Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Philadelphia Soul
Why it’s daunting: The early ’70s were a time of transition for soul music. Stax and Motown, the dominant labels of the ’60s, started to lose their grip on the marketplace, and their attendant styles—Stax’s gritty Southern soul and the assembly-line perfection of Motown—started to give way to new sounds. It was also a time of abundance: A lot of talented people were recording soul music, as any single volume of Rhino’s classic, one-to-three-hit-wonder reissue series Soul Hits Of The 70s: Didn’t It Blow Your Mind!, makes clear. It’s hard to know where to dig in, but it makes sense to focus first on the city that defined the era: Philadelphia.
As usual with city-wide movements, it was a case of the right people coming together in the right place at the right time. The right people: classically trained songwriter-arranger-producer Thom Bell and producers-songwriters-label heads Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff; ambitious vocal groups willing to take some chances; and a wealth of talented musicians who formed a house band known as MFSB, which could stand head and shoulders with Motown’s Funk Brothers or Stax’s Booker T. & The MGs. (The abbreviation is short for “Mother Father Sister Brother,” by the way.) Bell, Gamble, and Huff had all been kicking around successfully for a while. Gamble and Huff helped craft late-’60s hits for The Intruders, Archie Bell & The Drells, and others; those songs now sound like the missing link between the ’60s and the ’70s. After cutting his teeth on the Cameo label, Bell was already on to the next thing with string-and-harmony-drenched hits for The Delfonics like “La-La Means I Love You” and “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).” Sometimes working together and other times apart, they helped steer soul toward the intricately orchestrated, carefully arranged but tangibly organic, irresistibly catchy sounds that became known as Philadelphia Soul. (Or Philly Soul, or the Philadelphia Sound, or to borrow the title from MFSB’s hit theme song for Soul Train, The Sound Of Philadelphia.)
Possible gateway: The Spinners, Spinners (1972)
Why? The Spinners formed in Michigan, had been around for more than a decade, and even scored a sizable hit, “It’s A Shame,” for Motown in 1970. But Motown dropped the group, and it picked up a second lead vocalist—Philippé Bell traded frontman duties with founding member Bobbie Smith—moved to Atlantic, and started recording with Bell. The group’s first Bell-shepherded effort, 1972’s self-titled album, spawned five hits, including the heartbroken pledge of devotion “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” and “One Of A Kind (Love Affair).” It holds together beautifully as an album, too, featuring some of Bell’s warmest, most unexpected instrumental combinations. (“How Could I Let You Get Away” floats on strings… and then sitar.) Everything that set Philly Soul apart and made it the dominant form of soul music for the better part of a decade can be found here.
Next steps: After getting your toes wet, you might as well jump into the deep end. The three-disc 1998 box set The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff & The Story Of Brotherly Love (1966-1976) presents an excellent survey of Gamble and Huff’s career, from their ’60s work through the prime of their Philadelphia International label, before the musicians they relied on started to defect and the sound they helped perfect began to evolve into disco thump. The giants of the era are all here, joined by passersby like The Jacksons and not-quite-superstars like Billy Paul (“Me And Mrs. Jones”) and The Three Degrees (“When Will I See You Again”). Also good: the four-disc, 2008 collection Love Train: The Sound Of Philadelphia, which expands the focus beyond the Philadelphia International roster and stretches the timeline into the early ’80s.
From there, it’s a matter of digging into some of the acts’ individual careers. Though the hits collections often don’t do their subjects justice, they’re often the best place to start. A good shopping list would include:
The O’Jays: The Essential O’Jays
This two-disc sampling of the group’s propulsive, sometimes socially conscious music digs deeper than hits like “Love Train,” “Back Stabbers,” and “For The Love Of Money.”
The Delfonics: La-La Means I Love You (The Definitive Collection)
The Stylistics: The Best Of The Stylistics
The Spinners: A One Of A Kind Love Affair (The Anthology)
Bell worked his way through each of these groups in turn, and his varying approaches sound less like an evolution than a series of phases, each one appealing in its own way. The Delfonics and Spinners collections are both nice surveys of the groups’ careers. The 10-song Best Of The Stylistics, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s the only domestic-hits collection currently in print. (The group’s first three albums are all pretty great in their own right, however, and readily available.)
Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes: The Ultimate Blue Notes
Harold Melvin had top billing, but the name Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes has become synonymous with the group’s ’70s hits behind the unmistakable vocals of Teddy Pendergrass. Brought in as a replacement drummer, Pendergrass assumed lead vocal duties and helped the group charge the charts with “I Miss You,” “Bad Luck,” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” which squeezes a lifetime of yearning down to the size of a 7” single. It is, in other words, the sound of Philadelphia.