Before MFSB, the Delfonics, McFadden & Whitehead, Blue Magic and the Trammps, there were the artists of Arctic Records. Like Motown in Detroit, Stax in Memphis and Scepter in New York, Arctic documented Philadelphia's emerging soul sound in the '60s, which emphasized tight vocal harmonies and heartbeat ballad tempos. [Pictured above: Arctic artist Barbara Mason]
Unlike most other labels at the time that specialized in recording African-American artists, Arctic wasn't obsessed with crossing-over. What's more, artists weren't groomed to sound like clones of more successful acts on more popular labels. Instead, Arctic captured dozens of local artists in their element—radiating innocence and singing passionately about love, cheating, breakups and all the rest. This sound became an integral part of the Philadelphia soul and disco movement in the '70s.
Now, the entire Arctic catalog has been released on a six-CD box set called Cooler Than Ice: Arctic Records and the Rise of Philly Soul (Jamie/Guyden). The mono recordings have been lovingly mixed by the legendary Tom Moulton, who probably knows more about the Philly sound and how to bring it into distinct sonic relief than anyone else. Tom, of course, has spent much of his career producing Philly soul and disco recordings, inventing the commercial 12-inch single and remastering and remixing dozens of disco and soul collections for the digital age. Tom's mixes were then mastered by Peter Humphreys at Masterwork Recording.
Arctic was founded by WDAS program director and deejay Jimmy Bishop [pictured above], with the help of attorney Harold Lipsius of Jamie/Guyen Records, in September 1964. Bishop admired Atlantic Records and chose the name of another ocean for the label's name. Arctic's biggest hit was Barbara Mason's Yes I'm Ready, but the label had quite a few local hits that moved love-struck teens.
The label released 60 singles in all, and their success owed a great deal to Bishop's drive and networking savvy among disc jockeys nationwide. Among the joys on this set are artists like Cindy Gibson (Whisper You Love Me, Boy), Kenny Gamble (Down By The Seashore), Mike and Ike (Ya Ya), Honey & the Bees (I'll Be There), the Ambassadors (I Dig You Baby), the Royal Five (Ain't No Big Thing, But It's Growing), Della Humphrey (Over The Tracks), Winfield Parker (Brand New Start), Teddy and the Fingerpoppers (Soul Groove Part 1), the Temptones (Girl I Love You and Good-Bye) and super-early Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (Go Away and What Can A Man Do). And plenty of Barbara Mason (26 A- and B-side tracks).
The '60s were a special time if you were a kid who loved 45s. There were so many independent labels and record stores, and early soul acts took their time—with strings, hooks and singers who could sell songs seductively. Just listen to what Arctic's Ambassadors did with Frankie Valli's Can't Take My Eyes Off of You in 1969.
Philadelphia had other labels (Swan, for example), but none would be as consistent or as influential as Arctic when it came to producing music that went on to sway a decade and put the city on the music map.
Hats off to Frank Lipsius [pictured above], son of Harold Lipsius, who co-founded Jamie/Guyden Records and helped Jimmy Bishop start Arctic. Frank has worked for the company since the late '60's and became the head of the label when his father passed away a few years ago. He has a masters in history from Cambridge in England, and this is his baby.
For the New York launch party recently held in a used record store in Tribeca, he even chartered a bus and brought a dozen or so Arctic artists up to mingle, perform and be celebrated. You've never seen so many people having so much fun—artists and guests.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Cooler Than Ice: Arctic Records and the Rise of Philly Soul (Jamie/Guyen) here. It's a pricey set but if you love soul, it's well worth it. The 10-inch set comes with six CDs, six 45s and a 50-page book of liner notes by Bill Dahl. To download the set or individual tracks, go here.
JazzWax clips. Here's Barbara Mason's Keep Him...
Here's the Ambassadors' Can't Take My Eyes Off of You...