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How sweet it was
Remembering Philly soul
A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul
By John A. Jackson. Oxford University Press, 352 pages, $35.

The music that fans called "Philadelphia soul" arose, dazzled, and faded from the airwaves in little more than a decade. By 1968, its first efforts had found a following; by 1974, its second phase had become the most anthemic music in what was fast becoming the "disco craze." By 1981, the entire idiom had all but vanished. Today, it’s hard to remember the songs and what made them special. The only Philadelphia soul star with continuing name recognition is Teddy Pendergrass, whose career was shut down by a 1982 car accident that left him paralyzed. At that point, he was the sole survivor of the Philadelphia idiom. Older records by the O’Jays, the Jones Girls, Billy Paul, McFadden & Whitehead, the Three Degrees, the MFSB Orchestra, and the Trammps still enjoyed substantial airplay in what remained of mainstream dance music, but most of these acts were bringing uptempo numbers to a nation of clubgoers. Their disco success had long since pushed aside the original sweetly falsetto’d ballad shape of Philadelphia soul.

Now, thanks to John A. Jackson’s A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, some of that sweetly sung story has been retold as well as much more of the triumphant tale of Philadelphia music in the disco era. It’s no surprise that Jackson devotes three-quarters of his narrative to Philadelphia disco: this was the music that most people remember, a sweeping, pumping, glossy funk that dominated disco until Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder came along. Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell, and their many collaborators worked mostly at one record label, so it’s also no surprise that Jackson’s book becomes their story and that of Philadelphia International, as opposed to the ballad phase of Philly soul and the rest of the Philadelphia disco story. The Trammps made four albums during the years 1974 to 1978 that took disco by storm even as the quivering high tenor of their lead singer, Jimmy Ellis, carried the voice of Philly ballads into Philly’s uptempo era; they hardly get a mention. The female vocal trio First Choice — Philly-disco pioneers, but not a Gamble/Huff/Bell act — get a single page. Jackson’s emphasis is understandable: the more you read about the desperate soap-opera life of record labels, the more you want to read. But his title invites a profounder discussion of Philadelphia soul’s ballad phase.

One reason he moves so quickly past those ballads is that he’s more reporter than critic. We read a lot about who did what, and when; we read as much about the economics of Philadelphia International (including how the two black men surprised their white bankers by paying off their mortgage in eight years); we read about how the music was constructed, edited, engineered, and promoted, and how its female vocal groups looked, dressed, and moved. But we read very little about how their singing or the music sounded.

And the essence of Philadelphia ballads was their sound: sugar-laden string sections playing in the background, at the sides, in between the voices, boyish voices, soprano-like, quivery or fulsome, wet-lipped, teary-eyed, worried, pleading. It was satin music in a perfumed room that critics called "ear candy," and for the few years that it prevailed — sung first by Eddie Holman and the Delfonics, then by the Stylistics, Moments, Blue Magic, the Ebonys and others — it won female fans of all ages. Who could resist the pleading, fragrantly scented tears of a love-struck boy?

Jackson also misplaces the locus of Philly disco on its beat. That beat — invented, so he writes, by Gamble & Huff session drummer Earl Young, and described as "right up the middle, almost like a machine" — did set Philly disco apart from the syncopations of the era’s otherwise dominant rhythm genre, funk. But the intense, personal character that its performers projected was a far more significant factor. When Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ Teddy Pendergrass sang, when the O’Jays’ Eddie Levert growled, when First Choice or the Three Degrees cooed, when Phillipe Wynne of the Spinners quivered, when Archie Bell of the Drells cool-talked, when Jimmy Ellis soared, the audience knew who was addressing it, and why. And the voices of Philly-disco acts were rendered all the more flesh-and-blood by the diffidence of their supporting music. Not until Moroder and Summer, with their music of hypothetical feelings, of supposing only, of distanced, insulated sexuality, did we understand just how lovably, vulnerably, sweat-and-pulsingly actual the voices of Philly disco were.

Issue Date: June 10 - 16, 2005
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