TO True music fans can recognize it the moment they hear it – the sound of Philadelphia International Records. It was a mix of creamy strings, slam horns, meandering bass lines, and zesty melodies, all combined to create something both complex and light: a soul-fired sonic souffle.
For singer Jean Carn, who recorded three albums for the label, “Philly Soul was even more than a sound. It was a genre, ”he said. “How many labels can say they started a genre?”
Fifty years ago, music industry veterans Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff did just that by producing a plethora of classic albums on the label they started out, Philadelphia International Records. As a black-owned and operated music company, the label took over Motown’s gauntlet, applying its crossover strategy to a new decade, with a lush new sound to herald it. At its most successful ventures, Philly International erased the color line from music with songs everyone could dance to and hum, while also including enough socially conscious lyrics to make sure everyone understood exactly who made these records and where they came from. .
Still, not everything went according to Motown’s plan. Unlike Berry Gordy’s company, Gamble and Huff’s company was far more successful with its male stars than with female stars. In the absence of a spinning wheel act with the enormous popularity of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight or Martha Reeves, the label scored most of its biggest hits with male acts such as the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Billy Paul. and soloist Teddy. Pendergrass. The only time they had a top-five pop hit for a female act was when Three Degrees cooed When Will I See You Again. Otherwise, female Philadelphia artists enjoyed far more success on the American R&B charts than on the broader pop charts. At the same time, the women of Philly Soul, including Carn, Dee Dee Sharp, Phyllis Hyman, Jones Girls, and Three Degrees, created many of the label’s most adventurous recordings. For a brief period, Patti LaBelle also recorded for the label, but enjoyed her greatest successes on Epic with the group Labelle, or with her solo work at MCA.
To shed light on the underrated women of Philadelphia International Records for the label’s 50th anniversary, Legacy Recordings has just released a new remix of a 1974 hit TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia), cut by the label’s house band, MFSB and with all three grades. The new version was created by Tracy Young who, in 2019, became the first woman to win a Grammy for best remix, for Madonna’s I Rise.
None of the women who spoke to The Guardian about their time with Philly International blamed the label for its lack of superstar status. In fact, everyone spoke of their time there as the pinnacle of their careers.
“I learned a lot about writing and producing from the best in the business,” said Shirley Jones, lead singer of Jones Girls. “The label also helped me become an activist.”
The first release of a female performance on the label, Three Degrees’ self-titled album, came two years and 12 albums in Philly International history. The Three Degrees experienced more hits in the UK than in the US, including two gold albums and a hit single, Year of Decision. The lyrics of the single epitomized the label’s sociopolitical mission, told in its direct pleas to “open your mind” and “leave the bad things behind.”
The trio’s initial success and elegant performance were described as Philadelphia’s answer to the Supremes. But as Valerie Holiday made clear, “Our sound was totally different. We weren’t interested in having just one lead singer. [like Diana Ross], “she said.” The three of us sang lead. “
As a result, Holiday believes that “our albums gave you a variety of sounds.” But there is a surprising difference in how they sounded live from their studio work. While the latter tended to be soft, in concert their vocals had a more raw and harsh tone, as evidenced by their 1975 live album, where they performed soulful versions of pop hits like Edgar Winter’s Free Ride and Don’t Let the Elton John’s Sun Go. Down on me.
(In 1977, Elton recorded his own tribute to Philadelphia soul on his EP The Thom Bell Sessions, named for the best arranger / producer in town.)
The label’s next female performance, Dee Dee Sharp, made her Philadelphia debut in 1976 with the album Happy About the Whole Thing. Sharp, who scored doo-wop hits in the early 1960s as the number one song Mashed Potato Time, and married Kenny Gamble in 1967, had an enormous vocal range. His work in Philadelphia gave him the opportunity to show it off in cuts like a very theatrical version of 10cc I’m Not in Love and a cover of Terry Collier’s rousing jazz ballad What Color Is Love.
“Dee Dee has a great throaty quality to her voice,” Carn said. “She places her attack in the back of her throat. His male counterparts would be Percy Sledge or Jerry Butler. Technically, it’s a constriction of the chords, so you get that great throaty nuance in your notes. She also has a sassy attitude when she sings, like, ‘Don’t mess with me!’ “
Carn made his own debut for the label in 1977 with a self-titled work that stands as one of the company’s most sophisticated releases. She brought a wide range of influences, having previously recorded a number of jazz albums with her husband at the time, pianist Doug Carn.
“Initially, I recorded jazz, but since I was a child I sang everything from Italian arias to German lieder, French art songs and pop,” she said. “I’ve also played organ in church choirs since I was 12 years old.”
Coming to Philadelphia allowed him to work on and expand on the label’s proprietary style, with the help of artist and arranger Dexter Wansel, a mainstay of the company. “All the melodies I made with him were experimental,” Carn said, which may explain why they bypassed most pop programmers.
Still, the first song of their debut, Free Love, written and produced by Jerry Butler, became a hit at nightclubs. “That was not by design,” Carn said. “The clubs just picked it up.”
Elements of Philly soul actually anticipated disco music, with its fanciful swirls of strings and danceable rhythms, although its version was not strictly genre-specific. Regardless, clubs like Studio 54 played the Jones Girls song You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else, helping make it a top 40 pop hit, the group’s only score on that list. The Jones sisters’ trio came to the label in 1979 after serving as backup singers for Diana Ross. It was Ross who pushed them to become their own act. As Jones explained: “She told us that you are too good to sing in the background.”
To prove it, Ross gave them a showcase on his show and then invited various labels to see them. Motown expressed interest but, at the time, Ross was struggling with them, so he directed the women to Philadelphia International. Like most Philadelphia women, the Jones Girls did well on the R&B charts, scoring several top-10 hits with no parallel success in pop. “Back then, pop was white and R&B was black,” he said. “It was as simple as that. Today, everything is scrambled. If we went out today, with satellite radio and broadcast and the Internet, we would have reached a wider audience.”
The last female artist released by the label, as well as its final artist overall, Phyllis Hyman, already had a decade-long track record at Buddha and Arista Records, though her Philadelphia releases are among her best work. They expanded her status as a vocalist who was highly respected by her peers and by black audiences. But the fact that she never won a pop hit eroded her. “She felt very underrated,” Carn said. She also had depression. “I saw those mood swings, everyone saw them.”
In 1995, Phyllis Hyman committed suicide. “It was a terrible waste,” Carn said. “What a talent. She should be here today and in command. “
Of course, Hyman’s albums are still alive, as is Philly International’s extensive catalog. “The label brought together some of the best music from the 70s and 80s, and it transcended that era as well,” Jones said. “It is still played all over the world.”
According to Carn, the label also left a legacy of uplifting messages. “Kenny Gamble was like a griot, a town crier full of wisdom and motivation,” he said. “The music they made is like a positive form of brainwashing. His consciousness rises as he dances, so he doesn’t even know what is happening. All you know is that after listening you feel cooler. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism