Why Philly's soul lacks Motown's mojo
“Love TKO,” “Love Train,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and, of course, the legendary Soul Train theme song, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” are among the many hits from Philadelphia’s dynamic music duo, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, known simply as Gamble and Huff.
During the 1970s, Philadelphia dominated black music. Through their label, Philadelphia International Records, distributed by CBS Records, songwriting/producing powerhouse Gamble and Huff put Philly on top of the black music mountain. Even though they surpassed Motown in the 1970s as black America’s premier hit-making factory, scoring big with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, The O’Jays, Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass, PIR isn’t nearly as revered as Motown on a mainstream level.
One of many reasons is simply timing. When Motown emerged in the 1960s, the nation was in the midst of one of its greatest civil rights battles. Although Berry Gordy shied away from political statements, especially in the music itself, Motown’s success still spoke volumes. As the hits poured in and Motown artists began to climb the pop charts, Motown became more than a music label; it became a cultural icon. In essence, its success became a barometer of African-American progress, a testament to integration and how it could indeed improve life for all Americans, even in its music.
By the time PIR came along, it was simply building on that story. It did not construct it. Motown actually helped pave the way for PIR’s success. Where Motown had to go head to head with the big white record companies, PIR was distributed by one. While PIR may have made music that some would label more black-identified than that of Motown, somehow it just didn’t possess the same mystique.
Motown’s story is as much a part of its brand as its music. It’s like a grand American saga. You have Berry Gordy playing David to the establishment’s Goliath. On top of that, there’s a soap opera effect with the tales of who slept with whom as well as who back stabbed which singer. We don’t identify PIR with such drama.
Also, PIR artists did well but they never quite attained the kind of mainstream success of Motown artists. To this day, PIR artists like The O’Jays, the late, great Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls are African-American treasures. By contrast, Motown artists like Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross are viewed as American treasures. There is a difference. Much of that difference speaks to how Berry Gordy approached the music business. Gordy was more than a music man; he was a businessman. Commercial success was very much on his agenda.
If it had been up to Gordy, as is well reported, “What’s Going On?” one of Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits, would never have been released. Only after it was leaked) and Gordy saw its commercial potential did he get on board. Gamble and Huff, it appears were intent on making “good” music, not necessarily “good, commercial” music. It’s no secret that marketing and promotion were key ingredients in the Motown formula.
And while Philadelphia is a musical city that’s extremely important to American history; it does not represent what Detroit does. Gordy grew Motown in a time when Detroit stood as a beacon of American progress. The automobile changed the nation and the world on so many levels. Like Ford Motor Company, Motown sold a lifestyle. It’s no coincidence that its artists appeared glamorous. Looking well was very much a part of the script. Gordy, like Detroit’s other well-known exports, packaged and sold the American dream.
Ultimately, it’s not a case of either/or. When it comes to great music, both PIR and Motown have great catalogues. Each of their sounds, like STAX and hip-hop even, speak to different periods of our collective history. The 1960s were a turbulent time but also a time when pop music offered an escape from harsh realities and Motown provided some of that soundtrack. The 1970s, on the other hand, were a little more brooding. As the era progressed and grew more sexually charged, PIR by way of Teddy Pendergrass mostly, had plenty of songs reflecting the mood of the times.
Thanks largely to Gamble and Huff, Philadelphia’s musical legacy continues on, with Jill Scott, The Roots and Musiq Soulchild serving as its modern day ambassadors. Like black America itself, the music remains rich and multifaceted. Mainstream America may be fixated mostly on Motown and STAX, but for most of us The Sound of Philadelphia is on the soundtrack of our great American music story.