What is Philly Soul?

All about Philly Soul, the '70s sound of Philadelphia

The O'Jays' "Love Train," perhaps the ultimate Philly Soul song

Like Motown and Stax-Volt, the style known as "Philly Soul" was born largely of one label, in this case the city's own Philadelphia International Records, headed by the songwriting and production team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. The duo first struck gold in the late Sixties on Atlantic, creating such classics as The Soul Survivors' "Expressway To Your Heart," The Intruders' "Cowboys To Girls," and Jerry Butler's "Only The Strong Survive." Their signature sound -- sweet pop-soul with a funky but simple backbeat, laden with strings and horns and the occasional sitar-like guitar -- struck a chord with R&B fans who wanted something less abrasive than pure funk, and their successes led them to found their own label in 1971.

The label picked up its first hit that year with a creation of Philadelphia International's other great production/songwriting team, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead: The O'Jays' breakthrough hit, "Back Stabbers." But the next single by the group, "Love Train," bore the Gamble and Huff stamp and defined the new genre perfectly. Thom Bell, another producer at the label, helped create the ballad sound of Philly Soul with the Delfonics' late-Sixties hits, and would later move to other labels and oversee big hits in the style with the Stylistics and the Spinners.

The rest of the decade's R&B was ruled in part by Philly Soul, as even artists not associated with the genre capitalized on the sound's popularity with smashes like Hall and Oates' "Sara Smile," Lou Rawls' "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine," and Elton John's ode to the sound, "Philadelphia Freedom." Ironically, Philly Soul's lush romanticism and simple funk gave birth to the rise of disco later in the decade, a genre which would eventually supplant it, though the genre's stars merely adapted slightly to stay popular.

Also Known As: Philadelphia Soul, '70s R&B, Philadelphia International, Disco


"The Love I Lost," Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes

The simplified beat on this uptempo song, originally a ballad, helped usher in the idea of disco -- and Teddy Pendergrass' endless vocal improv at the end went a long way towards helping to establish the idea of the 12-inch extended single.

"Love Train," The O'Jays

Perhaps the ultimate in Philly Soul, a relentlessly upbeat anthem of racial harmony released at a time when American race relations were arguably at their nadir.

"T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)," MFSB

The greatest of the Philly Soul instrumentals, a sort of template for the sound performed by the Philadelphia International house band (and, oddly, their resident trio of backup vocalists, the Three Degrees).

"When Will I See You Again," The Three Degrees

The Degrees got their own huge pop hit with this yearning ballad, a Gamble-Huff wonder tricked out with sighs and coos so fetching it got them a spot playing for England's Prince Charles!

"Could It Be I'm Falling In Love," The Spinners

Written by two of Atlantic's stable of songwriters, set up by lead vocalist Bobby Smith, driven home by the improv of other lead vocalist Philippe Wynne, and topped off with French horns that only Philly Soul could make sound majestic.

"Break Up To Make Up," The Stylistics

Perhaps the genre's greatest ballad, this time given extra emotional weight by the weird sitar-like sounds that were a Philly Soul trademark and the secret weapon of Russell Thompkins' freakishly gorgeous falsetto.

"Hey There Lonely Girl," Eddie Holman

Holman was the genre's other great falsetto, and this repurposed Ruby and the Romantics flop was his ticket to stardom... but it was his only hit.

"Sideshow," Blue Magic

Not as well-known as some of the other Philly Soul classics, "Sideshow" nevertheless did a great job with the old ironic, self-deprecating "crying clown" routine.

"I'll Always Love My Mama," The Intruders

The group that put Gamble and Huff on the map in the first place grew with the genre, which is why "Cowboys to Girls" sounded like sweet soul and this followup sounds like it could pack '70s dance floors.

"Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)," The Delfonics

Philly Soul's other great balladeers came with yet another classic falsetto in William Hart, who reached a whole new audience a few years back with an Adrian Younge-produced comeback.