PHILLY AT FIFTY
With three of the eight discs featured on The Sound Of Philadelphia; Get On Board The Soul Train Home Volume 1, hometown town hero Billy Paul becomes the uncrowned poster boy king for Philadelphia International Records.
In a year of propitious anniversaries - Bob Dylan’s 80th, My Dad’s 100th, my own 60th - Paul’s prominence in the 50th Anniversary “book set” - celebrating the label started by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in 1971 - marks a coming in from the curatorial cold for an oft unrecognised talent who died, aged 81, in 2016.
Billy’s all conquering, 1972 Grammy winning smash, Me And Mrs Jones, was certainly big.
So big where soul really counts that - in a symbolic ,fraternal, acknowledgement of PIR's rapidly established place in the, came through slaughter, story of soul - Stax stalwart Johnny Taylor’s magnificent 1973 album Taylored In Silk, directly acknowledged the song, and its story, in opening track, stellar, Don Davis and Frank Johnson penned, southern stealing love saga, We’re Getting Careless With Our Love.
Even amidst the layered lush magnificence, the superior fragrance Philly style was bringing into 70s airwaves, Me And Mrs Jones was a singular sounding hit.
But, such a harsh mistress was the success it brought, Paul became (incorrectly) labelled a one hit wonder in years to come.
That derogatory (white man) categorising side eye, blithely ignored BP’s aesthetic arc which was easily the equal of Mrs Jones’s, generationally recurring, commercial, rewards.
Having a one of a kind voice and knowing , from an early age, what to do with it was the only real secret Billy, named Paul Williams by his mum, knew.
A Freewheeling, jazz schooled, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday and Little Jimmy Scott inspired Paul’s voice, of freakish liquid gold, could tackle the phone book, activism and identity politics as well as adultery, psych rock, Simon and Garfunkel, symphonic soul, Sly Stone, Rococo Prog, psychedelic, Space rock, Carole King and Elton John.
Born to do it naturally he inhabited each song, each generic hybrid in a way that made them fresh, alive in a new fashion.
With ever adaptable writers, arrangers and musicians gathered round him at Philly Paul’s far reaching work epitomised the label’s aspirational ethos.
There were no limits in this post Civil Rights era and, unlike his Doo Wop era street singing friend (and latter day fellow coke fan) Marvin Gaye, Billy Paul was unburdened by the seerdom that comes with being a writer AND simultaneously possessed of an otherworldly vocal talent.
So Billy became a sounding board for some of Kenny and Leon’s most extravagant adventures in sonics, arrangement and song.
The 2009 Billy Paul doc Am I Black Enough takes its title from the song which failed to follow Me and Mrs Jones high in the charts but established Billy’s Philadelphia conscious message soul credentials, for all time.
Despite omitting as much as it included, making baffling editorial decisions and leaving a raft of unanswered questions, the documentary provides fascinating glimpses at the triumphs and struggles inside and beyond Philly’s plush soul dream.
The Roots' estimable Questlove calls Billy P ``one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution '60s civil rights music." Kenny Gamble, possibly smarting from the successful legal action that would see Paul awarded a settlement from PIR for unpaid royalties, calls BP “a mad man”. The fly on the wall footage and interviews with Billy and his manager wife don’t completely dispel the label boss’s assessment either.
A singer who has gone a little bit crazy? Not exactly a one off phenomenon and the music biz WILL do that to a fella.
The bookset’s three Billy Paul albums don’t even include possibly his greatest, certainly most ambitious, release, the sci fi slanted, Afro futurist pre-empting War Of The Gods.
But Ebony Woman, 360 Degrees of and Going East show are packed full of the range, grace and natural learning of the guy who was the son of a lynching survivor, made his stage debut on a live residency with Charlie Parker, the year the great innovator died, and, two decades before Me and Mrs Jones, made his 1952 recording debut with hard bop piano pioneer Tadd Dameron.
Paul’s pre Philly cred increased when he served in the US army overseas with both Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby’s son Gary (he and Gary made music together, Elvis didn’t want to play).
In the true sense of the term he was a musical journeyman, spanning scenes and epochs by accident or default.
Mad, bad or dangerous to know Paul was right there at the start of Gamble’s entrepreneurship with the splendid 1968 quickly recorded live album Feelin' Good at the Cadillac Club, later re-released on PIR, an early release on the Gamble label.
Reactivating the career of soul artists who had cooled after hitting a hot streak or failed to make a mark first time out became a Philly speciality.
So also did the message song, both aspects smartly unified in the Jerry Butler 1968 smash Hey, Mister Union Man although it was Butler’s Only The Strong Survive that brought the big , PIR seeding, bucks when Elvis Presley covered it the following year.
The Anniversary book set has great pictures, notes by Philly Soul’s foremost chronicler Tony Cummings, and stand alone albums from The O Jays, The Intruders, jazz and classical schooled houseband MFSB, Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes and Dick Jensen (me neither, but the class is there for those with ears ).
The collection doesn’t attempt to give the full span of the Philly story. Maybe it’s simply the first of who knows how many volumes.
A wider range of the artists who shone in this last of the great soul music empires IS found on the 2014, 20 disc, set The Collection.
This was where the lady who would be the most extraordinary performer at the Philly segment of Live Aid, Patti Labelle, had her first proper big solo hit,The Three Degrees pioneering feisty fearlessness found a spiritual home, The Jones Girls, writers turned performers McFadden and Whitehead and the Teddy Pendergrass powered Harold Melvin & Bluenotes provided a bridge from soul to the emancipatory collectivism of disco.
Less celebrated but just as evident it was Edwin Birdsong - the undersung, Stevie Wonder feted, instrumental all rounder and electro soul pioneer, later memorialised in eternal stretching sound by De La Soul and Daft Punk - who foreshadowed Prince’s 80s studio adventures with his self titled, 1979, debut.
But even that expansive Collection omits The Detroit Spinners, the group turned into honey (and money) spinning hit makers at Philly following years of neglect on Motown.
Such riches! Or, possibly, such a contractual quagmire?
The reason I’m writing this is ostensibly because having blagged the bookset I promised to write about it and , also, I got into it a bit with the great Soprano/E Streeter/Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City legend Steve Van Zandt about Philly.
This was on my old Twitter account before the forces that be locked it up for reasons unspecified (though we do, of course, have our suspicions).
Nothing to do with SVZ I might add.
And, Shit, why would anyone want to “get into it” with the great Mr Steve? He of we ain’t gonna play Sun City fame, predictor of certain success for whichever candidate, Hillary or Barack, faced John McCain shortly before the 2008 election (“listen Americans are NOT ever going to vote for a guy who lived in a hole for xxx year,” Steve told us munching into a post ig sandwich after the first show of that year’s E Street Band tour in Dublin.)
Maybe I was Still bitter that he couldn’t find space on his Sirius Garage Rock radio Show to feature a Talking Musical Revolution?
Steve appreciated the contribution of his New Jersey neighbours but adjudged Philly second tier to Motown and Stax.
Maybe he’s even… right but the very idea of a hierarchical (very much Steve’s thang, its true) rather than lateral flow charting of music, especially soul music, seems antithetical to the spirit of those golden years/ages.
Maybe I also felt personally aggrieved because Philly was the defining soul stable marvel of my early 70s adolescence.
A a 60s Pre teen I’d grown up with the clarion calls of Motown, the emphatic surety of Stax.
But, apres la - the deluge. Or, to be more specific, the confusion and loss of turning into double figures, the terrible 10 year, and after, old years.
The Fabs no more, Cassius/Ali banished to the wilderness, MLK and Bobby Kennedy assassinated, Otis dead so young, Marvin eerily wondering What’s Going On, the murderer Nixon and, over the water, Heath in power.
Meanwhile, in our house, the socialist home dream in the head burned on gathering flames of the troubles.
Id never seen such an expression of shock and fear on the face of my father (an RAF/ British Army WW2 veteran/survivor, Trade Union activist and card carrying Commie) as I saw when he arrived back home in the kitchen after having seen British Army vehicular hardware arrive on the streets of Belfast for the first time.
That look kind of summed up the sense of incoming fear and doom, add the the lurking nuclear nightmare (birthright of any Cold War Brat)| and, considering all of what had just transpired in the years between I Want To Hold Your Hand and I Don’t Want To Talk About Jesus(Just Wanna See His Face), to hear Love Train by The OJays , a new record happening in real time, an ocean of velvet and voracious pleading coming in loud and clear on the shitty family wireless radio, felt like a miracle.And it Always will to be fair.
The fearless internationalism, the ridiculously utopian optimism was as big a wonder as music could ever deliver.
Even now, revelling again in all the Philly glories, the sheer stellar class of a label too easy overlooked, The OJays Love Train is, Pound for pound, as great a reach for the diamond dream as ever shone, in any form, anywhere.
But pride of place ( the 12 inch vinyl collectors cut included in the album sized bookset alongside) is taken by equally brilliant Backstabbers with the Philly studio sound machine MFSB Tsars of Sigma Sound delivering an instrumental take on the flip.
How PiR and Philly sound came into being is a story of later mid 20th century black migration, homecoming, spiritual and social uplift.
The manner of its arrival, label mainstays Gamble and Thom Bell trying their luck in Motor City Detroit, then working their way back to City of Brotherly Love, has a poetic symmetry.
New Jersey neighbor Huff, blooded as a 60s session pianist, ears n eyes open to process in the hot house of Spector and Leiber and Stoller helmed New York sessions, and Gamble united.
The collective determination - to make something solid and lasting, of many splendored varieties, in the city of brotherly love - stands as their lasting testimony.
In the 80s I went to Philadelphia once, final stop after a week driving round Amish territory. I arrived at a cheap hotel there and the receptionist told me it wasn’t a good place for me to stay. I got the message and moved on.
I thought about that when I considered the fate of the Philly label in the grand scheme of it’s hometown, how little there apparently is to celebrate, mark or tell the story of the label in the city itself.
This became even more obvious digging deep into sessions at brilliant Tulsa University helmed Dylan at 80 conference. With the opening of the amazingly extensive Dylan archives alongside the Woody Guthrie centre Tulsa becomes an unlikely way station on the American musical heritage map. Seattle, Nashville and Cleveland already feature and, as contributors to Dylan at 80 showed, the archives of Springsteen in New Jersey, Leonard Cohen incoming, The Grateful Dead always and many more can be used to inform, enlighten and educate in years ahead.
In an increasingly uniform, anonymised, age the importance of such archives, as a means of maintaining a direct connection to the music and what made it important becomes ever more clear. There is only so much a bookset can do and yet in the City of Brotherly Love the label that more than any other adhered to the founding city’s credo, the studio has been long gone, museum is there none.
In 2021 Van Zandt’s rank n file approach may have irked but, when the 70s turned into the 80s I felt my Philly love validated when my favourite turn of decade, top of my teenage years, band - Dexys - covered the MFSB TSOP theme tune.
In more recent years a highlight of Dexys Kevin Rowland’s DJ show became The Three Degrees This Is The Year of Decision with his own, live, heartfelt, on the mic vocal extrapolation. Exploring the lyrical theme and meaning, Kevin’s performance pinpointed something generous and accommodating about how that Philly sounds envelopes, accommodates, welcomes and let’s the outsiders in...A place where we can Dream big and fly towards the goal with the soaring wings of that emancipating music to take us there.