Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Sound of Philly Soul

By Evan Rytlewski
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Motown Records were the titans of 1960s soul, but by the 1970s, Detroit’s rigidly orchestrated songs had fallen out of vogue in favor of Philadelphia’s new spin on the genre. Philly soul was lighter on its toes, a looser amalgam of soul and funk sweetened by emotive washes of strings.

Save perhaps for Thom Bell, nobody did Philly soul better than the Kenny Gamble/Leon Huff production team, which masterminded hits for The O’Jays, Billy Paul and Teddy Pendergrass for their Philadelphia International label. A thoughtful new compilation, The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits, collects their most successful concoctions, hits like “Love Train,” “Me and Mrs. Jones” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” along with some less enduring but still note-perfect singles like “I’ll Always Love My Mama,” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”

A second, simultaneously released Philly soul compilation, Conquer The World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records, plays like The Sound of Philadelphia’s collective B-side, an anthology of Gamble & Huff singles that didn’t make much of a splash. The familiar Philly soul sound is here, but many of these undiscovered artists are far tougher than the label’s signature ladies’ men. Bunny Sigler’s grunted contributions are Blaxploitation-film mean, while Ruth McFadden opens her confrontational “Ghetto Woman (Parts 1 & 2)” by telling off “all the girls out there who think they cute … you ain’t no better than me.” Likewise, the presumptive Ruby from Ruby & The Surprise Party (what, you’ve never heard of them?) sounds like she’s had at least a drink or two too many. Conquer The World isn’t as consistently listenable as The Sound of Philadelphia, but it’s loaded with pleasant surprises—Yellow Sunshine’s funky introduction “Yellow Sunshine” and The Mellow Moods’ breathtakingly sad “Stop Taking My Love” chief among them.
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