Archives for the month of: November, 2012

Playlist: The Philadelphia Sound

Philadelphia Soul is not so much a genre as it is a sound. The “Philly Sound” is described pretty well by its Wikipedia entry, Producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff (pictured) are the pioneers behind much of the music with this moniker but it is not restricted to Gamble & Huff or the Philadelphia International Records label.

Since I wanted to learn more about the sound, its history, and the producers and musicians who made it come to life, I thought a playlist was just what I needed to traverse its soundscape.

  1. Mister Magic – Grover Washington Jr., Mister Magic, (UMG Recordings, 1974)
  2. K-Jee MFSB, Universal Love (Philadelphia International Records, 1975)
  3. I Love Music – The O’JaysFamily Reunion (Philadelphia International Records, 1975)
  4. People Make the World Go Round – The StylisticsThe Stylistics (Avco, 1971)
  5. Lady Love – Lou RawlsWhen You Hear Lou, You’ve Heard it All (Philadelphia International Records, 1977)
  6. One on One – Hall & OatesH2O (RCA, 1982)
  7. Me and Mrs. JonesBilly Paul, 360 Degrees of Billy Paul (Philadelphia International Records, 1972)
  8. Work it Out  (single) – Breakwater,(Arista, 1979)
  9. Minute by Minute – The Doobie BrothersMinute by Minute (Warner Bros., 1978)
  10. Nights Over Egypt  (single) – The Jones Girls, (Philadelphia International Records, 1981)
  11. Funkfoot – Grover Washington Jr.Live at the Bijou (Kudu Records, 1977)

I’ve bookended the playlist with Grover Washington Jr. The closing selection is from his brilliant live album, Live at the Bijou. You can read my review of that here. Although his breakthrough was 1980’s Winelight (Elektra Entertainment), Grover Washington Jr.’s rise arguably began 13 years earlier when he landed in Philadelphia as a sideman. I wonder if the warm bass and keyboard textures on Mister Magic were the product of or inspiration to recordings in the Gamble & Huff songbook?

MFSB and the O’Jays are two acts that were firmly in the Philadelphia International Records stable. MFSB (or Mother, Father, Brother, Sister) featured prominent string arrangements and squelchy guitars that would win them a place on the now classic Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (RSO, 1977), released two years after K-Jee was recorded.

The Stylistics showcase a falsetto vocal, prominent in many classic Philly Soul recordings. This tune was used beautifully in the opening montage of Spike Lee’s film, Crooklyn. Vocals are also featured on the next three tracks, beginning with the relaxed smoothness of Lou Rawls. Philadelphia natives Daryl Hall and John Oates, were undoubtedly influenced by their surroundings and carried the torch admirably well into the late Eighties. The next track, Me  & Mrs. Jones, was covered by Hall & Oates but I’ve selected Billy Paul’s original here, written by Gamble & Huff themselves.

The next two tracks by Breakwater and The Doobie Brothers are not officially associated with the Philly scene. But this is proof the “sound” escaped the confines of Gamble & Huff’s realm and influenced so many artists past and present. Minute by Minute was an uncharacteristic album for a “country rock” band like the Doobies but it was their greatest success. I posted a short review of that album here.

The Jones Girls were another staple with Philadelphia International Records. Nights Over Egypt was not their biggest hit but has weathered the years better than most other songs in their catalogue. Nights was written by Dexter Wansel, a close collaborator with Gamble & Huff.

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Feature: The Music of The Style Council

The Style Council were Paul Weller (vocals, guitar), Mick Talbot (keyboards), and Steve White (drums). Active from the early 1980’s to their demise as a group in 1989, The Style Council were an enigma of that decade in music. They were unclassifiable within the milleu of genres that came to characterize the decade. They were neither pop, nor new wave, nor progressive rock. And they weren’t jazz or easy listening either. They have no clear musical disciples although their influences were certainly from soul, jazz, and later, rhythm & blues.

In my view, it was this very musical conundrum that made them an important part of the Eighties.

Weller, having just disbanded The Jam after their hit album The Gift (Polydor, 1982), seemed to take a mellow turn in musical style, exploring jazz and string arrangements with Talbot’s soul-infused hammond and piano work. Their first release was a mini LP, entitled Introducing the Style Council (Polydor, 1983). It included the iconic hit, “Long Hot Summer” which put The Style Council on pop music’s radar but only charted modestly outside of the U.K.

Aside from the easy-going hit, the collection was remarkably varied in style. “Headstart for Happiness” was a feel-good pop tune with Weller’s driving vocals and soulful backing vocals by D.C. Lee (who Weller would later marry). That track, along with “Speak Like a Child” have definite Motown influences. “Money-Go-Round,” on the other hand, is proto rap. They would dabble in rap stylings in later releases but this one is the least clumsy of their outings in that genre. It was bold to include the track but not unexpected since its message was consistent with the group’s politically left leanings and their criticism of Thatcherite policies of the day.

A full length album was released a year later with 10 new songs and two from Introducing. My Ever Changing Moods (Polydor, 1984) was more consistent stylistically than their debut, with the exception of “A Gospel” and “Strength of Your Nature.” “A Gospel” was another experiment in early rap and was too brash and contrived to believe. “Strength of Your Nature” is a hard hitting number, more similar to The Jam’s style but not as melodically satisfying.

The title track and “You’re the Best Thing” were particularly successful, the latter making it onto numerous Eighties compilations and becoming one of the more recognizable love songs of the decade. The rest of the album is a mix of soul and jazz with a deliberate nod to the French jazz tradition. “The Paris Match,” featuring Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt who had recently formed Everything But the Girl, is a smokey jazz ballad. “Here’s One that Got Away” features a jazz violin lead-in that smacks of French legend Stephane Grappelli but was played by British violinist Bobby Valentino.

Strings were prominent in The Style Council’s sound in the first half of their active years, culminating in the hit Shout to the Top! released in 1984 as a single EP. The song became an anthem of sorts but once again defied classification. It enjoyed the success of a pop song but John Mealing’s exuberant string arrangement had us guessing once again whether this was jazz, soul, disco or something entirely different.

The follow-up to My Ever Changing Moods was 1985’s Our Favourite Shop (Polydor). Stylistically different yet again from what they had done in the two years prior, this album was less jazz and more pop with richer production. Two notable singles, “Walls Come Tumbling Down” and “Internationalists” continued the Council’s strong social activist messaging. “Walls Come Tumbling Down” was also a commercial hit, charting as high as number 6 in the U.K.

The overall sound of this album is more lush than their previous work, incorporating heavier bass, more electric keyboard sounds, and fuller backing vocals. Weller & Talbot’s compositions are just as strong both lyrically and musically as the Moods album.

Paul Weller is quoted as saying Our Favourite Shop was The Style Council’s culmination. Although the band would record three more LPs, including the commercially successful Confessions of a Pop Group (Polydor, 1988), I can’t help but agree with his characterization.

The Style Council’s first three releases were unique for many reasons. In a decade that gave rise to the new wave genre and mega-acts like U2, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, The Style Council quietly created a body of work that that was unmatched at the time and never really emulated by bands that followed. An anomalous spur of musical evolution, you might say. But a damned good one.