Celebrating 50 Years of Two Philly Soul Essentials

Looking back at I Miss You by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and The O’Jays’ Back Stabbers

Gamble & Huff (Image: Wikipedia)

By 1972, Motown had left Detroit for Los Angeles,a move that cost it multiple performers, writers and musicians who’d been a key part of its success.

For a brief moment, it seemed that the successor to the label might be across the country from where Berry Gordy & Co. had decamped to — Philadelphia.

The offices at the corner of Broad and Spruce Street had seen hits before, having been the home of Cameo-Parkway Records (Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell and others) less than a decade prior.

The one-two punch of the British Invasion and the loss of access for artists when American Bandstand moved to L.A. led to that label’s demise.

But those offices wouldn’t be empty for long. Two men who’d been studio musicians for Cameo-Parkway — Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff — would see to that.

After a failed band, the Romeos, disbanded, the pair had moved on to writing and producing for others, resulting in hits — “Expressway to Your Heart”, “Cowboys to Girls”, “Only the Strong Survive” and “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and shoulda-been hits (their work with Dusty Springfield).

Their first attempt at a label, mod — Neptune — fell apart when Chess, who they’d signed a distribution deal with, changed hands. Their second attempt would be more successful.

Columbia Records was looking to add more Black acts and Gamble & Huff had enough inroads in terms of acts and performers that a new deal was set up that included an exclusive production contract. And thus Philadelphia International was born in 1971, starting later that year with the release of Billy Paul’s Goin’ East album.

Philadelphia International Records logo (Image: Legacy Recordings)

And 50 years ago this past August, Philadelphia International kicked things off in earnest with its next two releases, both produced by Gamble & Huff — Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ debut, I Miss You, and the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had been around since the ’50s without achieving much success. The group found the key to unlocking that success in 1970 without realizing it at first. Melvin had seen a Philadelphia group called the Cadillacs perform and been impressed with the drummer. He asked him to join the Blue Notes backing band, which he accepted.

At some point that year, the drummer started to sing along during live shows which is when Melvin realized that young Teddy Pendergrass could sing. By year’s end, lead singer John Atkins had left and Pendergrass took over.

If finding out your backing drummer is also suddenly the best singer you’ve ever had is one big break, if you were the Blue Notes, you needed another.

That came when the Dells turned down the song “I Miss You”, which Gamble and Huff had written for them. As luck would have it, Gamble felt Pendergrass had enough vocal resemblance to Dells lead singer Marvin Junior to be a good fit for the song. With that and some other songs intended for the Dells, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes were on their way to having a debut album.

It may not have been written for him, but “I Miss You” feels like it was written by Pendergrass, given how much of himself he throws into the album-opening track. He squeezes every bit of pain and longing out of the tale of a regretful, pleading ex who’s in the “found out”stage.

The first hit for the group, the title track is the first tentpole of the album, but its strongest would be the second single, the moment Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes crossed over.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes I Miss You, Philadelphia International Records 1972

“If You Don’t Know Be My Now” is relationship drama in three-plus minutes, as Pendergrass makes you feel every poignant moment as a faithful partner pleading for understanding from his untrusting love and knowing the consequences if things don’t change. Just listen to how he delivers the line “What good is a love affair/When we can’t see eye-to-eye?”, punctuating it with an anguished “Oh!” It’s a starmaking performance.

It’s also a showcase for what made so many Philadelphia International singles work — the orchestration is lush without being pushy, the production beautifully balanced.

And the rest of the Blue Notes provide beautiful backing with the oohs and aahs, and nailing the chorus.

“Yesterday I Had the Blues” brings Memphis up to Philly. “Ebony Woman”, a love song Billy Paul had been doing for years before recording it on a Neptune album, adds a lightly jazzy touch.

Love in its various permutations dominates I Miss You, which mostly avoids social issues they’d address more over the next few years.

The exception is “Be For Real”, with its spoken-word intro that takes up over half the song. Pendergrass confronts a materialistic woman who keeps showing a lack of compassion for others (“You see, people today, they come out there to party/They come out to party, man/They didn’t come out to hear all that jive mess you talking about/You standing up in the corner with a bottle of champagne talking about/Harry, Joe, and Dick and Bobby and what they ain’t got/And they live down in the lower development homes, and you won’t even help”).

When the vocals come in, Pendergrass emphatically drives the point home with the Blue Notes backing him up.

I Miss You thrust Harold Melvin into the spotlight with a frontman ready for that moment.

The O’Jays, meanwhile, also had been waiting for a moment. They bounced around throughout the ’60s with some small hits (notably a 1965 cover of “Lipstick Traces (on a Cigarette)” that wasn’t far from the Top 40), but had never broken through. They crossed paths with Gamble & Huff when signing with Neptune. 

Their future was in doubt when that label folded, but lead singer Eddie Levert had faith in the Gamble-Huff team, feeling hits would come if they stayed with them.

Back Stabbers would justify Levert’s intuition, producing two huge hit singles and becoming their first hit album. 

As with I Miss You, the label went with the title track as the first single. “Back Stabbers” owes a thematic debt to The Undisputed Truth’s 1971 “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, even quoting it towards the end.

While the lyrics are about not being able to trust so-called friends around the one you love, it’s certainly not hard to see additional subtext in the smoothly orchestral paranoia. Nixon was president. Martin Luther King Jr., who’d been subjected to a COINTELPRO campaign by the FBI, had been assassinated by a white supremacist four years prior. There was systemic pushback against civil rights gains. As the saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re after you.

Back Stabbers, co-written by Huff and staff writers Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, shows off a difference with I Miss You in that not everything is geared to the lead singer. Levert was a commanding front man in his own right, but the swapped leads with Walter Williams offer more of a group dynamic.

The second single would be “992 Arguments”, an angrier, more defiant take on “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” If an anguished Pendergrass wanted the relationship to work, the protagonist of “992 Arguments” is clearly disgusted and wondering if it’s worth the trouble.

The O’Jays Back Stabbers, Philadelphia International Records 1972

The album wasn’t all anger and discomfort as the third single would be the biggest hit of the O’Jays career.

“Love Train” wasn’t complete at first, only one verse was done. Inspiration came quickly in the studio. According to Levert, Gamble came up with the lyrics on the spot in a matter of minutes.

This was a song of joy and empowered optimism, with an instantly recognizable hook, over rhythmic underpinnings. The studio, set up so that Levert and Williams could see each other as they recorded their leads, allowed them to play off each other perfectly.

“Time to Get Down” was a No. 2 R&B hit, positively teeming with catchiness, another textbook example of how Gamble & Huff productions could be impeccably smooth without veering into slickness.

The pair had gone to Detroit at one point to study Motown’s operations. And thus, they had a main studio, staff writers (McFadden,Whitehead, Bunny Sigler, Linda Creed, Norman Harris and many others  and a house band — MFSB (Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, Brothers).

The O’Jays, who’d been performing since they were in high school, were ready for the moment and with the backing of MFSB, able to go wherever the song needed to go.

The result is a more musically diverse album than the often silky love of I Miss You. Album opener “When the World’s at Peace” is a slice of funk that’s impossible to keep your head still to. “Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind of People” works the title track’s territory. It might not have the same hook, but it still sounds like a critical piece to a classic Blaxploitation soundtrack.

And, not ceding any ground to Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes (or Billy Paul, for that matter) the O’Jays whipped up a quiet storm of their own with the likes of “Who Am I” and “Sunshine”.

As a whole, Back Stabbers brilliantly shone a spotlight on a group that was due. And in a year overflowing with great soul albums, the Gamble & Huff team had put out two of the best.

Pendergrass wasn’t destined to be a Blue Note for long. The group continued to have hits–  the social commentary of “Bad Luck” and “Wake Up Everybody” and the classic disco of “The Love I Lost” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (although the latter wasn’t a big hit until Thelma Houston covered it a year later). While he was the star, Melvin had his hands more in the finances, often leaving the rest of the group with less. On the road, Melvin stayed in luxurious rooms while the others had to make do with shitty motels. Already rankled by a lack of name recognition (people thinking his name was Harold Melvin), led to Pendergrass’ departure.

While Pendergrass would be denied the crossover success he deserved, he was an R&B superstar and large concert draw who likely would have had pop success in the ’80s if not for a 1982 car accident that left him paralyzed. While he was able to resume recording again and kept producing new material through the ’90s.

The Blue Notes, meanwhile, never recovered from losing their superstar.They didn’t come close to the Top 40 again while their success on the soul charts waned after a few years. Melvin recorded and toured with different group lineups until he suffered a stroke in 1996, dying of a second stroke the following year.

The O’Jays kept going, remaining quite successful artistically and commercially through the ’70s.They continued to produce R&B hits into the ’90s. They still have two original members — Levert and Williams — and have been performing dates on  a farewell tour as Levert recovers from Covid.

As for Philadelphia International, the label continued to experience success throughout the rest of the decade, but they had less luck afterwards. That happend even with quality efforts (such as albums with the late Phyllis Hyman). After more than a decade with Columbia, the distribution deal came to an end. Gamble and Huff stopped working together in the studio as the label eventually became devoted to back catalog.

The building that had housed the creation of so many hits was the casualty of an arsonist in 2010, causing extensive damage. The property was sold and now, history-free and much less appealing luxury condos sit at the location.

The music, however, still stands. With I Miss You and Back Stabbers, it wasn’t just Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes announcing their presence with authority. It was Gamble & Huff, with the weight of Philadelphia International, doing the same.

 

 

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