The Sound of Philadelphia


The phrase “The Sound of Philadelphia” encompasses a body of soulful music that, for the most part, originates from the city of Philadelphia.

The criteria to be classified as the Philadelphia sound (or Philly soul) gets a little foggy at points, but seems to encompass one or more of the following prerequisites;

1) It was written or produced by Thom Bell, or the team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff (Gamble and Huff), John Whitehead and Gene McFadden (McFadden and Whitehead), or a number of other talented songwriters considered to be part of the Philadelphia International label.

2) It was released on the Philadelphia International Records label,owned by Gamble and Huff.  Although Bell was not a business partner in the label, he was their partner in their Mighty Three Music publishing company.  Bell also guided the sound of the Delfonics for the Philly Groove label, the Stylistics for Avco and a string of hits for the Spinners on Atlantic, taking the Philly sound outside the confines of the Philadelphia International label.

3) It was recorded and/or engineered by Joseph Tarsia and Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia.

Although not limited to these prerequisites, some of what is considered “Philly Soul” may meet some but not all of these criteria, while later records were lumped into this category either because of a similar “Philly” sound, or because the artist happened to hail from Philadelphia (Hall & Oates being the perfect example).  In the end, what is Philly soul is of course speculative, as any music classification is.

Gamble and Huff first approached Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records to distribute the Philadelphia International Records label, only to be turned down and then be picked up by Clive Davis, then at CBS Records.  Much of the actual recording was done at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, and later, artists like David Bowie – seeking to create a more ‘soulful’ sound – would come to Philadelphia to record.  Philadelphia soul reached it’s peak in the early to mid 1970s, and is arguably (see T.S.O.P. below) the forerunner of Disco.

Here are a few tunes from the era of Sigma Sound Studios and The Sound of Philadelphia. Feel free to scroll down and hit play on the player to hear some of the great Philly sound.

“T.S.O.P.” by M.F.S.B. featuring The Three Degrees

M.F.S.B. (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother) was basically the house band at Sigma Sound Studios.  A pool of over thirty talented musicians, they began recording as a named act in 1972, and in 1974, with The Three Degrees singing backup, they released the track T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia), written by Gamble and Huff to be the theme song for the television show Soul Train. T.S.O.P. rose to #1 on the Billboard chart, and some consider it to be the first Disco track to reach #1.

“Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul

Reaching #1 on the Billboard charts in 1972, Me and Mrs. Jones was a steamy ballad about an extramarital affair, and was to be Billy Paul’s only #1 hit.  Written by Gamble and Huff, it was also Philadelphia International’s first #1 hit, and regardless of it’s taboo topicality, remains a classic (although I don’t recommend you have your DJ play it at your wedding).  Billy Paul was a Philadelphia native, born Paul Williams on December 1, 1934.

“Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” by The Delfonics

The Grammy-winning Didn’t I is arguably one of the first notable Philly soul records.  Produced by Thom Bell on the Bell label and released in 1970, Didn’t I charted at #3 on the R&B charts, and #10 on the pop charts. Used in Quentin Tarentino’s Jackie Brown as an almost main (recurring) theme, and later re-recorded by the pop group New Kids on the Block, Didn’t I remains a soulful classic, and a shining example of the lasting impact of Philadelphia soul.

“You Are Everything” by The Stylistics

A personal favorite of mine, The Stylistics are the quintessential Philadelphia band.  Hailing from Philadelphia, The Stylistics had a string of hits written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed, all produced by Bell.  Although You Are Everything peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts (You Make Me Feel Brand New charted at #2), it is part of a powerful and soulful body of work, similar to that of The Delfonics, yet somewhat more expansive and evolved.

“Back Stabbers” by The O’Jays

The O’Jays… Ahhh. Back Stabbers, written by Huff, McFadden and Whitehead, released on the Philadelphia International Records label and recorded at Sigma Sound Studios on the album of the same name meets every requirement to be considered the Philly sound.  The O’Jays had a slew of hits, and if a band were to be considered a Disco Pioneer, it would most certainly be The O’Jays.  Charting at #3 in 1972, Back Stabbers is quite representative of the sound that Philadelphia is famous for.

“I’ll Be Around” by The Spinners

Also known as The Detroit Spinners, The Spinners were originally signed to Motown Records where their contribution was somewhat unremarkable. Not until they left Motown, and not until they re-signed with Atlantic and recruited the talented Thom Bell to write and produce were they able to achieve the success of what now comprises their greatest hits. I’ll Be Around attained #1 on the R&B charts for five weeks, and #3 on the pop charts for ten.

“When Will I See You Again” by The Three Degrees

The Three Degrees were signed to the Philadelphia International label in 1973, and the rest is history… well, at least a short history.  In addition to the intermittent backup quips they added to T.S.O.P., they did have their own  #2 hit single in 1974, and it was When Will I See You Again.  Not quite a one-hit-wonder,  The Three Degrees did have a very forgettable #29 hit on their previous label in 1970… but I can’t remember it.  Guess I won’t see it again.  As irrelevant as they may seem beside these other big names, they still managed to be the only group/artist to make our list twice.

“Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes

Two words:  Teddy. Pendegrass.  If You Don’t Know Me By Now charted at #3 in 1972, The Love I Lost at #7 in 73, and Wake Up Everybody at #12 in 1975.  Don’t Leave Me This Way by Harold Melvin and his Blue Notes never charted with Teddy Pendegrass on lead vocal, but it did by Thelma Houston in 1977. The long version (eleven minutes and eight seconds), may possibly be one of the most soulfully powerful but undisputed disco-esque examples of the Philadelphia sound.  At :33 seconds, Teddy begins with a stirring hum, then, almost three full minutes later breaking into the lyric and kicking the song into a do-me-right-now-baby gear like only Teddy Pendegrass can… And all to a latin Disco beat.  Man, you gotta love the Seventies.  Oh yeah, listen to this one all the way to the end – it’s a jam.


Coming from a Philadelphian, what makes for the Philadelphia sound is really a lot of things.  My own dad was West Philadelphia born and raised just like Will Smith, and his hit, Summertime, is all about summers in Philadelphia.  Before American Bandstand was American Bandstand, it was Philadelphia Bandstand… And Dick Clark. Philadelphia.  Boys II Men are all Philly, Patti LaBelle, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Toni Basil (Oh Mickey!!!), The Bloodhound Gang, Tuff Crew, The Dead Milkmen, Jim Croce, Lou Rawls (also Philadelphia International Records artist), G-Love and Special Sauce. I already mentioned Will, but gotta give a shout out to DJ Jazzy Jeff. Can I keep going?  Sure can! Todd Rundgren, Eddie Fisher, Chubby Checker, Tammi Terell, Grover Washington, Hall and Oates and of course, The Roots (who totally rock).

Many great ‘sounds’ have come out of Philadelphia… Take it from a DJ who knows. But the mid-seventies “Sound of Philadelphia”  had the ears of America… and of the World.

Craig Sumsky
Cutting Edge Entertainment

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