Nov. 17, 2008—A grimy, crime-ridden, early 1970s-era Philadelphia, governed by the bullish Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner turned mayor was the gritty backdrop for what later became a genre of music known as "Philadelphia soul."
When Philadelphia International Records (PIR) emerged in 1971, it was a pivotal moment in America, as the aftermath of the civil rights movement gave way to black nationalism, with all its newfound aspirations and frustrations. A lot of R&B—and mainstream, top-charting songs, mind you— mirrored those changing in all of its glory and gulliness.
But PIR's output amounted to more than just a record label; it was a cultural movement that produced 15 gold singles and 22 gold albums, eight of which eventually went platinum. Uplifting classics like Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' call-to-action anthem, "Wake Up Everybody" and The Intruders' "I'll Always Love My Mama." Other classics included The O'Jays' lurking "Back Stabbers" and the topical "For the Love of Money." Sexy songs such as Billy Paul's sophisticated yet scandalous "Me & Mrs. Jones" and The Three Degrees' lamenting "When Will I See You Again" heated up the tracks.
Over the years, PIR's accomplishments have faded, with labels like Motown and Stax stealing all the oxygen with their high-profile documentary films. Things are beginning to change though. PBS is airing a two-part TV series: Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (check local listings for airtimes), a live concert, captured on June 7 at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City.
Coinciding with the film is the magnificent new box set by Philadelphia International/Legacy, Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (SONY/Legacy), a four-disc retrospective, containing 71 songs, spanning from 1966 to 1983. Noteworthy essays from Lynell George, Gerald Early, Russell Hall and a few others, grace the set, providing passionate yet enlightening prose. And from reading those liner notes, it becomes apparent that Philly soul fans deserve a more dramatized cinematic treatment of the PIR story than the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever-like revue that PBS seems to offer.
While there were certainly other hard-hitting R&B labels in the '70s such as Curtis Mayfield and Eddie Thomas' Curtom (Chicago) and Holland-Dozier-Holland's post-Motown Invictus (Detroit), PIR gave Motown the best run for its money as top dog in a world of black-owned record labels, especially in terms of longevity and defining the sound of a decade.
Just as principal musicians—such as tambourine player Jack Ashford, bassist James Jamerson, and drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen from Hitsville and Booker T. & the MGs from Soulsville solidified the signature '60s sound palettes for Motown and Stax, respectively—a orchestra-worthy team of musicians, billed as MFSB, which included key members such as drummer Earl Young, vibraphonist Vince Montana and guitarist Bobby Eli cultivated a distinctive aesthetic marked by a funky and pulsating Latin-tinged rhythmic bed, bracing street-corner vocal harmonies and plush orchestral strings.
PIR also gathered a coterie of top-notch songwriters, arrangers and producers (Gamble, Huff, Thom Bell, Linda Creed, Bobby Martin, Bunny Sigler and Dexter Wansel, among others).
Love Train is great improvement over the previous PIR box set, SONY's 1997 negligible yet still enjoyable three-disc set, The Philly Sound 1966-1976: Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff. The previous effortshamefully truncated its legacy to the point of bafflement. None of Pendergrass' scintillating solo material made it onto the set, nor did late '70s- and early '80s- hallmark singles such as McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," The Jones Girls' "You Gonna Make Love Somebody Else" and Patti Labelle's "If Only You Knew."
With an additional disc, Love Train rectifies the error by including signature songs, from the label's principal songwriters and producers, that weren't on the PIR imprint. Songs like The Spinners' "I'll Be Around," Denise Williams' "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" and The Manhattans' "Kiss and Say Goodbye." The gambit works to the set's advantage as it illustrates how omnipresent and influential the PIR sound was on '70s R&B. It gives insight to Gamble, Huff and Bell's (sometimes known as the Mighty Three) pre-PIR work with artists like The Delfonics, Jerry Butler and Dusty Springfield.
Since the box-set producers went so far as to include non-PIR songs, listeners may wonder why wouldn't they also exhume some of the more obscure gems in the PIR catalog, like the rare jazz LPs from the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra or Monk Montgomery? This is where Love Train falters. If you're already a serious Philly soul fan, most likely you'll already have most of the material from this "greatest hits" treatment of the label. Luckily Leo Sacks produced Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records, earlier this year, with rare grooves from Yellow Sunshine, Soul Devalients and The Mellow Moods.
Small qualms aside, Love Train delivers a superb and succinct glimpse into one of the most enduring legacies in black American music. Now that we have that solid soundtrack, can someone out there give us that much-belated, big-budgeted Hollywood movie?
John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.