It Was Always More Than Just A Sound Along With Their Lush Music, Gamble And Huff Delivered Contagiously Optimistic Messages.

Posted: September 28, 1997

What was it, really?

Soaring strings and apocalyptic horns. Silky vocals cut with warm, cognac-flavored jazz guitar. A beat slower than the sing-song clip of Motown girl groups. A beat that presaged disco. Lushness. Splendor. The Sound of Philadelphia.

Listening to pop music now, 25 years after the reign of Philadelphia International Records, none of those elements seems particularly remarkable. They're business as usual. Scores of today's bombastic bedroom balladeers build their entreaties around elaborate arrangements and use just the type of keening string lines Thom Bell and other Philly arrangers pioneered. Lots of hitmakers strive for a big, orchestral sound - even an alt-rock band such as the Smashing Pumpkins tapped that reliable recipe for a single or two.

Anybody can order that stuff up. Or sample it.

What made the soul music coming from Philadelphia in the early '70s so vital wasn't simply the exterior sheen, or the refinements of hitmaking strategies associated with Motown and Sly and the Family Stone.

It was the way those sweet, instantly riveting, impossibly grabby arrangements - collected on the three-disc The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff & the Story of Brotherly Love, as well as the output of the Stylistics and others - carried messages of considerable significance.

The Sound of Philadelphia was more than a sound. It was an explosion of contagious, forward-looking optimism, anchored by earthbound and streetwise themes - ideas that were anything but fluffy. Philly soul affirmed the best of life (music, mother, love), but also confronted the seamier stuff (duplicity, greed, intolerance). At both extremes, it managed to bring listeners into contact with the world in a way pop music hadn't quite done before.

Born during a period of widespread wariness and mistrust (this was, after all, the era of Watergate, Vietnam, the cautious calm following the inner-city riots), the Philly sound was tonic for a troubled time, music that dared to express a philosophy, advocate brotherhood and compassion, dream of a better day.

The Sound of Philadelphia was more than a sound. Its love songs taught respect even as they oozed sex. Its anthems helped to awaken a generation to its potential and played a role in shaping its priorities.

Its singles, created by an integrated crew of musicians and arrangers, offered a place of understanding and shared experience - hasn't everybody, at one time or other, mourned along with ``The Love I Lost''?

Its refrains challenged men of all races to be their best - and were particularly candid when addressing African Americans. With lines such as ``How can you call me brother when you steal, cheat and lie and can't look me in the eye?,'' the Philly International brain trust voiced notions that were usually kept under wraps.

Drawing inspiration from Marvin Gaye's 1971 masterpiece, What's Goin' On, producer-songwriters Gamble and Huff strove for a holy grail: hook-oriented pop that said something meaningful without preaching or descending into wishy-washy platitudes. They hit the mark time and again. Their productions never got tangled up in rhetoric: Rather than chastise, tracks such as ``Back Stabbers'' and ``Wake Up Everybody'' coaxed and seduced. Rather than riffing a litany of poverty woes, hits such as the sonically adventurous ``For the Love of Money'' took the high road, examining the lust for wealth and its corrosive effect on the soul.

Of course, Philadelphia International didn't just put out message music: The CD box includes the quintessential sneakin'-around song, Billy Paul's ``Me and Mrs. Jones''; the Three Degrees' yearning masterpiece, ``When Will I See You Again?''; and a minor O'Jays hit, ``992 Arguments,'' that is practically an inventory of Philly soul techniques. Governed by a simple lyric, built around a set of chanted refrains, ``992 Arguments'' doesn't break much new ground. But every element is nailed. By the time the glorious instrumental coda kicks into gear, all of what makes this team effort so extraordinary is on display. The crisp, dancing string writing. The effortless testimony of singers who knew how to use such an elaborate platform. The restrained musicianship, evident in the steady, unflashy pulse of drummer Earl Young, the firm but unobtrusive rhythm section. All this found its way onto tape almost daily at Sigma Sound Studios.

These basic musical values, out of vogue during the heyday of hip-hop, have returned to the pop charts in a powerful way - via countless samples of Philly hits, as well as the smooth atmospheres of Boyz II Men and Babyface, the socially savvy pop of Jamiroquai, the crafty late-night settings of Maxwell.

Such ``sons of soul'' emulate the enduring sounds of the classics, the lushness of Philadelphia, the drive of Motown, the sass of Stax-Volt. But something's missing. Because they fasten onto the sound rather than the sense of the songs, they're rarely able to address themes of substance: Most of this latter-day soul amounts to ``baby take me back'' groaning over lost love.

That's why the Philly Sound remains important. Gamble and Huff didn't just make pretty music. They were idealistic. They stood for something, challenged listeners, and never abandoned the notion that music could be a force for positive change.

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