time), Philadelphia International was up and running just as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Isaac Hayes' Shaft started breaking album sales records in 1971. [Pictured: Kenny Gamble, seated, and Leon Huff]
Within months of flipping on the lights, Gamble and Huff's label established a winning formula that would become known as the Philly Sound. By 1972, Philadelphia International was a hit-making factory comparable to Sun Records in the 1950s and Motown in the 1960s. Between 1972 and 1973 alone, Philadelphia International was giving rival Atlantic Records a run for its money, charting hits with Me & Mrs. Jones, Back Stabbers, Love Train, If You don't Know Me By Now and I'll Always Love My Mama. More hot-buttered soul hits by single acts and groups would follow.
Behind the independent label's initial success was a knack for pairing jazz-influenced romantic soul with a firm bass line and infectious beat. Lyrics to songs by Gamble and Huff, and McFadden and Whitehead [pictured], typically focused on dating, breaking up, getting back together, couples' emotional needs, and the reasons why relationships weren't working out. Black and white teens and young adults alike identified with the message and new sound. The label also was helped greatly by a shrewd distribution deal with CBS and the advent of 8-track players, which helped make Philly International's albums love themes for road-bound dating couples.
What's more, the warm, romance-friendly Philly Sound came as a welcome relief for a large segment of the young, music-listening market. Until the rise of Philadelphia International, teens left cold by the dominance of Led Zeppelin [pictured], Yes, The Who, Pink Floyd and other icy second British Invasion bands had little in the way of music that reflected their lifestyles or ambitions.
By putting bear-voiced male singers in touch with their feminine sides, Gamble and Huff took a big chance. Up until the early 1970s, the best-selling mainstream African-American male acts were choreographed groups out of Detroit or kids like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5. Backed by full jazz and string orchestras led by Don Renaldo and the MFSB studio band, Philadelphia International's artists combined gospel with a confessional style that resulted in a more mature, personal sound. As arena rock abandoned the dance beats favored by earlier groups, Philly International filled the void, priming the market for soul-based disco that emerged in Philadelphia and Miami in 1974. While Philadelphia International's albums weren't jazz as we know it, the jazz influences could be heard and felt. [Pictured: MFSB]
Standouts among the new Sony CD releases:
Teddy Pendergrass' Teddy Pendergrass (1977). Pendergrass was the lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and his voice along with Barry White's was among the most significant and influential of the period. It's great to hear once again Teddy's I Don't Love You Anymore, The Whole Town's Laughing at Me and The More I Get, the More I Want. In fact, on a re-listen, the more than 30-year old album was even better than I remembered it.
The O'Jays' Back Stabbers (1972) includes forgotten gems like (They Call Me) Mr. Lucky, Time to Get Down and 992 Arguments as well as the timeless and magnificent Back Stabbers and Love Train. In its remastered form, this one sounds more vibrant and dimensional. A look at the personnel shows that Bobby Eli and Norman Harris, both of whom would go on to launch Blue Magic, are here. Soon-to-be disco legends Don Renaldo and Vince Montana also are on the album along with drummer Earl Young and bassist Ronnie Baker.
Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' Wake Up Everybody (1975) features the classics Wake Up Everybody, Don't Leave Me This Way and the all-but-forgotten You Know How to Make Me Feel So Good and To Be Free to Be Who We Are. The album remains strong and a showcase for vocalist Teddy Pendergrass.
Teddy Pendergrass' Life Is a Song Worth Singing (1978) was the sterling follow-up to his earlier album. The big hit here was Close the Door, which perfectly exemplified the late Philly sound—a rich male bedroom vocal backed by orchestra and strings coupled with a strong drum beat. Get Down, Get Funky is another rousing sleeper.
Leon Huff's Here to Create Music (1980) is the songwriter's only solo album and an interesting jazz-soul fusion effort. Billy Paul's 360 Degrees of Billy Paul (1972) features the infectious No. 1 hit Me & Mrs. Jones, but the balance of the album's tunes doesn't quite measure up.
Going forward, I'd love to see Sony re-issue additional Philadelphia International albums, especially Archie Bell and the Drells' Dance Your Troubles Away and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' To Be True and Black and Blue. All three are soul essentials.