Philadelphia Freedom — 10 of the Best from Philadelphia Records

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Photo by Eric Froehling on Unsplash

Growing up, I loved the Philadelphia sound. Their brand of smooth, sophisticated soul was everywhere in the 1970s, bridging a gap between the rawer 1960s-style soul and the disco revolution, which would soon dominate our airwaves, record shops and cinema screens.

Philadelphia International Records, to use the label’s proper name, was founded in 1971 by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, along with Thom Bell.

Gamble and Huff had become friendly while working as session musicians in the Philadelphia area. Thom Bell was a classically trained musician whose skills as a session musician and arranger were also very much in demand in the recording studios of Philadelphia.

Their new venture hit its stride almost immediately, with their first single release, a track from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ album “I Miss You”, reaching the top three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972…

1: “ If You Don’t Know Me By Now” — Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Depending on how old you are, you might associate this song more with Simply Red, whose very successful 1989 cover reached Number One in the US and Number Two in the UK. Simply Red’s cover also won that year’s Grammy for Best R&B Song, which was quite an achievement for a bunch of mostly white Brits. However, even as a Brit, I prefer Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ original version.

“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” set the stylistic template for a Philadelphia Records song — a cool, sophisticated style, heavy on the strings, which they rarely deviated from.

With a lead vocal from Teddy Prendergrass, who would later go on to considerable success of his own as a solo artist, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” features a husband bristling a little in the face of his wife’s questioning about what he’s been up to when he comes home late at night…

If you don’t know me by now
You will never, never, never know me
Now all the things that we’ve been through
You should understand me, like I understand you

Composed and produced by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” got the new Philadelphia International Records label off to a flying start.

2: Back Stabbers — The O’Jays

Gamble and Huff took a slight detour with Philadelphia’s second big hit single. In “Back Stabbers”, the O’Jays struck a somewhat darker note, both musically and lyrically, than Gamble and Huff usually went for.

They smile in your face
All the time they want to take your place
The back stabbers (backstabbers)

We never get to find out if this guy is just being needlessly insecure or whether there really is something going on, but there does seem to be a bit of a revolving door at his house when he’s not there, so I guess even the most open-minded of us might be tempted to think the worst.

Leon Huff wrote “Back Stabbers”, along with Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, who would go on to enjoy success of their own as McFadden and Whitehead a few years later.

While probably the darkest song on the Philadelphia catalogue, I love “Back Stabbers” for its shimmering strings, wonderful vocal arrangement and slight air of menace.

3: Love Train — the O’Jays

No one-trick ponies, the O’Jays. They followed up the success of “Back Stabbers”, a US Number 3 and a UK Number 14, with what is probably their most enduring hit, “Love Train” — a Number One hit on the Hot 100 and a Top Ten UK hit.

People all over the world
Join hands
Start a love train, love train

This was Philadelphia Records at their most upbeat and positive. It also reflected Gable and Huff’s desire for more harmonious race relations.

Having skipped around England, Russia and China, Gamble and Huff spread out the positive feelings in places which, in the early 1970s, were anything but positive in their outlook towards one another…

All of you brothers over in Africa
Tell all the folks in Egypt, and Israel too
Please don’t miss this train at the station
’Cause if you miss it, I’ll feel sorry, sorry for you

Social activism you can dance to, wrapped up in peerless musical arrangements… “Love Train” echoes many sentiments we could only wish were true today.

4: “Me And Mrs Jones” — Billy Paul

By late 1972, Gamble and Huff were really hitting their stride. After their early success with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and the O’Jays, their next major hit was the coolest song ever written about infidelity — Billy Paul’s “Me And Mrs Jones”.

Me and Mrs Jones
We got a thing going on
We both know that it’s wrong
But it’s much too strong
To let it go

Gamble and Huff took care of the music for “Me And Mrs Jones”, but the lyrics were by Cary Gilbert, who we’ll hear a little more about in just a moment.

Returning to “Me And Mrs Jones” though, what I find quite delightful about it…although not wishing to be seen to approve of infidelity…is the very respectful way the subject is handled. In fact, apart from meeting at the same café every day, and holding hands, the lyrics themselves don’t so much as hint at a physical relationship.

As the song says, “she’s got her obligations, and so do I”. Although in the end, Billy Paul sings that he feels it’s better to tell their respective partners about their bond even though, for all we know from the lyrics, at that stage there’s not very much to tell.

5: “When Will I See You Again” — The Three Degrees

Often seen as a pleasant enough piece of fluffy pop, lyrically “When Will I See You Again” is quite interesting, as it’s written as a series of questions, none of which get resolved during the course of the song.

Everything is left delightfully hanging for us to wrap our own imaginations around.

When will I see you again?
When will we share precious moments?
Will I have to wait forever?
Will I have to suffer (suffer)
And cry the whole night through?

Written and produced by Gamble and Huff, The Three Degrees' 1974 UK Number One, and US Number Two, was one of those songs which ushered in the disco era, without perhaps being seen as a disco song.

That said, “When Will I See You Again” would hold its own very comfortably alongside the sequin-clad hits of the mid-to-late 1970s and it’s a song with fond memories for me. I met someone special in 1975 who I didn’t see again for many years thereafter.

She liked this song very much and for years, every time The Three Degrees came on radio, I always thought of my old friend and all the questions lead singer Sheila Ferguson asked in the song. (No happy ever after story here, I’m afraid, but the song still brings back happy memories. Every time I hear it on the radio, I’m right back with her in the mid-1970s.)

6: “Don’t Leave Me This Way” — Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes

The music for “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was written by Gamble and Huff, but the lyrics were courtesy of Cary Gilbert, who also wrote the lyrics for “Me And Mrs Jones”.

“Don’t Leave Me This Way” wasn’t released as a single in the US, but was released as a single in the UK, where Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes went Top Five in 1977. Subsequent covers, firstly by Thelma Houston and later by the Communards, would also do well.

In 1977 Thelma Houston hit Number One on the Hot 100 with her cover. A little later, the Communards reached the UK Number One spot with their version, which was the UK’s best selling record of 1986.

Don’t leave me this way
I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive
Without your love

In the hands of the Communards, this has to be the most upbeat treatment of a song about someone having their heart ripped out known to popular music, although I quite like it.

Of course, the brooding intensity of the original is something else…

7: “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” — Lou Rawls

Putting aside the initial hilarity of hearing his name (“Lou Rawls” to a Brit sounds very much like a slang expression which means “toilet paper”), “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” was another smooth, classy Philadelphia Records performance.

Lou Rawls’ gravelly lead vocal served as a delightful counterpoint to the sophisticated musical accompaniment. He’s clearly being shown the door here, but he’s having trouble taking the message to heart and is convinced she’s making a big mistake.

Whether that’s true or not, we never get to find out, but I find people who talk like this are either genuinely hurt by an unexpected turn of events or fall into the abusive ex category…

You’ll never find, as long as you live
Someone who loves you tender like I do
You’ll never find, no matter where you search
Someone who cares about you the way I do
Whoa, I’m not bragging on myself, baby
But I’m the one who loves you
And there’s no-one else

Like I say, you could read that either way. But what isn’t in doubt is that “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” stormed up the charts like just about everything else Gamble and Huff released in the 1970s.

Getting to Number Two in the Billboard Hot 100 and Top Ten in the UK is a sure sign of a great song.

8: “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” — MFSB

This is arguably more of an instrumental than a song (although there are some vocals on it, courtesy of The Three Degrees). “TSOP” was recorded by MFSB, which was the house band at Philadelphia Records.

Written as the theme tune for legendary US music show Soul Train, “TSOP” reached Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, the first TV theme to do so.

In “TSOP” you can hear we’re firmly in disco territory. Although earlier Philadelphia recordings hinted strongly in that direction, and arguably paved the way for the coming disco deluge, with “TSOP” full-blown disco came of age.

The rest of the 1970s would be awash with infectious, danceable beats, extensive use of strings, enough funk to keep it interesting and stylistically-perfect vocals.

While the lyrics on “TSOP” are few, they’re beautifully delivered by The Three Degrees and the tune itself, as the theme to Soul Train, deserves its place in musical history, as well as in the history of Philadelphia International Records.

9: “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” — McFadden and Whitehead

We came across Gene McFadden and John Whitehead earlier as co-writers of the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers”. They wrote “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” with Jerry Cohen and only released it themselves after a tussle with Gamble and Huff who originally wanted the O’Jays to record it.

“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” would eventually go double-platinum, and reached Number 13 on the Hot 100 and Number Five in the UK in 1979.

McFadden and Whitehead had enjoyed a long career in the music industry, including some time signed to the Stax label and working in Otis Redding’s band, as well as a spell as in-house writers and producers at Philadelphia Records.

While “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” would be the high water mark of McFadden and Whitehead’s chart success under their own name, their work with the other Philadelphia artists played a major part in the label becoming the powerhouse it was in the 1970s, so they deserve a place in this listing.

Often seen as a song about black empowerment, in later interviews McFadden and Whitehead said their song was actually about being allowed to break out of their backroom roles at Philadelphia Records and making their own way into the limelight, against the wishes of Gamble and Huff initially.

There’s been so many things that’s held us down
But now it looks like things are finally coming around
I know we’ve got a long, long way to go
And where we’ll end up, I don’t know

A measure of the spirit in the room at the time is that, unlike most of the other huge hits from Philadelphia Records in the 1970s, Gamble and Huff get neither a writing nor a production credit on “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”. McFadden and Whitehead had a point of their own to prove and, together with keyboard player and co-writer Jerry Cohen, wrote and produced their own song.

10: “Soul City Walk” — Archie Bell and the Drells

“Soul City Walk” is possibly my favourite Philadelphia Records song…perhaps “guilty pleasure” might be a better way to put it. It’s smooth, cool, sophisticated, and well-polished, just as a Philadelphia Records tune should be.

“Soul City Walk” is also unusual in that it’s the only hit record I can think of which credits Washington DC with anything positive…in this case, coming up with a new dance craze.

I know DC probably seems like the least likely place in the country to develop a new dance, but on the other hand, why not…I’ve only been there as a tourist, but I’m prepared to bet it’s not all about politicians, bureaucrats, museums, embassies and spies.

All you need to know is…

Now this dance started in Washington DC
And it’s spreading all over the land
And it won’t be so very long
Before everybody’s clappin’ their hands
Doin’ the soul city walkin’
Doin’ that soul city walk, y’all

I also rather like “Soul City Walk” because if there was anywhere which deserved the title of “Soul City”, apart from Memphis perhaps, it was Philadelphia in the days when Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff churned out hit after hit from the studios of Philadelphia International Records.

Wonderful writers, producers, arrangers and performers roamed the corridors at Philadelphia Records where their brand of smooth, sophisticated soul would be the bridge between the raw-edged soul of the 1960s and the disco sound which would dominate the 1970s.

Written by our old pals Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, along with MSFB keyboard player Victor Carstarphen, in many ways “Soul City Walk” symbolised everything that was good about Philadelphia International Records, where a group of immense talents were pulled together to create something very special between them.

11: Bonus Track “Philadelphia Freedom” — Elton John

From the title of this article, you might reasonably have thought Elton John had something to do with Philadelphia Records, but he didn’t. Although very much in the Philadelphia Records style, “Philadelphia Freedom” was an Elton John/Bernie Taupin song, with long-time Elton John collaborator Gus Dudgeon in the producer’s chair.

“Philadelphia Freedom” was written in breaks between recording tracks for Elton’s “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” album. It would later make an appearance on reissues of that album, but was only released as a single originally.

That said, “Philadelphia Freedom” was very successful, reaching Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975 and playing its part in Elton John becoming one of the most popular acts in the US for most of the 1970s.

I see “Philadelphia Freedom” as a wonderfully crafted homage to the work of all the great artists at Philadelphia Records, so even though it’s not officially from that stable, this is as good a time as any to show it some love.

To show how good a tribute it was, Philadelphia Records house band MFSB did their own instrumental cover of Elton’s song and, apart from upping the tempo a little, left it pretty much unaltered, which is probably about as high a praise as anyone could give in that situation. If you scroll below Elton’s video, you’ll find the MFSB version to compare (some wonderful musicianship on the MFSB track, by the way).

I hope you enjoyed this brief trip through some of the musical archives at Philadelphia International Records. I’ll leave you in the company of Elton John…

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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