The so-called Sound of Philadelphia, as constructed by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell in the 1970s, wasn’t just attitude, in the style of today. Wasn’t just talk, but also a new walk. A shared attitude. A sound.
There was affirmation in it for African Americans still struggling through the last vestiges of Jim Crow, and a soul-lifting complexity for a broader American public — then making the switch from AM to FM — that had grown bored with the aging Motown hit factory. There was also coherent feel that made each of these sides of a piece. You knew a Gamble and Huff single, you knew any Philadelphia International Records project, without bothering to check the liner notes — even as they spanned genres as distinctive as Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ anguished soul yearnings on “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” over to the big-city aphorisms of the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers.”
But we’ve never, until now, heard all of those artists gathered together on one stage. Golden Gate Groove, recorded on June 27, 1973 and finally set for release on January 31 from Legacy Recordings, takes us back to the first, and only, time that the stars of Philadelphia International Records — the 1970s’ most influential black music firm — performed in concert with the label’s legendary house band, known as MFSB. CBS Records, PIR’s parent company, even secured the services of emcee Don Cornelius, host of the popular television dance show “Soul Train.”
It’s as good as it sounds — with big names and bigger hits, forgotten favorites and some seriously fonky-cool attitude.
There’s Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, who begin their set with “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” its young lead singer Teddy Pendergrass’ most indelible moment. His voice — though Pendergrass was only in his early 20s — was already filled with a husky, late-night wonder, only here he’s been utterly stripped of bravado. As a strikingly vulnerable Pendergrass sings, sounding desperately afraid of being alone, you sense that this a supernova moment for him as an artist. It’s of little surprise that he went on to such great solo fame.
Then, there’s silky smooth lover-man Billy Paul. Dialing his vocals down to a confiding whisper, he turns “Mr. and Mrs. Jones” — already the most blithely inviting pop reformulation of a backdoor love that there ever was — into this astonishingly sensual 8-and-a-half-minute candle-lit embrace. The Third Degrees, still a year away from their breakout hit “When Will I See You Again,” reanimate the deep cut “I Didn’t Know” — which savvy TV viewers will remember from their guest shot on an episode of “Sanford and Son.”
Then, there’s the rambunctious jazz-soul orchestra (some 35 people strong!) known as MFSB, which backed everybody while performing some shag-carpeted, throwback interludes like an instrumental take on Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead.” Their disco-fied instrumental “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia),” a future No. 1 record that hadn’t been released yet, has all of the period’s ear-candy characteristics — from the roiling horn blasts, to the chanky-chank guitar, to the images it inevitably conjures of shivery afros, street-level style and eye-popping moves as the theme song for “Soul Train.”
The album’s emotional highlight — no surprise, here — is the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers,” one of the era’s most important songs. It became the O’Jays’ first million-seller, and it remains one of the rare tracks that seems to have deserved that honor as much then as it does now. That’s not just because of its relentless musical propulsion, but also the way it connected on so many levels: “They’re smiling in your face,” the rugged Eddie Levert sings, “but all the time they want to take your place.” Felt true then, and now — to the suspicious cuckold, of course, but also to the city kid lost in an urban maze of poverty and despair, and the suburban dad working for a boss he despised. And everybody in between.
Later, after the O’Jays make an impressive run through the underrated ballad “Sunshine,” “Love Train” closes Golden Gate Groove in the only way that you could: With the MFSB horns bolstering the O’Jays to dizzying, sun-streaked heights of euphoria.
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