There’s only one time and only one place a group with a name like Archie Bell and the Drells could have existed. The time was 1975. The place was Philadelphia.
Well, strictly speaking Archie Bell came from Texas, but it was in Philadelphia that Archie Bell and the Drells made their name…specifically at Philadelphia International Records, where Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were busy mixing the soundtrack for the disco era.
The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, Patti LaBelle and many, many more turned to the Philadelphia International studios when they wanted to use that smooth and slick, but funky and groovy “Philadelphia sound” for their next record.
I especially like the string arrangements on Philadelphia International Records. On one level, they’re just background strings like many records over the years include somewhere in the mix to fill out the sound a little.
But there was always a lightness of touch, and a distinctive groove from the Philadelphia International strings which made them stand out next to any other record label’s output.
And if you’re a fan like me, rest assured you’ll find Gamble and Huff’s trademark strings on “Soul City Walk” too.
Although Archie Bell and the Drells had been together since the late 1960s, and had scored a number of US R&B hits in the interim, they didn’t trouble the UK charts until the mid-70s, by which time the Gamble and Huff production team had buffed their Philadelphia sound to the finest of sheens.
“Soul City Walk” (which, until recently, I always thought was called “Soul City Walking”…not entirely randomly, that’s the opening lines of the lyrics) reached number 13 in the UK charts at the end of 1975.
That would prove to be the high-water mark of Archie Bell and the Drells’ UK chart performance, and one of their career-high performances in any chart.
It’s a song about a new dance craze…which pretty much follows the template that started with Chubby Checker and “The Twist” and ran right through to Mr C The Slide Man’s “Cha Cha Slide”. (If you don’t recognise the title, I promise you’ll recognise the song…it may well bring back traumatic memories of school dances in times gone by… https://youtu.be/wZv62ShoStY )
Every song about a new dance craze…like The Twist and the Cha Cha Slide …has to work on the basis that you don’t yet know how the dance goes, because in its early days, clearly nobody apart from the composer and choreographer do. So clear instructions are essential.
If you can’t remember…or never knew in the first place…how to do the Soul City Walk, it goes like this…
Now all you have to do is form a big boss line
Just make sure that you’re on time
Move it to your left
And move it to your right
Hey, this dance is outta sight
Doin’ the Soul City Walk
Yeah, Soul City Walk, y’all
And don’t worry if you’re more of a visual learner…you’ll see all those moves demonstrated on the video below. I’m a “two left feet” dancer myself, so the fact that I can do these moves should probably concern you if you harbour ambitions of appearing on “Dancing With The Stars” one day…
But it was the 70s — the disco era.
Everything was Studio 54, the Bee Gees and the sound of Philadelphia. Nile Rodgers was reinventing how rhythm guitar is played. Bernard Edwards was laying down bass lines that went right down to your toes and made them want to dance all night.
Punk and new wave hadn’t yet arrived in force, although it was bubbling up fast. Whether you went to Studio 54 or CBGB’s said a lot about who you were…whether you lived for the moment, relishing the hedonism that came with the spinning glitter ball and the Philadelphia sound, or whether you wanted to tear down everything the music industry stood for.
That’s a shame, in a way. Disco, and the Philly sound in its time, was a new art form in its own right. Perhaps less emphatically so than the punk revolution to come, but it represented an artistic transition to a softer, more sophisticated form of R&B with move love and less anger, more complex arrangements and funkier bass lines.
In the mid-70s, you were on either one one side or the other. You couldn’t appear to like both…although I, and I suspect many other people, did.
The only surprising thing in the lyrics for “Soul City Walk” is that I’m pretty sure this is the only record of any kind which cites Washington DC as the source of its inspiration.
For a group from Texas, who recorded in Philadelphia for the clientele of sophisticated New York night clubs, Washington DC…government town…is an unlikely source of inspiration for anything, much less a dance.
There’s a good deal more excitement taking place on a daily basis in any one of those three locations without having to go to Washington DC to find some more…leaving aside the fact that I suspect you’d be sorely disappointed if you went to Washington DC purely for the purpose of trying to discover new and exciting dance moves.
Still, it’s good to know that if it’s done nothing else the world appreciates very much, Washington DC has at least given us the Soul City Walk…
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
So if you’re a US taxpayer and shortly before 15th April each you ask yourself…grudgingly… “What’s Washington DC ever done for us?”, now you’re got your answer.
Washington DC has given you the soul city walk to enjoy for all eternity. Don’t say they never give you anything back in return for all the hard-earned cash you send them.
Here’s a peerless Gamble and Huff production, showcasing the Philly sound at this height of its popularity…so why not have a little boogie to Archie Bell and the Drells, with “Soul City Walk”? You know you want to…
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here…https://open.spotify.com/track/5RVYELSOePrMcezjoHowIt
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.