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The Boston Phoenix Brotherly Love

Gamble & Huff's "The Philly Sound."

By Stephanie Zacharek

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  It's easy to hear most of the material on The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff & the Story of Brotherly Love (1966-1976) (Sony Legacy), without even thinking about it much, as message music. The songs that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff wrote and produced for artists like the O'Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, and the Intruders (songs released on Gamble & Huff's Philadelphia International Records, which was bankrolled by Columbia) deal with loyalty and betrayal, with hope for our children's future, with the dangers of avarice, and, most important, with racial unity.

But the legacy of Philly soul -- like the legacy of any kind of music -- is likely to mean different things to different people. To a white teenager growing up in an all-white community -- that would be me -- songs like the Intruders' "Cowboys to Girls" and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "The Love I Lost" and the O'Jays' "992 Arguments" represented a landscape of romantic (and dramatic) love that erased all boundaries of color, culture, and class.

And, yes, every white person who grew up loving black music makes that declaration, or some variation thereof, at least once during the course of his or her life. Maybe that's once too often. But I know that Philly soul -- in so many ways, more "black" than Motown -- worked on me in subtle ways. This was music that poured out of summer radios in the late '60s and early '70s, as you toasted yourself in the sun of your white-girl backyard, or rode your bike with your white-girl friends. Although I couldn't have articulated it at the time, I heard elegance and anger, derision and frustration, in the lyrics, in the singing, and even in the bass lines, and I could relate to those feelings even if I didn't fully understand the politics. "Am I Black Enough for You?" Billy Paul asked in a 1973 song of the same name, a challenge to any of us who were foolish enough to believe we were down with the people. No, Philly soul wasn't music "for" me -- but at least it was music "with" me.

And it has stuck. This three-disc set describes a wide arc to include material that's overtly political and just plain horny. But what's always in evidence is the trademark Gamble & Huff sound: the songs have an orchestral lushness like ripe fruit -- drawn out of strings that tremble and soar. Horns, brassy and bright, or slippery as melted butter, ease their way alongside ripples of organ sound as light and breezy as the ruffles on a silk shirt. The bass lines alone are works of sheer genius: rubbery and pliable, they're like alien backbones that can bend over backward and turn themselves inside out, molding songs into out-of-this-world shapes with subtly shifting textures. The arrangements are surprisingly intricate and multi-layered, building on Latin counter-rhythms as well as classic R&B and gospel.

The voices are what really get you. There are the dream visions. There's the wistfulness conjured by the Intruders on "Cowboys to Girls" and "(We'll Be) United"; the sultry urgency of Joe Simon's "Drowning in the Sea of Love"; the seamless melding of survival and spangles, of glamor and backbreaking hard work, in Jerry Butler's "Only the Strong Survive"; the satiny anguish of Billy Paul's classic "Me and Mrs. Jones."

But it's the O'Jays who steal the show, with 13 of the box's 48 tracks. Both the most idealistic and the most bitter of the Philly soul outfits, the O'Jays sing of harmony that's unattainable on a personal level, and even further out of reach on a social level. Their "Don't Call Me Brother" is the most shocking song on The Philly Sound, painting a world of deceit and treachery. At first it seems that the O'Jays are addressing the hypocrisy of their white audience, asking it to think twice before it makes any declarations of racial brotherhood. But what we learn by the end of the song is that they're speaking to their own brothers. The dangerous urban world of the number is foreign and troubling even to them. The song's narrator spins a tale of hanging out on Main Street, going into a store for a tonic and returning to find his tires stolen and his glove compartment busted. "And here you come, skinnin' and grinnin'/Yeah, I know you did it, with the power sign, and talkin' about 'My man, solid on that, my brother.'/I say I don't like it/How can you really really mean it? . . . Can't even trust you behind my back."

Complex, unsettling, and utterly despairing, "Don't Call Me Brother" is the antithesis of love-your-brethren pap. Yet the O'Jays' outrage only underscores their belief that brotherly love should be possible. With their sound filtered through the crystal-clear vision of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the O'Jays want us to know what it's like to live on their street, even if it's a street we never travel. And they want us to know that we're not the only ones who are scared.

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