“Get down with the Philly Sound!” I can’t remember when I heard that phrase for the first time, but I must have been very young, because my father’s voice shouting it is one of my first memories. He would make the vowels were extra drawn out, emphasizing the Philadelphia accent he’d tried so hard to lose: “Get daaawn with the Philly Saaaund!”
I knew that this Philly Sound was the reason there was food on my family’s table; the reason my dad sometimes came home just as I was waking up (still wearing his extra-dark Ray-Bans, reeking of all kinds of smoke, and too hyped up to sleep) with his cello case stuffed full of cash; the reason some of his friends had names like “Mighty Whitey,” and others drank my cough syrup when my mother wasn’t looking; the reason there were gold records hanging on our living room wall.
I was in high school when I realized the Philly Sound’s significance went beyond my family’s living room. Before then, I hadn’t considered that the people who made this music—my father included—were pop revolutionaries: progenitors of funk, disco, and hip-hop, and happy thwarters of the entertainment biz’s racism.
For over ten years, almost every day, my dad went to work at the now legendary Sigma Sound Studios. Passersby would not have guessed that this inconspicuous low building on 12th Street, in the heart of Center City, housed writers, producers, engineers, and musicians plugging away around the clock on hit after hit after hit. The crew ranged from black dudes as fresh off the streets as their lyrics to Italian paisan string players still longing for the relative ease of the big-band days.
Soul music has its own fables. Some men sit down at a piano, they’re wearing shiny suits, and they’ve got afros, one guy’s mama’s is in the kitchen cooking up a fine meal for them because they’re hungry fellas, and, suddenly they write a hit! Cut to the long, fancy Cadillacs, gorgeous women, and red velvet tuxedoes. Then there’s the fall from grace, including, but not limited to, religious conversion, drug overdose, lawsuits, and, finally, Where Are They Now? Grayer, wiser, still wearing shiny suits and Afros, the former hit makers explain how it all happened in regretful yet addled tones.
When it comes to Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell, founding fathers of the Sound of Philadelphia, the fable doesn’t even begin to cut it. In the seventies, they produced and wrote an unprecedented sixteen number one R&B hits. At a time when their city was losing everything, they had the chutzpah to name their publishing company Mighty Three Music. Gamble and Huff also made history on the business side when they signed Philadelphia International Records (PIR) to Columbia Records (Bell preferred to work independently). While other black label owners had cut deals with majors, they never were able to command the autonomy that Gamble and Huff demanded and received. Eventually, PIR became the second biggest black-owned corporation in the United States.
Now, disco and its urban soul antecedents are thought of as hip-hop’s elegant, funky uncle, the first bling-bling genre. This is an interesting interpretation, but less compelling than the sound of the Sound of Philadelphia. The brilliance was—and still is—in its contrasts. Church-rooted signing, with sweet elegant strings, jazz horns, and country guitar. As hot as those singers and rhythm players could get, the instruments surrounding them kept cool, cool, cool—a musical baked Alaska.
And, of course, Philly singers were hair-raisingly great. To name a few: the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Teddy Pendergrass, Bunny Sigler, the Three Degrees, the Intruders, Billy Paul, McFadden and Whitehead, Patti LaBelle, the Delphonics, the Stylistics, the Soul Survivors, the Jacksons, Wilson Pickett, Jerry Butler, Dusty Springfield, Laura Nyro, and the Spinners.
Ironically, as the Sound of Philadelphia thrived, the city itself seemed to be crumbling. The problems may have been emblematic of the country’s as a whole, but that made them no better in the details. Though Philly had once been called the Workshop of the World, by the sixties and seventies its industries had tanked. Most of the factories closed, and white flight was epidemic. This rapid decline was presided over by Frank Rizzo, the former police commissioner-turned-mayor, who thought that sticking a billy club in the cummerbund of his tuxedo was a great way to accessorize a formal outfit. Philly Soul’s peak years may, in retrospect, seem bittersweet, obvious halcyon days. But TSOP’s song titles give a more complicated portrait of the time: “Love Train,” “Wake Up Everybody,” “Disco Inferno,” “Bad Luck,” “Only the Strong Survive,” “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” “Back Stabbers.”
In the summer of 1974, a month after I was born, my father performed his last major professional classical concert, as a soloist for the Pennsylvania Ballet Company. Two dancers executed a delicate pas de deux while he performed Bach’s Suite for Unaccompanied Cello in G Major. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music: delicate and cerebral, orderly and passionate. That same year, he also played cello on the song “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” an almost six minute-long disco burner by the Philly Soul house band, MFSB (the letters stand for Mother Father Sister Brother or Mother Fucker Son of a Bitch, depending on who you ask).
My parents, Larry and Vicky Gold, had been married for six years by then, since my dad was twenty and my mother twenty-three. Their romance started when my mom went to hear my father perform with a conga player. She liked the music and him so much that when she got home she made a pot with little sweet nothings written between the coils, and then kept it in her car to give to him the next time they bumped into each other. The wedding was six months later. Philadelphia’s a small city.
Most people who know my parents think of my father as the difficult one and my mother as the saint. It’s a workable myth, but I know better. To me, Vicky is like the clay she sculpts—earthy, elemental, and pliable only to a point. Larry is like music, a veritable philharmonic of emotion, and always, always moving.
My mother is short and curvy, with black hair, and a bright, even, face: green eyes, dark brows, and smooth, rosy skin. She’s very pretty, but not a big user of feminine wiles (no low-cut tops to show off the cleavage, never high heels or makeup). She was so determined not to let having a baby change her into a Marjorie Morningstar, that she didn’t even notice she was pregnant until the fourth month, and then insisted on wearing the same Mexican caftan every day, and hauling fifty-pound bags of clay up the stairs almost until her due date.
That was an especially hot summer in Philadelphia, and my soon-to-be parents were living on the top floor of an old Victorian house in Germantown. Their next-door neighbor was a heroin dealer, and my mom became friends with his girlfriend. The tail end of the sixties—hippies and drug dealers were still sort of on the same team.
As my father practiced Bach, practicalities filled his mind. While he and my mother hadn’t planned on having kids—the world was awful, parenthood was too much responsibility—now that they were doing it, he wanted to be the best father, no fucking around. He’s told me he knew he’d never played better, but classical music was not going to pay the bills.
None of this turmoil is evident in his publicity shot from the ballet tour. Instead, he looks composed and serious: eyes closed, brows raised, nostrils flared wide (the only indication of his usual high drama). His blonde hair flows past his shoulders, waving out wide and full, contrasting with his formal suit, complete with tailcoat. He’s elegantly thin, and his classic Russian Jewish features—large nose, soulful eyes, full mouth—make him look the perfect Romantic musician. The two dancers are positioned to his right; the man has lifted the woman above his head. Both of them seem to glow, their skin white, and their arms and legs impossibly long and slender. My father holds his cello even more gently than the male dancer holds his partner’s body aloft.
I have another picture of my dad from the same period. This one was taken at Sigma Sound, in the middle of a string gig. My father sits in the background, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, holding his cello casually by the neck. His long hair is tucked behind his ears, and his attitude is relaxed—maybe he’s not even aware of the camera. Eyes half closed, he looks as if he has just said something funny, and is laughing at his own joke. This time his features seem tougher, a bit of a hustler rather than a virtuoso. Other musicians sit around him, kibitzing, getting ready to start the session. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff stand in the foreground of the picture, tough, proud and in charge. They are turned out in full seventies dude fashion, straight out of Superfly: Afros, bell-bottom pants, shiny shoes—Huff even wears a wide-brimmed hat.
The difference between these two photos fascinates me. In the first, my father is such an artiste, he looks straight out of the eighteenth or nineteenth century; even his long hair evokes an Impressionist painting. In the second picture, he’s a player, one of the fellas—as much as someone who is so proud of being independent ever could be.
As “TSOP” sped to number one on Billboard’s Pop chart, my mom pushed me out into the world. Once she saw me, any ambivalence she may have had about motherhood melted away. One night, the drug-dealing neighbor had a shootout. “Larry, Vicky, help!” screamed his girlfriend. We all (along with the dog and the cello) spend the night huddled under the bed—time to move out of Germantown.
When the ballet tour ended, my father made what he describes as the most difficult and sad choice of his life, and one of his first fatherly decisions. After years with a foot on either side of the pop/high art line, he left professional classical music. Nineteen-seventies Philly was not eighteen-forties Vienna. He made a choice, and, for years, questioned the consequences, as a certain kind of person will after giving up one great love for another.
Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell are also Philly guys, born and bred. Huff is actually from Camden, New Jersey, but it’s across the river, practically the same thing—my grandfather Lenny used to skate from Camden to Philly on the frozen Delaware when he was a kid. While my dad was growing up in Kensington, a blue-collar neighborhood in North Philly, Kenny Gamble and Thom Bell began their lifelong friendship in West Philly, and Huff and his family ventured across the bridge when they wanted a taste of big-city life. Gamble, Huff, and Bell also fell in love with music when they were very young, and they were unusually lucky in their love.
When I think of Gamble, Huff, and Bell in those early days, I like to imagine them in at Sigma Sound. It’s the fall of 1969, right when things started to pop. The Mighty Three had a few hits by then, most notably with Jerry Butler and the Intruders, and they were trying hard for more. Even though this scene is probably apocryphal, I like to picture them clustered together, heads bent over a mixing board. Pouring out of the huge speakers hanging above their heads is the satiny voice of Dusty Springfield. The ultimate blue-eyed soul diva is singing “Lost,” the first track from her album Brand New Me.
This would have been a pivotal moment for the young producers. Springfield was already famous for her extraordinarily soulful voice. Her now-classic Southern soul album, Dusty in Memphis, had just come out, and she’d scored a few hits with the Burt Bacharach tunes “I Only Want to Be with You” and “The Look of Love.” In addition to her talent, however, Dusty was a notorious perfectionist, and (by the usual boy’s club music biz standards) quite neurotic. Supposedly, she’d come late to sessions, even then staying in the ladies’ room for hours, reapplying her makeup and teasing out her blonde bouffant. But her voice was big as a cathedral, intimate as a post-coital cigarette, and skipped across the most technically virtuosic songs as if they were nursery rhymes.
Which made recording with her intimidating as hell. Gamble, Huff, and Bell knew Dusty loved singing Bacharach, the best and most technically virtuosic pop songwriter around, and so they’d pushed to write her worthily complex material. Little did they know the nerves were mutual. “[Philly had] even more soul than [Memphis]—this was really getting there,” Dusty later said. “I worshipped their work.”
Back in the studio, I imagine the three men conferring in low voices, as Dusty nervously listens to herself in playback, perched on a stool in the recording booth. Joe Tarsia, the engineer and owner of Sigma, sits in front of the mixing board, waiting for a verdict. It’s late, but that doesn’t mean anything—there’s never any sense of time in a windowless studio.
As soon as the tape stops, Dusty starts in. “Should I try the last verse again?”
“Hang on a second, honey…” Thom Bell answers (of the three men, he’s the chattiest).
“Let’s take it again from the top,” Gamble says.
“Okay.” Springfield adjusts her headset with difficulty (the bouffant), blinking her kohl-saturated eyes, and, as the instrumental track kicks in for the umpteenth time that night, begins to (pardon the cliché) sing her heart out.
“That’s it, honey!” Bell yells when Dusty finishes that final take. “We got ourselves a hit!” They all laugh, high-fiving as Tarsia shuts down the board for the night.
“Lost” forgives my reverie. The song kicks off Brand New Me with a country guitar line, quickly joined by the rest of the rhythm section (bass, percussion, and organ), funky and tight. But wait—before you go thinking this will be Memphis, Pt. II, those smooth Philly strings hit, echoing the guitar lick and announcing this is no Southern Soul joint. It’s satin sheets and maid service before Dusty sings a note. By the time she wails the chorus, “I was lost, so lost, but found in the nick of time!” my father and the rest of the strings, as well as woodwinds and backgrounds, embrace her voice, punctuating the rhythm section, syncopated against the beat.
Unfortunately, Brand New Me didn’t do so well commercially, only reaching #107 on Billboard’s pop album chart in 1970. It doesn’t matter—the songs on the album are perfect examples of how Gamble, Huff, and Bell began to refine what would, over the next decade, go from being a style to a Sound.
My father practicing the Bach G Major Suite is actually a more constant childhood memory than hearing him yell, “Get down with the Philly Sound.” People often think that Bach’s music is intellectual rather than emotional. “Give me a fucking break,” my father would say, with a Harpo Marx-worthy grimace. At first, in the Prelude, his playing is calm and measured. But that’s a trick, or maybe a wind-up, because by the time he’s in the middle of the slow Sarabande, he’s practically rolling off his chair, pitching and swaying, rosin flaking off his bow.
The music always gets me, right where I’m sure Bach meant it to, somewhere between my stomach and my heart. It’s the same feeling as when I hear “Back Stabbers” or “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” streaming out a car window on a hot summer day. Even from a distance, I can hear the cello.
Art by Miranda Harter.