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Sunday, February 2, 2014

In Search of The Heart of Disco: Philadelphia Soul

The Soul of Disco

I have been on a  quest  to find the elusive inner heart of disco. The disco we've all heard on the radio, made by the big names---Abba and Bee Gees and The Village People, was only the outer shell, mimicking the creative source. What I sought was the main nerve--the tap root, of disco, the purest, most original source-disco; the 5% that inspired the other 95%.

The roots of disco were not hard to find. Although there were contemporaneous developments toward disco in Los Angeles and Miami, the unmistakable pure disco sound originated, appropriately enough,  in Philadelphia.

Disco was a  refinement of Philly Soul, or the 'Philly Sound', referring to a style of soul music developed by a loose aggregation of performers, songwriters, producers, arrangers and conductors. Yes, arrangers and conductors, for this music was performed by a group of musicians that were nothing less than an orchestra.  This mini-orchestra, known as MFSB, for Mother Father Sister Brother, or internally as Mother Fucking Sons of Bitches, referring to their musical prowess,  became the house band for  the Philly sound.

Artists such as The O'Jays, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes and MFSB, producers such as Thom Bell, Kenneth Gamble and Leon A. Huff (Gamble and Huff), and Gene McFadden and John Whitehead (McFadden and Whitehead) were the leading exponents of the style.

Good representative examples of the pre-disco Philly sound are this 1972 song by The Spinners, written and produced Thom Bell, played by MFSB, ...

and this, another Spinners Thom Bell production, again with MFSB.

From 1972, The O'Jays "Love Train" is sometimes cited as the first disco record. Written and produced by Gamble and Huff, played by MFSB, the song contains some of the hippie-dippie positivity that was in the air in the early 70s.

More 1972 O'Jays, this time a McFadden and Whitehead penned song produced by Gamble and Huff, played by MFSB.

The first recording to fully define the disco sound was the 1973 recording by MFSB "Love Is The Message", a Gamble and Huff song and production. The "steady , uniformly accented beat in 4/4 time in which the bass drum is hit on every beat (1, 2, 3, 4) in common time (four-on-the-floor), an eighth note (quaver) or 16th note (semi-quaver) hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a prominent, syncopated electric bass line sometimes consisting of octaves," --- this simple beat is the signature disco sound. You can hear it at 1:45 in "Love Is The Message" and in all succeeding true-disco. 

The follow-up to "Love Is The Message" was a number one hit. Many remember this as the theme to Soul Train. 

(to be continued... the HTML gets really unstable with more than 2 or 3 embedded videos for some fucking reason.)

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