Though it was considered by purists to be soul's first sellout move, the rise of Philly Soul actually resulted in more R&B airplay than pop smashes, proving that R&B had grown up and become sophisticated while keeping its doo-wop heart. Vocal groups from Philly (and Detroit, and occasionally elsewhere) found in the genre a perfect outlet for black music's romanticism, its love of the beat, and its social consciousness, all at once. Here are Philly Soul's 10 biggest chart triumphs.
Written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, arguably Philly Soul's greatest songwriters, this gently tortured ballad talks about two forbidden lovers "meet(ing) every day at the same cafe," which is exactly what Gamble and Huff based it on: they observed a man meeting a woman at their favorite eatery, even playing the same songs on the jukebox, a quirk which also made it into the lyrics. Was that what these two were up to? Something illicit? The songwriting team never found out. But it gave them a theme so controversial and yet universal it became a worldwide smash; at home it also got them a #1 pop and R&B hit, two million records sold, and a Grammy to boot.
Philly Soul's greatest anthem, and one of its eternally danceable songs, "Love Train" was actually a plea for world brotherhood, namechecking countries and inviting them aboard in much the same manner as the Impressions' "People Get Ready." Unlike that spiritual, however, the O'Jays express was purely secular, which may explain why it was also a double #1 hit, topping both the pop and R&B charts and also making the top 10 in the UK. Another Gamble-Huff classic, it proved their domination of the pop charts, hitting the top just three months after "Mrs. Jones."
MFSB were the house band that played on almost all of Philadelphia International's big hits: their name ostensibly stood for "Mother, Father, Sister, Brother," but it's since been revealed as a naughty acronym describing just how very, very hot they were as a unit. It's fitting, then, that this commercial of sorts for the label (and the sound) was their showcase, and one of the genre's biggest smashes. Assisted by the label's perennial backup singers, the Three Degrees, it captured the R&B moment so perfectly that it became the de facto theme song of TV dance show Soul Train. And in its longest form, it was one of the first extended disco dance singles.
Dionne Warwick(e) had made her career in the early '60s singing the elegant, sophisticated ballads of a young songwriter named Burt Bacharach, so she was a natural for the silky, but never slick, sound of Philly Soul. Spinners' lead singer Bobby Smith was also a natural fit, although it was the group's secret weapon and one of soul's best-ever ad-libbers, Phillipe Wynne, who actually sang her out at the end of the song. Warwick, who desperately needed a hit, was still unimpressed by the song, which was no Gamble-Huff number. Producer Thom Bell, the other crucial component of the Philly Soul sound, convinced her that she'd just recorded a #1 smash. She had.
Hall and Oates were two white kids who started out in folk-pop, but they were from Philly, they were wonderfully adept at blue-eyed soul, and one of their songs, "She's Gone," had already been a hit for "authentic" black soul group Tavares (and also recorded by Lou Rawls, whose career was about to be revived by Gamble and Huff). Probably owing to racism at rock radio, H&O eventually had the bigger pop hit with "She's Gone," but this was their only #1 pop hit of the decade. Perhaps because it had a little more of a rock feel to the intro, however, "She's Gone" wasn't a R&B Top Ten hit.
Smooth vocalists just seemed to gravitate to the sound of Philadelphia in the early '70s. So Lou Rawls, who was smooth enough to trade vocals with Sam Cooke on "Bring it on Home to Me," was probably inevitable for the sound's next career save. Gamble and Huff to the rescue again, except that this time, they rode in with an unusual rhumba-like beat that only erupted into a disco gallop in the chorus. The label wanted Rawls bad, not only agreeing to write a song specifically tailored to his basso profundo croon but going along with his suggestion to cut the whole thing live in the studio!
Thom Bell was the other major Philly Soul songwriter of note, usually composing with partner Linda Creed, but Linda was merely backup vocalist on this, the Spinners' first major hit and an important jumping-off point for the genre. Originally relegated to a b-side, it was unearthed by enterprising DJs and made into a million-seller. Not bad when you consider how Motown held onto these guys for years without finding them a hit, only to let them go because they had doubts about lead singer Bobby Smith. (It's Philippe Wynne, however, who again pinch hits for him in the outro.)
It's perhaps the Philly Soul hit with the widest crossover appeal: this, the biggest hit by Philadelphia International's go-to backups, roosted at or near the top of the pop, R&B, adult contemporary, and Billboard's brand-new disco chart, not to mention shooting to #1 in the UK. And yet lead Degree Sheila Ferguson flat-out refused to sing it at first, thinking it too simplistic and immature for her talents. Gamble and Huff happily convinced her otherwise. The dozens of cover versions from all over the musical spectrum prove that sometimes, simple is universal.
A transplanted Norfolk, VA native covering an old song by Ruby and the Romantics might not seem like the most obvious inclusion on this list, especially said song was written by a commercial jingle writer best known for the famous Almond Joy/Mounds "Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut" campaign. But wait -- Holman had been on the Philly Soul scene from the beginning, singing with the originators of the genre, the Delfonics, and also its first hit artists the Stylistics. The minds behind this smash were wise enough to replicate his signature sound here. His freakish falsetto did the rest.
Teddy Pendergrass was the quintessential sexually tortured lover man, not just in this subgenre but arguably in all of soul. Which may explain why the Blue Notes' biggest hit was its most pained, allowing Teddy to grab listeners and shake them into submission. Gamble and Huff wrote it for the Dells, but then the group's drummer -- the drummer, of all people! -- stepped up and became a star. Taking advantage of one of the slowest tempos in American radio history, Teddy bellows and staggers like a mortally wounded man. Which is sort of the point.