'After you listen, you're cooler': the incredible women of Philly Soul

On the 50th anniversary of Philadelphia International Records, the often underappreciated women of the label talk about their legacy

A true music fan can recognise it the minute they hear it: the sound of Philadelphia International Records. It was a mixture of creamy strings, punching horns, snaking bass lines and fulsome melodies all combined to create something at once complex and light – a sonic soufflé fired by soul.

To singer Jean Carn, who recorded three albums for the label, “Philly Soul was even more than a sound. It was a genre,” she said. “How many labels can say they started a genre?”

Fifty years ago, music industry veterans Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff pulled that off by producing a plethora of classic albums on the imprint they started, Philadelphia International Records. As a black-owned and -operated music company, the label picked up the gauntlet from Motown, applying its crossover strategy to a new decade, with a lush new sound to herald it. In its most successful ventures, Philly International erased music’s color line with songs everybody could dance to and hum while at the same time including enough socially aware lyrics to make sure everybody understood exactly who made these records and where they came from.

Still, not everything worked by the Motown plan. Unlike Berry Gordy’s company, Gamble and Huff’s venture enjoyed far more success with their male stars than their female ones. Lacking a distaff act with the enormous popularity of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight or Martha Reeves, the label scored most of their biggest hits with male acts like the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Billy Paul and the solo Teddy Pendergrass. The only time they scored a top-five pop hit for a female act came when the Three Degrees cooed When Will I See You Again. Otherwise, Philly’s female artists enjoyed far more success on the American R&B charts than on the broader pop list. At the same time, the women of Philly Soul – including Carn, Dee Dee Sharp, Phyllis Hyman, the Jones Girls and the Three Degrees - created many of the label’s most adventurous recordings. For a short spell, Patti LaBelle also recorded for the label, but she enjoyed her biggest hits on Epic with the group Labelle, or with her solo work on MCA.

To throw a light on the underappreciated women of Philadelphia International Records for the label’s 50th anniversary, Legacy Recordings has just released a new remix of a hit from 1974, TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia), cut by the label’s house band, MFSB and featuring the Three Degrees. The new version was created by Tracy Young who, in 2019, became the first woman to win a best remix Grammy, for Madonna’s I Rise.

None of the women who spoke to the Guardian about their time with Philly International blamed the label for their lack of superstar status. In fact, they all spoke about their time there as the peak of their careers.

“I learned so much about writing and producing from the best in the business,” said Shirley Jones, lead singer of the Jones Girls. “The label also helped me to become an activist.”

The first release by a female act on the label – the self-titled album by the Three Degrees – came two years and 12 albums into Philly International’s history. The Three Degrees experienced more hits in the UK than the US, including two gold albums and a hit single, Year of Decision. The lyrics to the single epitomized the label’s socio-political mission, told in its pointed entreaties to “open up your mind” and “leave the bad stuff behind”.

The trio’s initial success, and their chic presentation, painted them as Philly’s answer to the Supremes. But as Valerie Holiday made clear, “our sound was totally different. We were not interested in having just one main singer [like Diana Ross],” she said. “All three of us sang lead.”

Jean Carn
Jean Carn: ‘Philly Soul was even more than a sound.’ Photograph: Gilles Petard/Redferns

As a result, Holiday believes, “our albums gave you a variety of sounds”. But there’s a striking difference in how they sounded live from their studio work. While the latter tended to be smooth, in concert their voices had a rawer, harder edge, evidenced by their live album from 1975, where they performed rousing takes on pop hits like Edgar Winter’s Free Ride and Elton John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.

(In 1977, Elton recorded his own tribute to Philly soul on his EP The Thom Bell Sessions, named for the city’s ace arranger/producer.)

The label’s next female act, Dee Dee Sharp, made her debut for Philly in 1976 with the album Happy About the Whole Thing. Sharp, who scored doo-wop hits in the early 1960s like the No 1 song Mashed Potato Time, and who married Kenny Gamble in 1967, had a huge vocal range. Her Philly work gave her the chance to show it off in cuts like a highly theatrical cover of 10cc’s I’m Not in Love and a take on Terry Collier’s rapturous jazz ballad What Color Is Love.

“Dee Dee has this great throaty quality to her voice,” Carn said. “She places her attack at the back of the throat. Her male counterparts would be Percy Sledge or Jerry Butler. Technically, it’s a constriction of the chords so you get that great, guttural tinge to your notes. She also has a ballsy attitude when she sings – like, ‘Don’t mess with me!’”

Carn made her own debut for the label in 1977 with a self-titled work that stands as one of the company’s most sophisticated releases. She brought to it a wide range of influences, having previously recorded a series of jazz albums with her husband of the time, pianist Doug Carn.

“Initially, I recorded jazz, but since I was a little girl I sang everything from Italian arias to German lieder to French art song to pop,” she said. “I also played organ in church choirs from the time I was 12.”

Coming to Philly allowed her to work in the label’s patented style and to expand it, aided by ace arranger/artist Dexter Wansel, one of the company’s mainstays. “All of the tunes I did with him were experimental,” Carn said, which may explain why they sailed over the heads of most pop programmers.

Still, the first song on her debut, Free Love, written and produced by Jerry Butler, did become a hit in the discos. “That wasn’t by design,” Carn said. “The clubs just picked it up.”

Elements of Philly soul actually anticipated disco, with its fanciful swirls of strings and its danceable beats, though their take didn’t strictly conform to the genre. Regardless, clubs like Studio 54 played the Jones Girls’ song You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else, helping to make it a top-40 pop hit, the group’s sole score on that chart. The trio of Jones sisters came to the label in 1979 after serving as backup singers for Diana Ross. It was Ross who pushed them to become their own act. As Jones explained: “She told us you’re too good to sing background.”

To prove it, Ross gave them a showcase in her show and then invited various labels to see them. Motown expressed interest but, at the time, Ross was battling with them so she steered the women towards Philly International instead. Like most of the Philly women, the Jones Girls did well on the R&B charts, scoring several top-10 hits without parallel success in pop. “Back then, pop was white and R&B was black,” she said. “It was as simple as that. Today, it’s all mixed up. If we came out today, with satellite radio and streaming and the internet, we would have reached a broader audience.”

Phyllis Hyman, who died in 1995.
Phyllis Hyman, who died in 1995. Photograph: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

The last female artist released by the label, as well as its final artist overall – Phyllis Hyman – already had a decade-long track record on Buddha and Arista Records although her Philly releases rank among her greatest works. They expanded her status as a vocalist who was highly respected by her peers and by black audiences. But the fact that she never earned a pop hit gnawed at her. “She felt very underappreciated,” Carn said. She also had depression. “I saw those mood swings – everybody did.”

In 1995, Phyllis Hyman killed herself. “It was such a terrible waste,” Carn said. “What a talent. She should be here today and in command.”

Of course, Hyman’s albums live on, as does the deep catalogue of Philly International. “The label put together some of the greatest music of the 70s and 80s, and it transcended that time as well,” Jones said. “It’s still played the world over.”

According to Carn, the label also left a legacy of uplifting messages. “Kenny Gamble was like a griot, a town crier full of wisdom and motivation,” she said. “The music they made is like a positive form of brain-washing. Your consciousness is getting raised while you’re dancing so you don’t even know it’s happening. All you know is that after you listen you’re cooler.”


Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

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