(June 19, 2021). Within weeks of 2021 starting, the music world began commemorating the golden anniversary of one of the most important record companies in American music history—a label that, during the 1970s, would become the cornerstone for a soul music sound that was as much linked to its home city as Motown had been to Detroit the decade before.
Philadelphia International Records, founded by iconic musical geniuses Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, was formed in 1971 and, thanks to a lucrative distribution deal signed with CBS Records (by then-president Clive Davis), plus those killer sounds by some of the greatest musicians on the planet, the label sold tens of millions of albums and singles over the next three years alone…and then multiplied those sales to well over one hundred million over the next decade and a half.
Gamble and Huff, with the regular partnership of fellow legend Thom Bell plus other talented songwriters like the late Bunny Sigler, the late Gene McFadden, the late John Whitehead, and Dexter Wansel, turned Philadelphia International Records -or PIR – into the Motown of the 1970s and early ‘80s. Gamble, Huff and Bell would join forces to form the Mighty Three Music publishing company and the three men—along with the other writers signed to their companies—would pen hundreds of songs bearing the unmistakable Philly Soul sound.
Distinguished by its sophistication in instrumentation—with lush string arrangements, rolling piano flourishes, majestic organs, uncharacteristic woodwind instruments, stellar brass punctuations, and unique driving beats that presaged disco—the Philly Sound would be responsible for dozens of No. 1 soul songs, three No. 1 pop hits, and many more top tens between 1971 and 1991.
(Scroll down to skip the preliminaries and get right to djrobblog’s exclusive, comprehensive and most objective ranking of the 100 greatest songs on the PIR label!)
While Bell’s talents were spread across many different artists on other labels—like the Stylistics on Avco Records and the Spinners on Atlantic—Gamble and Huff mainly kept things in-house, co-writing and/or co-producing nearly all of the hits on the PIR label and its subsidiaries like Gamble and TSOP Records.
The label’s first album in 1971 was Billy Paul’s Going East, then came Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ I Miss You, followed by the O’Jays iconic Back Stabbers LP, which featured two No. 1 soul chart hits: the title track and its follow-up smash, “Love Train,” the latter of which also topped the pop chart.
Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and the O’Jays were just the first artists out of the gate. Soon afterwards came artists—both new and established—like Lou Rawls, Three Degrees, Jerry Butler, Dee Dee Sharp-Gamble, Dexter Wansel, the Jones Girls, Patti Labelle, Phyllis Hyman, and McFadden & Whitehead.
And who could forget the legendary house band MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother), a group of stellar musicians who recorded at the infamous Sigma Sound studios in Philly and created that unmistakable sound on nearly every release from the PIR label during its heyday.
Djrobblog celebrates the label’s 50th anniversary plus African-American Music Appreciation Month by presenting this exclusive ranking of PIR’s 100 greatest tunes. This countdown is also likely the most objective ranking of its kind, based on a combination of Billboard chart performance (using soul, pop and disco chart data), several music critics’ individual top-50 rankings and the results of recent soul music polls conducted by SiriusXM. All of this information was compiled using a point scheme and then songs were ranked from No. 1 to 100, based on total points.
There is a caveat: for those readers looking for classic Philly soul songs by groups like the Spinners, the Stylistics, Blue Magic and Daryl Hall & John Oates, note that those artists did not record for Philadelphia International Records, thus they’re not eligible for this list.
Still, you won’t find a more complete, more objective ranking of this historic label’s recordings anywhere but right here on this djrobblog.com recap.
If you love Philly Soul like I do from the people who mastered it, then scroll down and begin this musical journey through one of the greatest catalogs in soul music history!
It starts at No. 100 and goes all the way to No. 1, so let the music begin, and please enjoy the Spotify playlist linked below the rankings.
Oh, and Happy Juneteenth to everyone!
O’Jays fans will be happy with this list, and so will fans of TV’s “Soul Train.” The group out of Canton, Ohio is represented with no fewer than 23 songs - more than anyone else! And many of them are represented by “Soul Train” performances that are linked to each track, like this one from 1972. “Sunshine” was the B-side of their breakthrough smash, “Back Stabbers,” and was released as its own single in a live version two years later, when it reached No. 17 soul and No. 48 pop.
The duo of Gene McFadden and John Whitehead wrote many hits for the PIR label. But they’re only listed here twice as artists. This interesting 1980 ballad about lost love ingrains the subtitle in your head and has an interesting discofied tempo change about three-quarters of the way through before it slows to its lush finish. R.I.P. to both McFadden and Whitehead.
Hard-rocking funk from an all-Black group out of Philly that sounded like early Funkadelic meets Joe Cocker. It was a direction that PIR ultimately shelved for its more lush soulful sound, but it’s an interesting concept nonetheless, and it gets here by virtue of being included in the Billboard critics list (at No. 43).
The former wife of PIR’s Kenneth Gamble initially found fame in the 1960s with big hits like “Mashed Potato Time.” But it was her work with hubby Kenny where she released the soulful passion found in songs like “Real Hard Day,” a song lamenting a rough day of taking care of the house and the kids. Clearly a throwback theme whose lyrics might be misplaced in today’s world.
MFSB had a summer theme going in 1976 with the album ‘Summertime.’ It contained songs like “Sunnin’ and Funnin’,” “Hot Summer Nights,” the title track, and this disco number that peaked at No. 65 on Billboard’s nascent disco chart in 1976…during the summer, of course. I guess you could call theirs a “summertime” concept album.
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ lead singer Teddy Pendergrass explores his boastful side in this mojo-driven uptempo track. As Teddy says, you don’t have to believe him when he tells you his love is so good, but by the end of the song you likely will.
The Ebonys were a soul group out of rough-and-tumble Camden, NJ - just across the Delaware River from Philly. This was their first single and one of the first out of the PIR legendary stable of hits. It reached No. 10 on the soul chart in the summer of 1971, and No. 51 pop.
Edwin Birdsong was a west coast singer/songwriter/keyboardist who found a musical home on the east coast - first in Philly with Philadelphia International and then in NYC on the Salsoul label. This clangy disco number was his ode to a female with shapely features reminiscent of a cola bottle’s. It failed to chart anywhere in America, but Billboard ironically gave it a top-20 rank in its critics’ choice list - mainly due to its use as a sample for Daft Punk’s iconic “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” - which is how it gets here at No. 92.
Including its subtitle, this early ‘80s ballad may have the longest title of any song in the PIR catalogue, with fourteen words and 51 letters all of which had to fit on a 7” single’s record label. The song was co-written by the late Bunny Sigler and his brother James and reached No. 13 soul in 1982.
The O’Jays followed up the million-selling “Use Ta Be My Girl” with this ballad about…a lost dog. Yes, “Brandy” had lyrics with enough ambiguity that it could’ve been about a long-lost flame but, alas, it was instead about man’s best friend. With odd references to wearing “dungarees” and drinking “cherry soda pop” added in, this bummer of a tune was doomed to finish no higher than No. 21 soul, No. 79 pop.
The O’Jays concluded their hit-making run on PIR with this 1987 top-5 soul hit and title track to their last album with the label. They would leave PIR for EMI Records the following year and get their last of ten No. 1 soul songs overall with “Have You Had Your Love Today” in 1989. Remember that one?
Soul music in the 1970s was known for clever metaphors and innuendo without explicitly throwing sex in your face. But there was no subtlety here; the late Billy Paul made no bones about his intentions. With “let’s have this baby” refrains interspersed throughout, it later becomes clear in this 7:10 opus that it’s not just the act of baby-making, but actually bringing a new life into the world that really is Paul’s goal. How’s that for a twist?
A reassuring refrain “Brother, I’m on your side” is how this 1976 disco burner begins. But the love is spread to all of the core members of the nuclear family as the mother, sister and father are shown some love, too. This is as it should be for a group whose name stands for Mother, Father, Sister Brother.
From his 1979 album, ‘Teddy,’ came this discofied entry for Mr. Pendergrass. It was the B-side to his huge hit and the album’s lead single, “Turn Off The Lights.” Vocally, the teddy bear was at his gruffest on ‘Teddy,’ especially on this track where the singer digs deep for a couple of “right here!” growls after the 4-minute mark that’ll have you doubling back to give it another listen.
Phyllis Hyman surprisingly didn’t join the PIR stable of artists until 1986. So songs like 1979’s “You Know How To Love Me” aren’t included here. That’s sad because that one is about as Philly Soul-sounding as anything the late singer ever recorded for PIR. This torchy ballad of hers from the eerily titled ‘Prime of My Life’ album reached the top ten of Billboard’s R&B chart in 1992 - just three years before her untimely death at age 45.
Every time I play this short and sweet ballad by the late legendary songwriter and PIR contributor Bunny Sigler, it grows on me a little more. He performed this gem on “Soul Train” in 1974, and, luckily, the clip has been reposted on YouTube by the rights owners in conjunction with Philly International. Check out this long-lost gem in the clip above.
Disco was all the rage in 1979, especially in the first half of the year. The O’Jays jumped on the bandwagon in the year’s second half with this uplifting top-10 Soul chart single that surprisingly missed the Disco chart altogether. It also only managed to bubble under on the Hot 100 at No. 102, another sign that fans preferred some of their soul groups to stay clear of the fad that was clearly on its way out by the time this song was released in August.
The former Mrs. Gamble applied her amazing contralto to this remake of the 1975 pop classic by British band 10cc and gave it more soul than any version before or since. This perfect song about relationship denial from someone who was clearly in love only reached No. 62 R&B in 1976 (10cc’s original reached No. 2 pop the year before).
From his second album, ‘Life Is A Song Worth Singing,’ came this funky dance number that soundtracked a few “Soul Train Line” segments when it was popular in 1978. “Only You” followed the million-selling “Close The Door” and was a definite departure from that ballad and so much of Teddy’s other baby-making fare.
Few people will remember that The Jacksons’ first foray away from Motown was to go to Berry Gordy’s main rivals from the City of Brotherly Love, Gamble and Huff. Their second album on the PIR label (in a joint effort with Epic) was the one that housed this uptempo title track. It wasn’t Gamble & Huff’s strongest songwriting effort, with the refrain “I like the feeling I get when I’m riding a jet, I’m going places.” But the song did make the top-10 on the soul chart and nearly cracked the top 50 on the pop chart. Plus it’s fun to hear with repeated listens.
Keyboardist Dexter Wansel is represented on this list with just two songs, including this instrumental track from his 1976 concept album ‘Life On Mars.’ But he’s a key contributor to many other acts’ songs as he either played on or produced many of the other hits on this list. He also served as A&R director for PIR from 1978-80 and was instrumental to the Jones Girls’ early success during that period.
Speaking of Dexter Wansel, this one came from Lou Rawls’ 1977 LP, ‘Unmistakably Lou.’ That album was produced in part by Wansel, and this slow burner (with production credited to Gamble & Huff) was one of the highlights. Rawls, in perfectly pitched baritone, describes the setting clearly as he sings about the “total ecstasy” of that love that happens when life is “between day and night.”
House band MFSB gave its discofied take on George Gershwin’s classic “Summertime,” which had also been made popular by the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, in their 1976 recording. MFSB’s lush instrumental version gave the song a newfound majestic feel, with the rhythm section, strings and horns working perfectly in tandem as the song builds and builds…and builds.
What always tickled me about this beautiful mid-tempo ballad from 1979’s ‘Teddy’ LP was how the female object of his affections finally gives in to his pursuit during the spoken-word part at the end as she gives up her futile fight: “you say your car is parked right outside?” He promises her she “won’t be under any kind of pressure,” to which she responds: “please, I can’t stand pressure.” Game over. Lol
This late-1979 disco-ey number from the smooth-singing Lou Rawls was always a personal favorite. Musically, the sublime song is about as rich as anything Gamble and Huff were producing at the dawn of the 1980s. The clincher for me on “Sit Down” was the backing female vocals during the song’s coda. “Sit down and talk, talk to me, talk to me, talk to…ahhh…ahh, ah, ahhhh.” Heavenly.
Don’t forget to scroll through all one hundred tunes using the right-arrow button above (scroll buttons are located below each group of 25 songs).
And here’s that playlist of the 100 songs plus a few extras that didn’t quite make it but are classic tunes nonetheless!
So let readers know what you think. Please feel free to comment about these rankings, including favorites of yours you believe I missed or didn’t get right. Comment either below or on any of the social media feeds where this article is posted.
DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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