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by Barry Walters

August 24, 2014

Great Philly Soul Ballads

by Barry Walters  |  August 24, 2014

Even more than Motown put its stamp on Detroit R&B, the output of Philadelphia International Records largely defined Philly soul. The phenomenally successful label run by producer/songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff was known for the lushness of its arrangements, the technical excellence of its recordings (typically made at Sigma Sound Studios), and the extraordinary, extravagant swing of its house band, MFSB. (The acronym stood for either “Mother, Father, Sister, Brother” or a moniker decidedly more NSFW.) Either way, with all those attributes, Philadelphia International helped give ‘70s R&B its virtually unsurpassed sophistication and steady groove.

Although Philly is rightly celebrated for the message songs of the O’Jays and the earliest swellings of disco, it’s also a source of many outstanding ballads. The archetypal Philly soul sound came into being with Barbara Mason’s “Yes, I’m Ready,” a locally recorded, self-penned 1965 smash featuring several future MFSB musicians. When producer Thom Bell scored a string of dreamlike hits with Philly harmony act the Delfonics — and once the duo of Gamble & Huff nabbed its earliest successes with Archie Bell & the Drells and Jerry Butler in the late ‘60s — Philly soul was well underway.

By the early ‘70s, when Bell brought his smooth style to The Stylistics and The Spinners while Gamble & Huff launched Philadelphia International, the City of Brotherly Love truly became a soul capital. And so here is a playlist that features many of Philly’s grandest, most eloquent and elegant slow jams, recorded by most of its defining stars as well as a few of its most respected visitors.

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