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MusicThe 50 Greatest Philadelphia International Songs: Staff Picks

The 50 Greatest Philadelphia International Songs: Staff Picks

 
 
Philadelphia International Songs Top 50
 
 
 

The 50 Greatest Philadelphia International Songs: Staff Picks

Fifty years ago, a new label started by two esteemed hitmakers turned the corner on the crossover soul-pop of Motown and gritty Southern R&B of Stax/Volt, which had defined the sound of Black America in the ’60s. The new label offered a new style for a new decade, from a new geographical hub of elite writers, producers, singers, arrangers and session players. The Sound of Philadelphia was promised, and for the next 10 years and beyond, the Sound of Philadelphia was delivered.

Philadelphia International Records, founded by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, was formed in 1971 from the ashes of Neptune Records, with a number of up-and-coming R&B artists based out of the City of Brotherly Love. Gamble and Huff had found success in the late ’60s helming hits for local acts like the Soul Survivors (“Expressway to Your Heart”) and The Intruders (“Cowboys to Girls”), as well as for national stars like Jerry Butler (“Only the Strong Survive”) and Wilson Pickett (“Engine No. 9”), proving themselves — along with go-to like arrangers Thom Bell, Bobby Martin and Norman Harris — as the preeminent sonic architects of Philly soul.

It was through their work with Philadelphia International, though, that Gamble and Huff really turned Philadelphia into the Motown of the ’70s, with a trademark of sweet melodies, lush arrangements, dense productions, emotional lyrics and powerhouse vocal performances — as well as increasingly propulsive rhythms, which presaged and helped clear the way for disco’s incoming onslaught as the decade progressed. But while the writer/producer duo scored many of their signature hits with seductive love songs and devastating torch ballads, they were equally capable of summoning the righteous fury that the period often called for on their records, as well as finding a balance with mini-epics that blended personal drama and social conscience — resulting in some of the most timely and resonant anthems of their era. (Gamble and Huff recently discussed their memories of the challenges and triumphs of the period with our Gail Mitchell — read that interview here.)

In honor of the iconic label’s 50th anniversary — being celebrated all through 2021, including with a new Kenny Gamble-hosted and -curated Sonos Radio station starting today (Feb. 24) appropriately called “The Sound of Philadelphia” — Billboard has decided to pay tribute with a list of our staff’s 50 favorites from the label’s original 20-plus-year run. That ranges from the early-’70s releases from signature Philadelphia International acts like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and the O’Jays, to PIR-revived acts like Dee Dee Sharp and Lou Rawls in the decade’s second half, to later R&B hitmakers like Patti LaBelle and Phyllis Hyman in the mid-’80s — and all the lesser-known acts in between. (Releases on Philadelphia International subsidiary labels such as TSOP Records and ’70s-era Gamble Records are also included.)

Check out our list below — with a Spotify playlist of all 50 songs at the bottom of our rankings — and rediscover (or find out for the first time) why people all over the world were grooving to the sound of Philadelphia International.

50. McFadden and Whitehead, “Love Song Number 690 (Life’s No Good Without You)” (I Heard It in a Love Song, 1980)

Gene McFadden and John Whitehead were one of the songwriting duos prolific and accomplished enough to deserve their own room at Philadelphia International, penning classics for the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, among others. They only had one top 40 hit as lead artists, but their two studio albums for the PIR family were filled with gems, including this slow-building closer to 1980’s I Heard It in a Love Song. The pleading ballad transcends its generic title with a mighty extended outro, in which the intensity of the duo’s own increasingly desperate and frayed ad libs is given a shot in the arm by an out-of-nowhere disco acceleration. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER

49. Jean Carn, “My Love Don’t Come Easy” (When I Find You Love, 1979) 

One of the underrated stars of the PIR galaxy, Jean Carn — a jazz singer who proved more than adept at pop, soul and disco — never quite achieved the crossover success she deserved, but delivered a handful of the most irresistible Gamble and Huff productions of the back half of the ’70s. “My Love Don’t Come Easy” glides in on a gently clipped disco shuffle, with Carn’s alluringly slow-and-low insistences that “My love don’t come easy/ Not tonight” making it clear that she’s worth the effort. — A.U.

48. Lou Rawls, “The Wind Beneath My Wings” (When the Night Comes, 1983)

Rawls was among the first artists to record this sentimental ballad. His version hit the Hot 100 and Black Singles (as the chart was then called) in March 1983, four months before Gary Morris’ version made Hot Country Singles and six years before Bette Midler’s recording from Beaches became a smash. Rawls’ version, compete with a spoken-word intro, feels something of a curiosity in retrospect, but it reminds us what an expressive and conversational ballad singer he was. — PAUL GREIN

47. The O’Jays, “I Love Music” (Family Reunion, 1975)

Gamble & Huff wrote and produced this love letter to music. The message is simplistic — in the fall of 1975, as disco was heating up, lyrics took a back seat to a killer groove — but the track is percussive and muscular, and the O’Jays’ performance is sublime. The lead single from the group’s fourth PIR studio album, Family Reunion, the affection central to “I Love Music” clearly inspired similar emotion in listeners nationwide, as the song became the group’s first top five hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in nearly three years. — P.G.

46. The Intruders, “I Wanna Know Your Name” (Save the Children, 1973)

Other groups are more closely associated with Gamble & Huff, but it was the Intruders‘ hit-making history with the songwriting duo that convinced Columbia to lend Gamble & Huff the dough to start Philadelphia International Records in the first place. “I Wanna Know Your Name,” a simmering reach for romance from 1973 that became a top 10 R&B hit, demonstrates these Philly boys’ gentle but firm grasp on lush longings. — JOE LYNCH

45. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “Bad Luck” (To Be True, 1975)

One of Philly International’s most miraculous transmutations of the personal into the political. Over a furious rhythm workout, Teddy Pendergrass details a jinxed life: pockets empty, woman gone, trapped in a time that will make him lose his mind. Then the melody drops out, the rhythm takes over again, and Teddy delivers something between a stump speech and sermon to the “people of the world.” Prices are going up. Everyone is cutting back. And in this morning’s paper came the news: poor folks have been abandoned by the President of the United States. (Richard Nixon had resigned six months before the release of “Bad Luck.”) As the track begins to fade, Pendergrass sings the praises of the only man who can take his place, the ultimate good luck charm: Jesus. — JOE LEVY

Don Hunstein/Sony Music Archives
Billy Paul photographed in September of 1972.

44. Billy Paul, “Let’s Make a Baby” (When Love Is New, 1975)

The slow jam that Jesse Jackson apparently found filthy enough in the mid-’70s to make the center of his rallying cry for cleaner FM airwaves, “Let’s Make a Baby” is really pretty chaste for a song of its title. Actually, it’s one of the few songs about baby-making that where the phrase isn’t just used euphemistically — Billy Paul sounds genuinely pumped about being able to “bring another life into this world/ A little boy, a little girl.” He cares about the other part too, of course, but “Baby” is only sexier for the intimacy of its urges to procreate — and given the persuasiveness of its bass-led saunter, it probably has soundtracked its fair share of new lives being brought into this world over the years. — A.U.

43. Spiritual Concept, “Get It On” (Spiritual Concept, 1972)

A hard-edged funk band from a label not exactly known for that, Spiritual Concept sounded like Philly’s response to Funkadelic, spitting out nasty, smoking sides of post-Hendrix rock such as the unjustly neglected “Get It On,” epic finale to their self-titled debut album. They might not have been PIR’s bread and butter, but sometimes you want that mesquite bite — and Spiritual Concept delivered. — J. Lynch

42. The Jacksons, “Enjoy Yourself” (The Jacksons, 1976)

This was The Jacksons’ first single after leaving Motown for Epic/PIR (and changing their name from The Jackson 5). Penned by Gamble and Huff, the frisky tune was built around a funky guitar lick and the oft-repeated titular invitation — one that listeners happily accepted, as “Enjoy Yourself” became the group’s first top 10 hit on the Hot 100 in nearly three years, proving that the former First Family of Motown were still in the game. Of course, there awaited even bigger wins in the future, both for the group and its then-18-year-old lead singer. — P.G.

41. Dee Dee Sharp, “Real Hard Day” (Happy ‘Bout the Whole Thing, 1975)

Best known as the voice framing such ’60s dance hits as “Mashed Potato Time” and “Ride!,” Dee Dee Sharp unleashed the full power and versatility of her soulful voice on 1975’s Happy ‘Bout the Whole Thing. This jazz-infused track finds Sharp — Mrs. Gamble at the time — eloquently detailing a rough day of taking care of home and kids. “I’m not complaining,” she underscores. “I do it for the love of you.” Those “good little wife” lyrics might cause some understandable wincing today, but there’s no denying the quiet urgency and passion fueling Sharp’s vocals, in expressing a sentiment that continues to resonate for many women 40+ years later. — GAIL MITCHELL

40. Patti LaBelle, “The Spirit’s In It” (The Spirit’s In It, 1981)

Accurately named. “The Spirit’s in It” was the title cut from Patti LaBelle’s first album for PIR after a somewhat adrift final few years at Epic, and from the moment her opening wailing gives way to the bubbling bass, muted trumpets and racing drums of the song’s silky groove, it’s clear she’s not messing around in her new digs. Marrying disco propulsion with gospel fervor, and not letting up in either respect over the course of its six minutes, “Spirit” was just a modest commercial success, but set the stage for what would end up being the soul legend’s most commercially dominant decade. — A.U.

39. Teddy Pendergrass, “I Don’t Love You Anymore” (Teddy Pendergrass, 1977)

Ending a relationship is never fun, but you can’t help but get up and dance away the pain after listening to this unexpectedly upbeat song. With staccato phrasing, Pendergrass delivers one of the best breakup verses ever: “I don’t love you anymore/ It’s just that simple/ No, no, no not like before/ Such a shame, dirty shame” against a snappy, vibrant backing track. It’s also no doubt a sly nod to Pendergrass’ own acrimonious split from Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes — “I Don’t” was the lead single from Pendergrass’ 1977 self-titled solo debut album. — G.M.

38. MFSB, “K-Jee” (Universal Love, 1975)

The second-most-notable pop culture placement of a song by PIR house band MFSB came two years after the initial release of “K-Jee,” when the electric piano-led instrumental was used in Saturday Night Fever, to soundtrack the Puerto Rican couple’s dance routine that Tony and Stephanie unfairly beat out for the big trophy at 2001 Odyssey. But “K-Jee” never needed validation from John Travolta to be a confirmed scorcher: Anyone would look on fire dancing to this slippery symphonic funker, an action movie in itself with every explosive horns-and-strings refrain. — A.U.

Courtesy of Sony Music Archives
Dexter Wansel photographed in September of 1972.

37. Dexter Wansel, “The Sweetest Pain” (Time Is Slipping Away, 1979)

Resident PIR studio maestro Dexter Wansel — whose talent level Gamble has compared to Quincy Jones — probably could’ve had a floor-filling disco smash with “The Sweetest Pain,” if he tightened the bass up just a little, had the bells clang a bit harder, coaxed a tad more urgency out of singer Terri Wells. But what he achieved, while not as much of a potential crossover, instead was a downtempo jam of peak melancholy bliss: tranquil strings, massaging drums, bells rapping like rain on the windowsill, and a vocal of such weary rapture that you can still feel both the pleasure and the pain over 40 years later — though one a lot more than the other. — A.U.

36. The O’Jays, “Stairway to Heaven” (Family Reunion, 1975)

The O’Jays had always considered slow love songs to be their strong point, and this seduction ballad — the B-side to the “Trouble Man” knockoff “Living for the Weekend” — became a staple of the then-emerging quiet storm radio format, which could play all of its six throbbing minutes. Eddie Levert’s plaintive vocals begin with diamond-inflected grit and slide up into delicate falsetto as the strings, scattered like rose petals, walk step-by-step to an ecstatic bridge. Then comes the call and response, with the backing vocals asking “Don’t you want to go?” and Levert making his plea to join him in paradise here on earth. Hard to argue with. — J. Levy

35. Jones Girls, “Nights Over Egypt” (Get as Much Love as You Can, 1981)

An enduring club staple, with a post-disco groove just killer (and off-kilter) enough to sell the silly African voyage of the lyrics (“Take a caravan/ across the Sudan/ Saharan facade/ Is just a mirage”) — you’ll sing along with just about anything waiting for that super-cold bass-popping hook to come back around. Penned by Dexter Wansel, “Nights Over Egypt” missed the Hot 100 upon its original 1981 release, but stands as by far the group’s most-streamed song on Spotify today — and one of the most inscrutably charming (if dated) escapist fantasies of its era. — A.U.

34. The Ebonys, “It’s Forever” (The Ebonys, 1971)

A molasses-slow devotional, you’d be forgiven for suspecting that seven-plus minutes of “It’s Forever” might feel as interminable as the eternity it promises. But thanks to the group’s rewarding baritone-and-falsetto interplay, and the pillowy arrangement from Bobby Martin, the song holds your interest just long enough to get you to that closing two-minute climax of “justgottamakeyaallmine” vocal insistence — which R&B fans of a later generation will likely recognize as the sonic foundation of Trey Songz’s debut single. — A.U.

33. Billy Paul, “East” (Going East, 1971)

When it was the 1971st Arabian night, Shahrazad continued: “I have heard, o fortunate king, that when the genre-flaunting Billy Paul arrived at PIR at the dawn of the ’70s, his sound was a far cry from the smooth-as-ointment ‘Me And Mrs. Jones’ which would soon earn this Son of Philadelphia fame across the lands. Instead, the melodious troubadour melded the spices of the Middle East, the soul and sweet strings of Brotherly Love and the jazz of his dew-dipped youth for delectable entrees such as “East,” a wind-whipped, six-and-a-half-minute carpet ride that proved pleasing to the ears of his label viziers, but did not yet earn him Gold.” — J. Lynch

32. Phyllis Hyman, “Meet Me on the Moon” (Prime of My Life, 1991)

It’s all about one note, mostly: Five minutes into this pinnacle cut from R&B great Phyllis Hyman’s second album on Philadelphia International, she stretches the word “Meet” out for around seven impossibly smooth seconds, a spellbinding display of vocal control as the contralto pleads for her love to meet her in outer space. The song isn’t explicitly sad, but the note that Hyman strikes feels unmistakably melancholy — like she’s begging to escape to the stars not merely as a flight of fancy, but because the situation on this planet has become untenable. — A.U.

31. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (Wake Up Everybody, 1975)

While Thelma Houston’s disco cover rendition topped the Hot 100 and later became an anthem of mourning during the HIV/AIDS crisis, the song’s first version – from Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, with the incomparable Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocal – is a 10/10 classic in its own right. From the insistent disco-snap drums to bouncing energy of the organ, the Blue Notes’ original bubbles with an optimistic fervor that makes you think there’s no way in hell anyone is ditching Teddy following this six-minute soul blast. — J. Lynch

30. People’s Choice, “Do It Any Way You Wanna” (Boogie Down U.S.A., 1975)

Recording for PIR subsidiary TSOP Records, funk outfit People’s Choice came one spot shy of the Hot 100’s Top 10 with “Do It Any Way You Wanna,” a slinky strutter without particularly much to say outside of its title phrase. That was plenty, however, as the song’s trademark bass line does most of the talking anyway — with the organs occasionally chiming in as well. Not quite as profound as “Everyday People” or even “It’s Your Thing,” but even a period as generally permissive as the disco era still needed to occasionally remind audiences that they couldn’t be told who to sock it to. — A.U.

29. The Stylistics, “Hurry Up This Way Again” (Hurry Up This Way Again, 1980)

The Stylistics spent the great majority of the ’70s as Philly Soul royalty on Avco Records, with hits (“Betcha By Golly Wow,” “You Are Everything”) produced and co-written (along with Linda Creed) by longtime Gamble and Huff creative partner Thom Bell. But after a mid-decade split with Bell, the hits dried up, and the Stylistics bounced around labels — eventually finding themselves reunited with Bell at PIR at the start of the ’80s. Their fantastic comeback single “Hurry Up This Way Again” didn’t get them back onto the Hot 100, but with its glittering, ’80s-updated groove, it returned them to the R&B Songs top 20 — and its chirping synths and lurching beat also eventually found their way to Jay-Z’s classic debut album Reasonable Doubt. — A.U.

28. Shirley Jones, “Do You Get Enough Love” (Always in the Mood, 1986)

Shirley Jones, solo of the Jones Girls, managed something that her original group never had in 1986, when “Do You Get Enough Love” topped Billboard‘s R&B Songs chart. The teasing come on would risk coming off as downright taunting if not for the singer’s playful delivery, the jarringly frenetic piano fills that materialize every few measures, and the surprising spoken-word breakdown, sold spectacularly by Jones: “Yeah, I like messing around. But only with you.” — A.U.

Don Hunstein/Sony Music Archives
The O’Jays photographed in July of 1973.

27. The O’Jays, “Love Train” (Back Stabbers, 1972)

As a call for unity among “people all over the world,” — with a shout-out to England, Russia, China, Egypt, Israel and “all of you brothers over in Africa,”–  the O’Jays’ “Love Train” is an undeniably joyous song. A needed one, too, as it was released in an era that was anything but: “Train” arrived as a single during Christmas week of 1972, amid news of escalated bombing by the U.S. of North Vietnam. In the song’s first seconds, a buoyant guitar spells out the melody, and the O’Jays engage in string-sweetened call-and-response, before the voices of Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell rise in unison to “let this train keep on riding, riding on through!” By March 1973, “Love Train” rolled right on through to No. 1 on the Hot 100. Proof of the song’s timelessness? Justin Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, James Corden and Ron Funches cut a double-speed version for the 2017 Christmas TV special Trolls Holiday. — THOM DUFFY

26. Dexter Wansel, “Theme From the Planets” (Life on Mars, 1976)

If those Pringles-crisp opening drums sound familiar to you, that’s probably just because you’ve heard them… just about everywhere over the past four-and-a-half decades. “Theme From the Planets” is one of those songs where it’s probably simpler just to list who didn’t sample it, because those always-fresh, never-stale drums will always sound good in any context — and because the rest of the tranquilly funky instrumental is full of similarly age-proof sonic flourishes, with dubby bass, whining synths, and sax that would still sound smooth on the volcanic Io moon of Jupiter. — A.U.

25. The Jacksons, “Show You the Way to Go” (The Jacksons, 1976)

“Enjoy Yourself” was the bigger hit off The Jacksons, but follow-up single “Show You the Way to Go” was just a little more magnificent, a winning pairing of a compellingly restrained MJ vocal — with the lead singer also multi-tracked to provide his own harmonies —  and a typically elevated Gamble/Huffing backing track. “Let me show you the way to go/ Follow me, follow me,” Jackson insists over gently supportive strings and nodding guitar, and chances are you’re right there with him. — A.U.

24. Lou Rawls, “Early Morning Love” (Unmistakably Lou, 1977)

Gamble & Huff’s innate ability to capture a moment in time and make it something to cherish stands at the heart of this ballad from Lou Rawls’ second PIR album, 1977’s Unmistakably Lou. Against a spare track accented by guitar and strings — plus a hallelujah chorus of horns near the end — the pair eloquently explore the magic of making love and reaching “total ecstasy … when life’s between day and night.” Just as awesome is the tenderness emanating from the gravel-voiced Rawls as he notes, “Early morning love… what a way to start the day off right.” Enough said.  — G.M.

23. Patti LaBelle, “Love, Need and Want You” (I’m in Love Again, 1983)

Oft-sampled, never equaled (although the Nelly/Kelly Rowland interpolation “Dilemma” came damn close), Patti LaBelle’s “LoveNeed and Want You” finds the diva and the label adapting to the ’80s adult contemporary sound without sacrificing any of the organic authenticity of the Philly soul sound. A co-write between Gamble and Bunny Sigler, it boasts more hooky moments than most five-minute ballads, but it’s the casually come-hither vocals from LaBelle that push this from I’m-alright-and-you’re-alright and into paradise. — J. Lynch

Don Hunstein/Sony Music Archives
MFSB photographed in November of 1973.

22. MFSB feat. The Three Degrees, “Love Is the Message” (Love Is the Message, 1973)

There’s lyrics here, technically, provided by esteemed Philadelphia International girl group The Three Degrees. But that’s not the part of the song anyone really remembers. Rather, “Love Is the Message” is legendary for its extended closing section — which could go for as long as six minutes on some of the 12-inch remixes — in which the bass and drums lift off, and some truly blissed-out soloing by Leon Huff on electric piano and Zack Zachery on alto sax raise the song higher into the heavens with each minute. “Message” was a minor chart hit but an eventual New York disco classic, remixed and sampled to death, always extending the final groove longer and longer, a message no one ever got tired of receiving. — A.U.

21. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (I Miss You, 1972)

Harold Melvin took top billing with the Blue Notes but, as bandleader, he moved drummer Teddy Pendergrass to lead vocals for the group’s biggest hits, including this sweet and scorching 1972 torch song — the group’s first top 10 hit on the Hot 100. “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is a soulful showdown for a couple who have been together for “ten long years,” laments Pendergrass, whose anguished calls for faithfulness rise above one of arranger Bobby Martin’s most lush and epic orchestral settings. Gamble and Huff shared the Grammy Award for best rhythm & blues song for “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” — but not until 1989, when Simply Red’s cover version eclipsed the success of the original, topping the Billboard Hot 100. It was one of many successful covers of the song — including a nearly definitive live ’80s version from PIR’s own Patti LaBelle, whose Labelle group the song was originally written for — but nothing quite compares to the Blue Notes unforgettable original. — T.D.

20. Billy Paul, “Am I Black Enough For You?” (360 Degrees of Billy Paul, 1973)

Hooked to a clavinet vamp and laced with cosmic guitar distortion, Paul’s follow-up to “Me & Mrs. Jones” left behind the crossover audience that had embraced him and spoke directly to the black community with a self-empowerment rallying cry: suffer no more, use your mind, not your fists, and don’t stop until freedom comes. Full of funk and pain, its promise to stay Black in the face of adversity was a bold rejection of pop success for the politics of revolution — sadly reflected in its limited chart success, as the song stalled at No. 79 on the Hot 100 — and both Philly International and Paul himself would spend years trying to balance those impulses. — J. Levy

19. Jones Girls, “Who Can I Run To?” (The Jones Girls, 1979)

“You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else” was the uptempo A-side, the group’s lone Hot 100 top 40 hit, and a gem in its own right. But the B-side, the sighing ballad “Who Can I Run To?” nearly overshadowed it with its hypnotically slow sway, guided by gentle keyboards and flecks of sweet guitar. It’s such a perfect unobtrusive Sunday morning-style groove that you almost don’t want any vocals to interrupt — but once they do, courtesy of lead vocalist Shirley Jones and backing singers Brenda and Valorie, their aimless anguish proves similarly spellbinding. The song’s chart potential was validated decades later, when a faithful rendition from Atlanta R&B quartet Xscape took it to the top 10. — A.U.

18. Teddy Pendergrass, “Love T.K.O.” (TP, 1980)

This bedroom ballad, the second single from Teddy Pendergrass’ fourth album TP, enhanced his reputation as R&B’s top romantic balladeer of the era. Pendergrass locks into a sensuous groove of creeping bass and wavy keys and rides it for five full minutes, singing about being undone for a second time by love’s right hook. Cecil Womack, younger brother of soul great Bobby Womack, co-wrote and co-produced the song. Mercury Records R&B singer David Oliver had a minor hit with the song in July 1980, a few months before Pendergrass’ version took off, but it’s Teddy’s version that still scores the official knockout every time. — P.G.

17. Dee Dee Sharp, “O-o-h Child” (Happy ‘Bout the Whole Thing, 1975)

Sharp’s 1975 album Happy ‘Bout the Whole Thing was a vocal showcase for the former teen idol, who was just 17 when “Mashed Potato Time” went to No. 2 on the Hot 100 in 1962. A cover of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” stole back a recent pop hit that itself had swiped the lush heartbreak of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, but it was on a remake of the Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” that Sharp cut loose like an Olympic gymnast, suddenly free to strut her stuff on the dancefloor. It recast the pop-soul of the original as a slow-moving Sunday sermon, beginning simply with piano and voice, and building steadily to a one-minute coda that breaks open into pure gospel — with Sharp getting happy, doubling up her rhythm, scraping the rafters, and preaching about freedom. — J. Levy

16. Edwin Birdsong, “Cola Bottle Baby” / “Phizz-Phiss” (Edwin Birdsong, 1979)

The squealing synths, clanging cymbals and unusual stop-start rhythms of “Cola Bottle Baby” might’ve been too much for radio in the late ’70s, but this future-funk space odyssey from experimental-leaning keyboard player Edwin Birdsong got a second wind over 20 years later, when electronic greats Daft Punk deployed it as the bedrock for their “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” Even now, four decades after its release, little else tastes like the strange intergalactic sparkle of this warped disco-funk treat — which keeps percolating straight into the similarly cosmic snap of “Phizz-Phiss” on Birdsong’s self-titled PIR debut. — J. Lynch

15. Jean Carn, “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head” (Happy to Be With You, 1975)

Maybe the closest Gamble and Huff ever got to a Bacharach and David ballad, with a clever lyric of disarming fragility, supported by a delicately understated soul backing track that always threatens to explode into full disco but never quite does. Jean Carn plays the duo’s Dionne Warwick, gently pleading with her new love not to take advantage of the power he now realizes he has over her (“Now that you know I can’t live without you/ Don’t let it go to your head, no”) — and sounding more than a little bit anxious over having shown her cards and left herself in such a vulnerable position. It’s a flawless record full of perfect little moments, many of which have been thankfully recycled over the years, by artists ranging from New York rap group Brand Nubian to Swedish electro-pop fembot Robyn. — A.U.

14. The Intruders, “I’ll Always Love My Mama” (Save the Children, 1973)

Every Mother’s Day in Philadelphia, you can bet on hearing The Intruders blaring from somewhere on your radio dial, as they delivered one of the great maternal odes in pop or R&B history for PIR in 1973. “I’ll Always Love My Mama” is sweet to the point of near-saccharine at moments, but the song’s gushing lyrics — inspired by co-writer Gamble’s own mother Ruby — are sold through the sincerity of lead vocalist Sam Brown’s belting, and expanded upon by both the group’s hilarious nostalgic breakdown section (“I think Pops was drinkin’ more wine than we used to!”) and the blistering guitar-and-horns call-and-response hook that punctuates the groove. Mama can still get down too, y’know. — A.U.

13. Phyllis Hyman, “Living All Alone” (Living All Alone, 1986)

Kenny Gamble teamed with Cynthia Biggs and Dexter Wansel, members of PIR’s estimable stable of writer/producers, to pen this 1986 break-up ballad, a No. 12 R&B hit for Phyllis Hyman. Its insightful lyrics are complemented by Wansel’s intricate production, as each instrument — a whistle and triangle here, rock guitar and horns there — is precisely placed to draw the most dramatic effect. Completing the home run is Hyman herself, who possessed one of the most evocative voices in music. Her searing vocals on the chorus (“Whoa oh, I can’t stand this living all alone”) haunt long after the last note sounds. You not only hear her pain, you shudder as you feel it. Sadly, Hyman died at 45 by suicide in 1995, after a long battle with bipolar disorder. — G.M.

Courtesy of Sony Music Archive
From left, Lawrence Brown, Lloyd Parks, Leon Huff, Bernard Wilson, Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin, and Kenny Gamble photographed in December of 1972.

12. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “Wake Up Everybody” (Wake Up Everybody, 1975)

“Wake Up Everybody” was the title track of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ fourth PIR album, their last to feature Teddy Pendergrass before he left for a solo career. “Wake Up Everybody” takes profound truths and conveys them in a simple, easily understood framework (“The world won’t get no better if we just let it be… we gotta change it, yeah, just you and me”) while Pendergrass sings with compassion and empathy, so it doesn’t come across as preachy. Gene McFadden and John Whitehead co-wrote the oft-covered anthem, before scoring a signature smash of their own with another socially conscious song, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” — P.G.

11. The O’Jays, “For the Love of Money” (Ship Ahoy, 1973)

A No. 9 hit on the Hot 100, the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” isn’t just one of their biggest hits – it demonstrates the band’s musical scope and ambition, particularly if you listen to the seven-minute version on their Ship Ahoy album. While the vamping horns and that instantly recognizable “money-money-money” falsetto bring to mind the get-rich-quick excitement that had America in its grip in the ’70s, the song’s iconic bass line — a creeping, echo-soaked menace — lends a sense of uneasiness to the entire affair, as if the floor is fated to give out on this funky house of cards at any moment. — J. Lynch

10. Teddy Pendergrass, “Close the Door” (Life Is a Song Worth Singing, 1978)

Few invitation-to-love jams have said as much in a full song as Teddy Pendergrass’ first Hot 100 top 40 hit says in three words. “Close the Door” — delivered as less than a demand, but certainly as more than a mere suggestion — is one of the great not-messing-around moments in R&B history, as the former Blue Note confirmed his solo star power beyond question over a plush bed of flute, strings and bass, and a beat that keeps that song’s pulse just a little faster than expected, making sure it has and keeps your attention. “Girl, it’s me and you now,” Pendergrass promises, and millions of women across the globe were intent on holding him to that, making him one of R&B’s preeminent acts at the turn of the ’80s. — A.U.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Patti Labelle performs at Live Aid at Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 13, 1985.

9. Patti LaBelle, “If Only You Knew” (I’m in Love Again, 1983)

While group Labelle’s 1975 hit “Lady Marmalade” starred a bold, confident prostitute, solo Patti’s 1983 chart comeback “If Only You Knew” finds a shy woman struggling with how to approach a would-be love interest. Biggs, Wansel and Gamble wrote and produced the track, which provides the perfect showcase for LaBelle’s remarkable vocal capabilities. She uses her soft mid-range to flesh out the emotion evoked by such verses as “No you don’t even suspect/ Could probably care less/ About the changes I’ve been going through.” But to underscore the woman’s growing anguish, Ms. Patti goes full-throttle soprano on the closing choruses, as she soars into a chills-inducing upper register. “If Only You Knew” became both LaBelle’s first solo Hot 100 hit, peaking at No. 43, and her first solo R&B No. 1, notching a four-week run. — G.M.

8. The Philadelphia International All-Stars, “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” (Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto, 1973)

Over a full decade before Band Aid, USA For Africa and countless other supergroup one-offs turned all-star charity singles into a near cliché of the mid-’80s, Philadelphia International assembled their best and brightest for a cause near and dear to Gamble and Huff: community development in the inner city. With vocal contributions from Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul, Dee Dee Sharp and just about every other star on the PIR roster, “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” (the title track of a label compilation of the same name, with proceeds going to charity) encouraged fans to think globally and act locally. But what separates “Ghetto” from some of the overcooked charity singles of future years is just how focused it is — both in the vocal contributions from its myriad hitmakers (the O’Jays’ “All of you brothers that live on the Main Line/ You lived in the ghetto once upon a time” being a particular highlight), and the relentless force of its one-bar-looped groove. At nearly nine minutes, it should feel exhausting, but it more feels invigorating and inspiring, making you want to get some paint, fetch your hammer and join in the effort. — A.U.

7. Lou Rawls, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” (All Things in Time, 1976)

A sharp burst of strings, a funky bass riff and understated percussion set up the unforgettably smooth, low baritone of Lou Rawls, assisted by sonorous piano chords, on this 1976 R&B, pop and dance smash. With a bold declaration (“Whoa, I’m not braggin’ on myself, baby”) Rawls ignites “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” with disco energy. As the track alternatively simmers and boils, Rawls makes it clear to a departing lover just how much she’s “gonna miss” his lovin’ — particularly “late in the midnight hour/ When it’s cold outside.” Already decades into a long, rich career in gospel, R&B and jazz, “Never Find” nonetheless became Rawls’ biggest hit, peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100 and earning the legendary singer a 1977 Grammy Award nomination for best male pop vocal performance. — T.D.

6. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “The Love I Lost” (Black & Blue, 1973)

The shift from traditional R&B to disco over the course of the ’70s was a subtle one, of many hits gradually turning up the tempo and the energy until the pulsing 4/4 beat was the ubiquitous rhythm of late-decade pop. But if Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost” wasn’t exactly the big bang for the disco decade, it was certainly one of the most crucial singles in its development: a racing, double-time thumper built on velvet keys, majestic strings and a Teddy Pendergrass performance for the ages, wailing about being “in misery” over an untimely breakup. Incredible as the song’s first part is — enough to score the group their second Hot 100 top 10 hit — it’s the second half where it really reaches escape velocity, Pendergrass whipping himself into a near-frightening frenzy of agony and regret (“Would you forgive me, baby/ IF I GOT DOWN ON MY HANDS AND KNEES?”) while the Blue Notes repeatedly accentuate his ravings with “I lost it/ Sorry I lost it,” and the beat keeps going, going, going. You expect the mighty chorus to return at some point, but it never does — and it never has to. — A.U.

5. MFSB feat. The Three Degrees, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” (Love Is the Message, 1974)

In 1974, a rotating collective of studio musicians known as MSFB (Mother-Father-Sister-Brother) and vocal trio The Three Degrees joined forces to record a mostly instrumental theme for a new show called Soul Train… and they ended up charting a new course in pop music history. With ecstatic vocal exhortations, lush, inviting strings, punchy horns, a tireless dance beat and hip-swinging verve, “TSOP” is the soundtrack to how cool you want you look every time you walk into a room. The first TV show theme and the first disco song to top the Hot 100, “TSOP” was more than just the sound of Philadelphia (though in the mid-’70s, it certainly was that): It was a harbinger of the joyous, liberating sound of disco that would soon conquer dancefloors across America, and it remains a shining gemstone in the Gamble & Huff crown.  — J. Lynch

4. The Three Degrees, “When Will I See You Again?” (The Three Degrees, 1974)

This impossibly pretty song may sound like it’s made for lovers to listen to as they snuggle in front of a fire, but it’s actually the sound of one heart breaking. Lead singer Sheila Ferguson poses two devastating questions—”Are we in love or just friends? Is this my beginning or is this the end?” — and gets no answer, except from the weeping strings and the sighing backing vocals behind her. The female trio was featured on MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” earlier in 1974, but this ballad, which Gamble & Huff wrote and produced, gave them their own showcase, one that took them all the way to No. 2 on the Hot 100. From the first “ooh” to last “aah,” this runs just 2:58: When a record is this good, there’s no need to pad it. — P.G.

3. The O’Jays, “Back Stabbers” (Back Stabbers, 1972)

It was a time of national distrust in 1972, to say the least — and the hits had started to reflect it, starting with The Undisputed Truth’s No. 3-peaking “Smiling Faces Sometimes” the year before. For the title track to their first PIR LP, the O’Jays took that smash a step further, with singers Eddie LeVert and Walter Williams trading off anguished lyrics about the knives that often lie behind those grins (“The blades are long, clenched tight in their fists/ Aimin’ straight at your back, and I don’t think they’ll miss”). The song would be a classic if just for those suspicious verses and the queasy string-led shuffle that supports them, but “Back Stabbers” was made eternal by the horn stabs and drum mini-fill — and of course, the group’s gruff “WHAT THEY DO” warning — that leads into the chorus, packing more drama, suspense and frayed-nerve paranoia that an entire Alan J. Pakula thriller. — A.U.

2. McFadden and Whitehead, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (McFadden & Whitehead, 1979)

The sound was pure joy, one hook trading places with another for almost a full minute before the verses kicked in. First came the signature swirl of strings, then a bass hook from Jimmy Williams that swung harder than a wrecking ball, and then a backing choir announcing the music’s anthemic chorus message: we’re on the move, we’ve got groove, we can’t be stopped. The beat was spiked with futuristic synth stabs in the place of disco whistles, making “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” not just one of greatest songs of 1979, but one of the first great songs of the ‘80s.

Gene McFadden and John Whitehead had sung with The Epsilons in the late ‘60s before joining Philadelphia International in 1971 as songwriters and producers. They wanted to step out in front as performers, and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” reflected their frustration and desire for the spotlight. Yet in Philadelphia another message was impossible to miss: The single arrived in April 1979, four months before the U.S. Department of Justice filed a suit charging that the city’s police department’s use of excessive force “shocked the conscience.” As a Philadelphia International slogan taken from an O’Jays song put it: “The Message is the Music.” And over an indestructible party beat, the duo spell it out: “There’s been so many things that’s held us down/ But now it looks like things are finally coming around.” — J. Levy

1. Billy Paul, “Me and Mrs. Jones” (360 Degrees of Billy Paul, 1972)

Philadelphia International’s brand of smooth, sophisticated soul took flight with this 1972 classic. The song’s premise was inspired by a slice of real life. At a café that Gamble and Huff regularly frequented, the pair noticed one gentleman in particular who would always sit in a certain booth and await the arrival of the same woman several minutes later. From that what-if, a classic was born. To punctuate the story being told against the backdrop of lush string and horn arrangements, producers Gamble and Huff (who also co-wrote the song with Cary Gilbert) tapped local club performer and friend Billy Paul. Influenced by jazz trailblazers Charlie “Bird” Parker and Billie Holiday, Paul’s phrasing and raspy, mellow baritone bring the right touch of romantic euphoria tinged with regret. Paul’s superb performance and G&H’s creative handiwork landed the song atop the Hot 100, earned Paul a Grammy for best male R&B vocal, and set the bar for the label’s decades of Philly soul classics to come. — G.M.

 
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