Usually around the Christmas and New Year period, you don’t expect to find a series of ten, yes ten great soul compilations to be released. Usually at this time of year it’s a myriad of predictable greatest hits or best of albums from the usual suspects. Add to that the usual TV advertised albums aimed at the casual music buyer, and the pre-Christmas period is hardly inspirational for people who must have their fix of music fifty-two weeks of the years. Post-Christmas is usually the time when various record shops roll out the same “bargains” that they’ve been trying to shift for more years than I care to remember. The same mixture of supposed classic albums, greatest hits compilations and a smattering of unappealing box sets don’t seem to find someone to put them out of their misery and give them a good home. However, this year, was different, when Backbeats released the third installment of their highly successful and quite brilliant series on 26 December 2011.  

The Backbeats label is a subsidiary of Harmless Records, who have been releasing quality compilations since 1996. Since then, they’ve released well over one-hundred compilations, with their Pulp Fusion series one of the most consistent and successful compilation series. With music ranging from the numerous funk, soul and breakbeat compilations to Latin and African funk compilations, Harmless dug deeper than many of their competitors, with one quality compilation following the previous one. 

Back in 2010, Harmless decided to release the Backbeats series, with the first ten installments of the series being released. The music on the first ten albums ranged from New York Garage, 80s Chicago House and Northern Soul to Breakbeats, Smooth Chicago Soul and Philly Disco. Each of these ten compilations was crammed full of great music, chosen by compiler Ian Dewhirst, who was responsible for the Mastercuts series.

Earlier in 2011, the second installment of the Backbeats series was released. Again, Ian Dewhirst had chosen some wonderful music, with the series including 70s New York Disco, Southern Soul and Crossover Soul to 70s Detroit Soul, 70s Funk and more fantastic Philly Soul. Like the first ten albums, they were well received and sold well. What made the Backbeats series even more appealing was their affordability. Unlike other compilations, which are much more expensive and feature similar music, they’re available for less than £4, or $6. The only difference is that the sleeve-notes aren’t the most comprehensive. However, while other compilations feature more in-depth sleeve notes, what really matters is the music. If people want to know more about the music, there’s plenty of information available on the internet. After the second installment of the series, which not only kept up the quality of the first series, but improved upon it, I was eagerly awaiting the third installment. When I saw they were available on 26 December, I decided to treat myself, a late Christmas present. This I added to the other two batches of albums, so to do the series justice, I’m going to do a series of articles on the compilations. The first of these will focus on the two new compilations which feature The Sound of Philadelphia, Philly Busters and Smooth Grooves. This will augment a previous article on Philly Soul entitled The Philadelphia Sound-Sweet Soul Music which reviewed a number of  Philly compilations, including to the two previous Backbeats Philly compilations Philly Disco and Philly Freedom.


As someone who absolutely adores the The Sound of Philadelphia, and especially the music produced by Gamble and Huff at Philadelphia International Records and Thom Bell at both Philly Groove and Philadelphia International Records, Philly Busters was one the compilations I eagerly awaited. What would be on it? Would there be some rare hidden gems that had been lurking hidden away, in the corners of the Philadelphia International Records archives? Once I received Philly Busters and studied the music on it, I realised that  what I’d describe as Philadelphia royalty featured on the album. There are songs from some of the biggest and most successful groups and solo artists that recorded for Philadelphia International. With the groups including The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, The Stylistics and The Trammps, while solo artists like Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls and Dee Dee Sharp Gamble  all featured, this was quite simply a compilation long on quality and without any filler or poor tracks. To choose seventeen fantastic Philly tracks takes some doing, but compiler Kev Roberts manages to achieve this, and does so with aplomb. Although the casual listener will recognize many of the tracks on the album, they may not recognize The Futures, Anthony White or Don Covay. However, those of us who love the Philly Sound will remember and cherish their music. Choosing the best tracks on Philly Busters isn’t easy, with so many great tracks to choose from, but I’ll mention some of the best and some of my favorites of what are rightly referred to on the album cover as “underground Philly dancefloor gems.”

I’ve always thought that two men who sometimes don’t get the credit for their achievements in the success story that Philadelphia International became. They were Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, who most people will remember for their  eight million selling hit single Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now. Not only were they prolific songwriters and producers, but they were successful recording artists, who recorded some wonderful and underrated music. One of their tracks features on Philly Busters, the joyous, uptempo and hugely catchy I Heard It In A Love Song, the title track of their 1980 album. This is one of my favorite tracks on this compilation. Too often, compilers predictably choose the excellent Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now forgetting that Mc Fadden recorded many other great tracks. So to compiler Kev Roberts, a big thank you for putting this track on the album. 

Two of Philadelphia International’s biggest groups The O’Jays and Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes feature on Philly Busters. The O’Jays contribute one of the most familiar and beautiful tracks Darlin’ Darlin, Baby (Sweet Tender Love), which is  a bona fide Philly Soul classic. It gave The O’Jays the second US R&B number one hit of their career, although strangely, the track only reached number seventy-two in the US Billboard 100. The track was from The O’Jays 1976 album Message In the Music, which reached number three in the US R&B Charts and number twenty in the US Billboard 200. Although this is a track many people will know, its beauty deserves to be heard and shared by as many people as possible. 

Another of the biggest groups on Philadelphia International were Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes. Tell the World How I Feel About Cha Baby is from their hugely successful, 1975 album Wake Up Everybody. It gave the group a number one US R&B album, while Tell the World How I Feel About Cha Baby gave them a number seven US R&B hit single. It’s a welcome addition on Philly Busters, and makes a change from the usual Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes tracks compilers gravitate towards. 

Three of the biggest solo artists on Philadelphia International feature on Philly Busters Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls. Billy Paul contributes two tracks, I Trust You and Let The Dollar Circulate. Of the two tracks, my favorite is Let the Dollar Circulate from his 1975 album When Love Is New, which reached number seventeen in the US R&B Charts. It’s a socially conscious slice of soul from Billy and is one of seven fantastic tracks on the When Love Is New album. 

With so many great Teddy Pendergrass tracks to choose from, compiler Kev Roberts has chosen When Someone Loves You Back, from Teddy’s number one US R&B album Life Is A Song Worth Singing. Although this wasn’t one of the two singles released from the album, I’ve always thought that When Someone Loves You Back was one of the best tracks on the album and I’m glad that Kev Roberts agrees with me about this. 

The third of these solo artists is Lou Rawls, with his Gamble and Huff penned track Groovy People one of the catchiest tracks on the album. It’s from Lou’s 1976 All Things In Time album and when it was released as a single, it gave Lou a number nineteen US R&B hit single. Incidentally, Leon Huff has released a new album Groovy People, which features a new version of this track. 

Apart from Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls, Philly Busters features Jerry Butler, Dee Dee Sharp Gamble and Jean Carn, another trio of successful solo artists on Philadelphia International. The Jerry Butler track (I’m Just Thinking About) Cooling Out is from his hugely underrated 1978 album Nothing Says I Love You Like I Love You. When (I’m Just Thinking About) Cooling Out was released as a single it reached number fourteen in the US R&B Charts. While Jean Carn has two tracks on the album, (No No) You Can’t Come Back Now and Sweet and Wonderful which features Glenn Jones, the Dee Dee Sharp track Happy ‘Bout the Whole Thing is another great dance track, and a worthy successor to the classic Breaking and Entering which featured on Philly Disco.

One of the non-Philadelphia International groups to feature on Philly Busters is The Trammps. Stop and Think from their 1975 album Tammps is chosen. Again, compiler Kev Roberts has resisted the temptation to choose one of their more familiar tracks. After all, everyone has heard Disco Inferno and Hold Back the Night many times on many other compilations, so it’s good to hear something many people won’t be familiar with, unless they happen to own the original album. 

Overall, Philly Busters is one of the best Philly Soul compilations I’ve come across recently, and believe you me, I’ve got a number in my collection. Although I’ve only mentioned some of the seventeen tracks, there isn’t a bad track on the compilation. This is no mean feat, considering many compilations on other labels feature just a smattering of quality tracks. That isn’t the case here, with one great track following another. With Philly royalty like Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, The O’Jays, Billy Paul  and Teddy Pendergrass just four of the fifteen artists gracing the album, it’s the perfect introduction to some of the wonderful music of The Sound of Philadelphia. Even today, each of the seventeen dance-floor friendly tracks are still guaranteed to fill a dance-floor.


Backbeats: Phillybusters-Underground Philly Dance Floor Gems


Smooth Grooves is the perfect companion to Philly Busters, and is describes on the album cover as “sophisticated 80s Philly soul, although much of the music was recorded and released during the seventies.” Now connoisseurs of Philly soul may protest and say that the best music coming out of Philadelphia was recorded and released during the seventies. However, that to me, is unfair as even into the eighties, a lot of good and quite underrated music was coming out of “The City of Brotherly Love.” By this time, groups like The Stylistics and The O’Jays may not have been as popular as during their seventies heydays, but they were still producing some quality music. Both groups feature on Smooth Grooves, as do artists like Billy Paul and Lou Rawls. Other familiar faces like Dee Dee Sharp Gamble, Bunny Sigler, Jean Carn and The Jones Girls all feature on Smooth Grooves. However, there are some groups that the casual listener may not have heard of. These include Instant Funk and Silk. Overall, it’s a good combination of familiar and unfamiliar artists, all with one thing in common quality. I’ll now tell you about some of the best tracks on the album.

Three of the biggest groups on the album are The Stylistics, The O’Jays and M.F.S.B. Between them, they’ve sold many millions of albums and during their careers, recorded for Philadelphia International Records. The Stylistics track is Mine All Mine from their 1981 Closer Than Close album. It only reached number 210 in the US Billboard 200 and number forty-four in the US R&B Charts. Despite this, Closer Than Close like Hurry This Way Again and 1982, all feature some fine music, and are a trio of hugely underrated albums from The Stylistics. Sadly, when Mine All Mine was released as a single, this lovely Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs track failed to chart. Regardless of this, Mine All Mine is a good addition to the album by compiler Ralph Tee.

The O’Jays track Lovin’ You on Smooth Grooves is also from one of their later albums, but in 1987, gave the group their first number one US R&B single since Used Ta Be My Girl in 1978. Written by Gamble and Huff, the track was from their 1987 album Let Me Touch You which reached number three in the US R&B Charts and number sixty-six in the US Billboard 200. Like The Stylistics, The O’Jays proved they could still produce quality music into the eighties.

M.F.S.B. were the third of the supergroups that feature on Smooth Grooves. Their track is Tell Me Why from their 1980 album Mysteries of the World. Adding the vocal is Carla Benson, who sung on some of the biggest hits on Philadelphia International, Carla’s vocal can be heard on Billy Paul’s seminal Me and Mrs Jones and McFadden and Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now. Apart from this, Carla’s voice featured on tracks by The O’Jays, Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass. The M.F.S.B. that feature on the track are the second incarnation of the group, after the original M.F.S.B. left Philadelphia International to become The Salsoul Orchestra. Although the legendary Baker, Harris and Young rhythm section had long gone by the time Tell Me Why was recorded, it’s still a track that deserves to feature on this compilation.

Of the other familiar faces to feature on Smooth Grooves, this includes a trio of male superstars in Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls. Billy Paul contributes You’re My Sweetness from his 1979 album First Class. This was the last studio album Billy recorded for Philadelphia International, and is an album that’s quite underrated. It’s a beautiful, lush slice of smooth soul from Billy, that to me, is one of the album’s highlights.

Like Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass doesn’t disappoint, with the Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Carstarphen penned Easy Easy, Got To Take It Easy. This is taken from Teddy’s debut solo album Teddy Pendergrass, released in 1977. Reaching number seventeen in the US Billboard 200 and number five in the US R& B Charts. Again, this track is an interesting choice, eschewing the three singles released from the album, including I Don’t Love You Any More and The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me. This beautiful laid back track with a sultry vocal from Teddy is one the seventeen reasons for buying this album.

Lou Rawls contribution to Smooth Grooves is one of the most familiar tracks on the album, the gorgeous Lady Love. It’s from Lou’s 1977 third Philadelphia International album When You Hear Lou, You’ve Heard It All. Lady Love was the biggest hit single from the album, reaching number twenty-four in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-one in the US R&B Charts. This was the last of Lou’s singles to enter the top thirty in the US Billboard 100. The album fared well, reaching number forty-one in the US Billboard 200 and number thirteen in the US R&B Charts. However, of ten tracks on the album, Lady Love was the best, and is one of the best on Smooth Grooves.

The Philadelphia ladies make their contributions to Smooth Grooves with Dee Dee Sharp Gamble, Jean Carn, Phyllis Hyman and Patti LaBelle all contributing some great tracks. Dee Dee Sharp Gamble’s contribution is the Cynthia Biggs and Dexter Wansel penned track I Believe In Love. This is from Dee Dee’s What Color Is Love album released in 1977. I Believe In Love is easiest one of the most beautiful tracks on the album, and I’m sure that many people will investigate Dee Dee’s music further having heard this stunning track.

Start the Fire is the Jean Carn track on the album, and is from her 1979 album When I Find You Love. This was her third album on Philadelphia International, and like Dee Dee’s track, Jean’s doesn’t disappoint. It has a lovely meandering arrangement and stunning vocal from Jean, and is very different from some of her more dance-floor oriented tracks. Again, this is a welcome inclusion from compiler Ralph Tee.

It seems fitting that Phyllis Hyman who was born in Philadelphia, recorded for the city’s best known label Philadelphia International. She recorded four albums during the period 1986-1998. Set A Little Trap is from the Phyllis’ 1998 album Forever With You, which was released three years after her tragic death. The album only reached number sixty-six in the US R&B Charts. However, Set A Little Trap is a lovely reminder of just how talented a vocalist Phyllis Hyman was.

One of the most experienced vocalists on the album is Patti LaBelle, who contributes the title track of her 1983 album I’m In Love Again. The album reached number forty in the US Billboard 200 Charts and number four in the US R&B Charts, and was certified gold. This track a features a powerful and emotive vocal from Patti and is a contrast to the tracks from Dee Dee and Jean.

Two other artists that played an important part in the Philadelphia International story are The Jones Girls and McFadden and Whitehead. The Jones Girls had previously sang backing vocals on albums by Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls on Philadelphia International before the three sisters Brenda, Valerie and Shirley signed a record contract with Philadelphia International. When I’m Gone is from The Jones Girls’ second album At Peace With Woman. It was written by the Cynthia Bigg and Dexter Wansel songwriting partnership, it’s one of the best tracks on At Peace With Woman and features a great lead vocal from Shirley. Again, it’s an interesting choice of track, as many compilers predictably choose their classic track Nights Over Egypt. By choosing this track, it allows the listener to hear something new from three really talented sisters from Detroit, The Jones Girls.

My final choice from this album is McFadden and Whitehead, who were the first artists I mentioned in my review of Philly Busters. Ralph Tee the compiler, has chosen another classic McFadden and Whitehead track I’ve Been Pushed Aside, from their 1980 debut album McFadden and Whitehead. Of all the tracks on Smooth Grooves, this is by far, my favorite, and demonstrates just how multi-talented the duo were. After all, how many other artists had the talent to write and produce their own music? 

Overall, Smooth Grooves is a quality compilation featuring some great music that came out of The City of Brotherly Love. With some of the biggest names in the city’s musical history appearing on the album, this is very much a must have album, like its companion Philly Busters. With The O’Jays, The Stylistics, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, Dee Dee Sharp Gamble, The Jones Girls and McFadden and Whitehead all featuring on Smooth Grooves, it’s an album that’s too good to miss. It features a combination of tracks that you’ll be familiar with and few you won’t. Unlike many similar combinations it isn’t predictable, instead throwing a few curve balls. Like Philly Busters, I can’t recommend this album enough. It’s crammed full of great music, like the rest of the Backbeats series. if you’ve not got the Backbeats compilations in your collection, there are thirty to collect, all of which could be yours for under £120. That to me, is one the biggest bargains you’ll ever come across. That will allow you to hear some wonderful music from Chicago House, Northern Soul and Deep Soul to New York Garage, Breakbeats and Philly Disco. Hopefully, after listening to Smooth Grooves and Philly Busters, and all the other twenty-eight compilations, you too, will explore much more of the music that features on these compilations. With The Sound of Philadelphia, there’s a treasure trove of brilliant music waiting to be discovered, with many of these classic albums being reviewed on this music blog.


Backbeats: Smooth Grooves-Sophisticated 80s Philly Soul

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