I admit this post may come across as biased, but when you were raised on an entire sound whether you liked or not as a kid, you either hate it, or grows on you.
Thanks to my mom, a Philly music fan from her teen years to now, I’ve gained a special love and affection for The Sound of Philadelphia and all that it represented to Philly/South Jersey/Wilmington back in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
The architects of the Philly Sound were Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but let’s not forget their silent partner Thom Bell, whose incredible string and horn arrangements gave the Philly sound a classy touch and went on to produce hits for several acts independent of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records.
The Philly sound started in the 60s as doo-wop began to fade as a group sound, but Philly Soul’s earliest hits were tailored towards groups who had guys who sang in all vocal ranges and in harmony.
The Stylistics and Delfonics were the earliest to benefit from the Philly Sound’s emergence with hits like “Didn’t I blow your mind this time,” “Betcha by golly wow,” “La la la means I love you” and “You are everything.”
Of course Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O’Jays and even more surprisingly, the Spinners took the Stylistics and Delfonics’ shine, but those two groups were instrumental, pardon the pun, in the development of the Philly sound thanks to the falsettos of Russell Thompkins Jr. and William “Poogie” Hart for the Stylistics and Delfonics respectively.
To define a sound of music really isn’t hard if you’re looking at just the music. Philly dance songs pretty much paved the way for Disco to emerge in the latter half of the 1970s, thanks to legendary drummer Earl Young’s distinct and basic style of drumming. The horns and strings Thom Bell added also would become disco trademarks. Philly ballads were sophisticated anthems of emotional and spirtual love and the role of the man as The Man, as you can hear in many of the O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass’ classic slow jams.
And that’s where the Philly sound stands out, as there was, to steal the title from an O’Jays album, “A message in the music.” Even though a lot of The Sound of Philadelphia’s biggest hits get you moving on the dance floor, those same songs have a message and a moral in them, but not to where it comes off as preachy. Kind of the original “Y’all don’t hear me, y’all just want to dance.”
You can hear these messages of the perils of greed in “For the love of money” by the O’Jays and the need for a community to rise up in “Wake up everybody” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Message music wasn’t new to R&B, as Marvin Gaye had dropped the heavy dose of reality called “What’s going on” early in the 70s, but Philly International took it to another level with danceable rhythms and it took off from there.
In their more tender songs, many of the love songs written were more or less anthems of manhood. A man was supposed to take care of his woman in all ways and she was expected to return the love by being loyal. Uniquely powerful voices like Teddy Pendergrass and Eddie Levert could thrive off the message of man as dominant-woman as submissive, but the message was so fluid, even the sweet, laid-back voice of the O’Jays’ Walter Williams still carried the motto with much power.
As Philadelphia became an R&B hotbed in the 70s, Philly was proud of the fact they had something unique that could separate their music from that of Motown and anything that was coming out of New York or Los Angeles at the time.
The music was an extension of the city: Hard-working by day, fun and spirited by night and romantic even later. Everyone that grew up in what is known in the Delaware Valley from 1967 to about 1980 has a favorite classic Sound of Philadelphia song and they in turn have put their kids on to the greatness of that music.
The heyday of Philly Soul as it was back then is long over, but the influence on local artists such as Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Kindred the Family Soul and more is obvious.
While the music doesn’t sound the same technically, the messages still exist, taking on the form of modern situations with the spirit and soul of The Sound of Philadelphia’s heyday. And so the Message in the Music continues.