The Sound of Philadelphia

In Part 1 of my search for eighty Modern Jive-able ’70s dance tracks, I featured The Richie Family’s Best disco in town. This track includes clips from a number of classic disco tracks, including several from the ’70s. One track I managed to recognise was TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) by MFSB featuring The Three Degrees. This is an instrumental recorded by the house band at the Sigma Studios – the home of Philadelphia International Records.

The Soul Train and ’70s Disco Dancing

Take a listen and then I’ll give you a little more background to this famous studio and the distinctive sound it created. I’ve embedded the 12″ version of TSOP as it shows a ‘Soul Train’. The dancers form two lines creating a runway (or perhaps a railway) in the centre. Then a dancer from the top of each line parades down the runway showing off their best ’70s disco moves. When they get half way down another couple start dancing down the centre. The rest of the people move up the lines until it’s their turn to dance down the runway. We did this at a dance party recently and it was great fun.

Philadelphia International Records

This record label was founded in 1971 by song writers and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. In the seventies and early eighties it created a music genre, affectionately known as The Sound of Philadelphia, as strong as Berry Gordy’s Motown had been in the sixties. Between 1971 and the early 80s, the label sold over 170 gold and platinum records.

The ‘Philly’ Sound breaks through

Back in 1972 I heard my first ever ‘Philly’ track – Backstabbers by The O’Jays. At the time I didn’t realise, in fact nobody did, that we were witnessing the start of a new music genre. This track has a well defined, but laid back beat, and is perfect when there’s a need to slow the pace down. This track already has a modern jive pedigree, as its backing track was used for Angie Stone’s Wish I didn’t miss you, a song that most modern jivers will recognise.

Great Writing Teams

Like Motown, Philadelphia International had some very talented writers. Backstabbers was written by Gene McFadden and John Whitehead  along with Leon Huff. It was McFadden and Whitehead who wrote, along with keyboard player Jerry Cohen, and performed one of the greatest disco track of all time – Ain’t no stopping us now (a track I listed in Part 1) in 1979

The main writers were Huff and Gamble themselves, and they were responsible for the second O’Jays track in my ’70s list – Love Train. DJ Mark O’Reily has been playing this a lot lately, and it has been bringing some real joy to the dance floor.

One of the greatest soul voices ever

My next two picks again showcase the writing and production talents of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. After The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes were Philadelphia International’s biggest group. My favourite Blue Notes track is The love I lost, which features one of the greatest soul voices ever to grace a disco hit. I remember being surprised to learn that the fabulous voice belonged not to Harold Melvin, but to the Blue Notes lead singer Teddy Pendergrass. This has to go on the playlist. I’d be tempted to play the 12″ version I’ve embedded, but we’ll stick to the single for the frestyle.

Teddy Pendergrass v Thelma Houston

I can’t get enough of Teddy Pendergrass’ voice, and my next pick was going to be Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes Don’t Leave Me This Way. Written by Gamble and Huff with Cary Gilbert this wasn’t initially released as a single. That honour went to Thelma Houston, an up and coming star at Motown. Houston version was unashamedly disco and it became a monster hit in 1977. The song was originally picked as the follow up to Diana Ross’ Love Hangover. Listen carefully and you can hear the similarity in the backing arrangement.

Houston wins on the dance floor for me

Philadelphia International released the Blue Notes version on the back of Houston’s success with the song. Though The Blue Notes achieved more sales than Houston’s I’m sticking with her version. This song also got an outing a decade later when it was a hit for The Communards featuring Jimmy Somerville. Dancers of all ages have a lot to thank Gamble and Huff for.

Lets slow it down a little

One of my complaints is when DJs miss the need to slow the pace down a little. Not too slow though, we still want to modern jive. My last choice from the Philadelphia International stable is The Three Degrees When will I see you again. I remember Prince Charles being rather smitten by The Three Degrees. I wonder if he and Camila ever get to modern jive. OK everybody, the ’70s freestyle is being held at Buck House.

A Fresh New Sound

This song has all the hallmarks of the ‘Philly’ Sound. Listen to the instrumental sections and you realise how Huff and Gamble used lavish orchestral arrangements of sweeping strings and horns to give The ‘Philly’ Sound its distinctive smooth sound. Where Motown had used piano in their arrangements the musicians in the Sigma Sound Studio were now using electric piano and even vibraphones that added to the freshness of the overall sound. Go back and listen to the intro to The love I lost and you’ll see what I mean.

Mother, Father, Sister, Brother

Apparently MFSB, the name of Philadelphia house band was a short form of Mother, Father, Sister, Brother – a reference to the musical connectivity of the thirty plus band members. As well as providing the backing on all the Sound of Philadelphia hits they recorded in their own right. Their biggest hit being TSOP the track I opened Part 3 with. Their other notable release was K-Jee an instrumental featured in the film Saturday Night Fever. Modern Jive DJs rarely play instrumental tracks but I think this one is worth including in the playlist.

Let’s have another instrumental

Probably the greatest of the dance tracks from the film Saturday Night Fever was Disco Inferno by The Trammps. Though this song was released on Atlantic Records it was actually recorded in the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. I included this track in Part 2.

The Trammps other famous disco track, and one I’ve heard several times, at modern jive freestyles is Hold back the night, also recorded in Philadelphia. Now please allow me to give you a little trivia known only to Soul Boys. Hold back the night was a hit in 1973, but a year earlier we were dancing to a great instrumental called Scrub-board essentially the backing track to Hold back the night – also credited to The Trammps. As a sign of respect to the Soul Boys and Gals I’m going to include Scrub-board in my playlist.

Readers Suggestions

I’ve loved delving around The Sound of Philadelphia vaults and it’s given me another eight tracks for my ’70s Freestyle playlist. For the last two tracks in this posting, I’m going to follow up on suggestions from two regular readers of the blog.

A real rocker from 1973

After reading Part 1, Anne suggested Jim Croce Bad Bad Leroy Brown. This is a real rocker and is very jiveable. Including this track, and others like it, will ensure that there’s plenty of musical variety in the playlist. There was a danger I might end up playing the entire Philadelphia back catalogue all night. I would never have come across a track like this, if it hadn’t been for Anne’s suggestion, so please everybody keep them coming in.

Some Boney M Please

Usha, another regular contributor, assumed I’d be including some Boney M tracks. Boney M were a group created by German record producer Frank Farian, and achieved great success in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Ashamedly I’d forgotten all about Boney M, so I’ve just spent some time on YouTube reminding myself of their ’70s hits. I soon realised that I had to include Daddy Cool. I can remember dancing to this and loving it. I’m sure it will bring back memories of disco delights to many on the dance floor, and you have to smile at the dance antic of Bobby Farrell. It seems that Farrell had previously been an erotic dancer – no surprise there then!

Well that’s thirty tracks on the list, but that’s still seventy to go. I think I’m going to need all the help I can get. So please send in your suggestions. For the full list please click here.