Enjoying A Mystery Gift

Originally posted January 7, 2009

It’s not often that I can go to a music store and rummage around without having to think about a budget. But two days after Christmas I went to St. Cloud’s branch of the Electric Fetus, armed with the $100 gift card I’d received in the mail from someone who is both anonymous and generous.

I still have no idea who sent me the gift card. It arrived December 20, and I wrote about it a week later, having waited to see if someone would write or call to explain the gift or – and I wondered about this – to tell me it was all a mistake. By the time I wrote about the gift card, I was ready to shop, and I headed downtown that afternoon.

I first rummaged through the used CDs (habits of frugality are hard to break) and then headed to the new R&B. I found two of the three CDs I had in mind, both by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: Dap-Dippin’ With . . . and 100 Days, 100 Nights. I’d been introduced to the group via another music blog and immediately loved the music, which sounds to me as if it were recorded in Memphis in 1967. If you like classic R&B and you’ve not heard the group before, you really should. (If you’ve heard Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, you’ve heard some of the Dap-Kings; several of them were among the backing musicians for the 2006 album.)

And then I wandered for a while, seeing a lot of stuff that would be fine to have but not, somehow, grand enough for the opportunity to buy almost anything I wanted. So I started to look at the box sets. The first one I pulled down was called Love Is The Song We Sing, subtitled San Francisco Nuggets, 1965-1970. Four discs covering pre-Summer of Love music, recordings from the San Francisco-area suburbs, music from the summer of 1967 itself and then recordings from later years. The four CDs came packaged in a book, with several essays, lots of photographs and a track-by-track commentary.

I tucked it under my arm and went to the box sets displayed on the far wall.

And there, I spotted Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia, another four-CD set chronicling the incredibly successful (and incredibly good) cluster of musicians, producers and songwriters that worked in Philadelphia from the late 1960s into the 1980s. The music starts with the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway (To Your Heart)” from 1967 and ends with Patti LaBelle’s “If Only You Knew” from 1983.

I grabbed that one, too.

I didn’t budget perfectly. But when all was done, I ended up paying less than ten dollars out of my pocket for the two box sets and the two Sharon Jones CDs. Ten days later, I’m still listening my way through all of the music, track by track.

Of the two box sets, it’s hard to say which is the better: I tend to like the music on Love Train a little better, maybe because the time frame covers more years when I was listening to radio. But the Philadelphia set doesn’t offer nearly as much information about the music and the artists as does Love Is The Song We Sing. The San Francisco book has, as I indicated above, brief comments about every track to go along with the expected basic credits, recording and chart history and discography. The Love Train set offers that same basic data about each of its tracks, but there’s no other information specific to the recordings. The Love Train book does have some interesting essays: The best of them is an account by historian Gerald Early of what it was like to grow up in Philadelphia during the years when producers like Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell and all the others were making Philadelphia one of the central sources of the nation’s musical heart.

Here are three from Love Is The Song We Sing and three from Love Train. (I’ll likely offer a track or two by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings later this week.)

A Six-Pack From An Anonymous Friend
“Underdog” by Sly & the Family Stone from A Whole New Thing, 1967

“Rubiyat” by the Immediate Family, unreleased recording, 1967

“Why Did You Put Me On” by Notes From The Underground from Notes From The Underground, 1968

“You’re The Reason Why” by the Ebonys, Philadelphia International 3503, 1971

“T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by MFSB with the Three Degrees, Philadelphia International 3540, 1974

“I’m Not In Love” by Dee Dee Sharp, TSOP 4778, 1976

A few notes:

When I was rifling through the Love Is The Song We Sing book on the phone with Rick the other evening, he was startled to hear me mention Sylvester Stewart as the producer of some of the earlier singles included from areas east of San Francisco Bay. “Man, I always thought he was from Detroit or maybe someplace in the east,” Rick said. “The music isn’t the sound I think of when I think of San Francisco music!” I mentioned to him a comment by Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul: “After two hundred takes failed to get an acceptable ‘White Rabbit’ from a pre-Jefferson Airplane group featuring Grace Slick, disk jockey/record producer Sly Stewart vowed to forget that acid-rock shit. So he renamed himself Sly Stone and formed his own band to play ‘the first fusion of psychedelia and rhythm and blues.’” Maybe the main thing that a boxset like Love Is The Song We Sing underlines is that there were many sounds in San Francisco during those years, and we tend to focus on too few of them.

The Immediate Family came from the East Bay city of Concord, but Love Is The Song We Sing notes that the group practiced at the home of organist Kriss Kovacs, whose mother was a singing coach, with her clientele including names like Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Johnny Mathis and other San Francisco luminaries. After gigging and sending out demos, the group was signed to record at Golden State Recorders in San Francisco. “Rubiyat” was one of the products of those sessions, taking verses from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and setting them in a “swirling, dreamy soundscape.”

Notes From The Underground was a Berkeley group. After recording an EP on the Changes label in 1968, the group was signed by blues scholar Sam Charters to a recording contract with Vanguard records. Notes From The Underground was asked to go to New York to record its first album; it did so, but the label – according to Love Is The Song We Sing – didn’t promote the album strongly enough, and the group fell apart. “Why Did You Put Me On,” says the book, is from that album but is “atypically edgy.”

The Ebonys, says All-Music Guide, were a mixed gender group that came out of New Jersey in 1968 and were discovered by producer Leon Huff. “You’re The Reason Why” made it to No. 10 on the R&B chart in 1971 (No. 51 on the pop chart). It should have done lots better than that, to my ears. After another hit – “It’s Forever” – in 1973, the Ebonys kept recording but with little success.

I know “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)” is one of those tracks that everyone knows. But it’s so damned good, I had to post it. Dave Marsh wrote about the song: “[W]hen the Three Degrees show up, midway through, to chant ‘People all over the world!’ they did nothing more than state plain fact. In 1974, this is what the world sounded like. In another six months or so, they’d convert the beat and strings into a rigid formula called disco. ‘TSOP’ is what the ingredients sounded like in the test tube.”

Dee Dee Sharp had six Top 40 hits in the 1960s, with the most successful of them being “Mashed Potato Time,” which went to No. 2 for two weeks in 1962. (It was No. 1 for four weeks on the R&B chart.) In 1967, four years after her last hit, she married Kenny Gamble, whose music – as the Love Train set underlines – was a key ingredient (if that’s not understating it) in what we call the Philadelphia sound. Nine years later, in 1976, Sharp recorded her first album for Philadelphia International: Her cover of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” was released as a single and went to No. 62 on the R&B chart. The 10cc version, with its air of emotional disguise and reserve, had gone to No. 2 in the summer of 1975. Sharp’s version should have done at least that well.

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One Response to “Enjoying A Mystery Gift”

  1. ‘Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears . . .’ « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] Wilson Pickett recording is one of those that I got in the Philadelphia box set I mentioned the other day. Pulled from the LP Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia, the single went to No. 2 on the R&B chart […]

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