By 1973, Philadelphia International Records was well on the way to becoming one of the most successful record labels of all time, whilst supplying the soundtrack for the seventies, and a generation. Critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums started flowing out of Philadelphia. This included The O’Jays’ Backstabbers, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes’ I Miss You and Billy Paul’s 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. Each of these albums have one thing in common, the musicians that played on these albums. Known as M.F.S.B, not only would they accompany the artists on Philadelphia International Records, but became one of the label’s most successful groups. M.F.S.B. would released eight studio albums between 1973 and 1980. Their debut album was 1973s M.F.S.B. which featured the original and classic lineup of M.F.S.B. This included the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, guitarist Bobby “Electronic” Eli, vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr, percussionist Larry Washington and Don Renaldo and His Strings and Horns. These legendary musicians, were responsible for shaping and defining what became known as the Philly Sound. Sometimes, these musical legends don’t receive the credit they’re due. All too often, when someone mentions Philadelphia International Records, people think of Gamble and Huff. However, without the combined talents of M.F.S.B, who were much more than just musicians. People line Ron Baker, Norman Harris, Lenny Pakula and Vince Montana Jr, were songwriters, arrangers and producers, whose creativity and in some cases, sheer genius made Philadelphia International Records the musical force it became. All this creativity, talent and indeed, genius, shines through on the six songs that became M.F.S.B. Before I tell you about M.F.S.B, I’ll tell you about the background to the album.
Way before Philadelphia International Records was founded, the various musicians that became M.F.S.B. played together. They regularly played together in sessions for a whole host of artists. Look at any album by The Delfonics, The Detroit Spinners, The Stylistics or any number of artists and the same names played on each album. If Earl Young played drums, then Ron Baker would play bass and Norman Harris guitar. This would continue even during M.F.S.B’s time at Philadelphia International. The members of M.F.S.B. would have side projects, say working with producer Thom Bell or as producers in their own right. Norman “The Machine” Harris and Bobby “Electronic” Eli both worked as successful producers. Whoever they worked with, they’d pick up the phone to the rest of M.F.S.B. and instantly, an all-star backing band was in place. However, one thing these musicians had never done, was record as a band. Their debut album would come when they recorded M.F.S.B’s debut album M.F.S.B. in 1972.
Six songs were chosen for M.F.S.B’s debut album M.F.S.B. This included covers of Curtis Mayfield’s Freddie’s Dead, Sly Stone’s Family Affair and Poinciana, written by Buddy Bernier and Nat Simon. The other three songs were written in-house at Philadelphia International. This included one of their early success story’s, Backstabbers, previously a hit for The O’Jays and the title of their 1972 album. It had been written by McFadden and Whitehead with Leon Huff, who also contributed Lady In Low. Kenneth Gamble’s only contribution was Something For Nothing, which he cowrote with Thom Bell and Roland Chambers. These six tracks would be recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in Philly.
The lineup of M.F.S.B. was what’s become known as the classic lineup. Baker, Harris, Young provided the rhythm section, guitarists included Bobby “Electronic” Eli, Roland Chambers T.J. Tindall and Reginald Lucas. Anthony Jackson also played bass, and drummers included Karl Chambers and Norman Farrington. Vince Montana Jr, played vibes and Larry Washington congas and bongos. Lenny Pakula played organ, Eddie Green and Harold Williams piano and Leon Huff electric piano. Joining Don Renaldo and His String and Horn Section were saxophonist and flautist Tony Williams and alto-saxophonist Zach Zachary. Gamble and Huff produced the six tracks that became M.F.S.B, which was released in 1973.
On the release of M.F.S.B. in 1973, it reached number 131 in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty in the US R&B Charts. Only one single was released from M.F.S.B, Family Affair, which failed to chart. However, for a debut album M.F.S.B. had been a commercial success. M.F.S.B was just the beginning though, but what a way to start their career.
Opening M.F.S.B is a cover of Freddie’s Dead, arranged by Bobby Martin. The track explodes into life, searing guitars, cinematic strings, percussion and a pounding, dramatic Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section. Ron Baker plays standup bass, while Zach Zachary unleashes a blistering, blazing alto saxophone solo. Joining him are rasping horns, a dramatic rhythm section, chiming guitars and percussion. Later, Vince Montana Jr. lays down a vibes solo, while behind him, waves of dramatic, frenzied music unfold. M.F.S.B. deliver the music with equal amounts of drama, urgency and passion. It’s almost as if they pride themselves are their ability to seamlessly fuse jazz, soul and funk during seven minutes of scintillating, music. If Freddie’s Dead, then this is the most fitting tribute.
Another of the cover versions on M.F.S.B. is Sly and The Family Stone’s Family Affair. Not for M.F.S.B. the loose, laid back sound of the original. There’s much more urgency and drama in the music. Sometimes, M.F.S.B. even outdo Sly Stone for sheer funkiness. Waves of pounding, punchy and dramatic music unfold. Horns punchy and growling join a thunderous Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section and melodic keyboards. Bobby “Electronic” Eli lays down a dramatic guitar line, while funk, soul and jazz combine. Wah-wah guitars, grizzled horns, a driving rhythm section and keyboards provide the engine to this powerhouse of a track, that masterfully totally reinvents Sly Stone’s classic.
Something For Nothing was the only song Kenny Gamble cowrote on M.F.S.B. He cowrote the song with Roland Chambers and Thom Bell, who arranged the track. Just a pensive piano panned left, explores the arrangement, before it’s all change. A thunderous rhythm section, dramatic piano, Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and horns, complete with Thom Bell signature sound combine. Strident, dramatic and with a sense of urgency, the arrangement unfolds. Waves of horns, swathes of strings and the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section in full flight combine dramatically. Vince’s vibes sit in the background, as wave upon wave of dramatic, theatrical music unfold majestically and symphonically.
Backstabbers had given The O’Jays a huge hit, but here M.F.S.B. totally reinvent the song. It becomes something it was never meant to be, but thank goodness. From the get-go, M.F.S.B. kick loose. It’s as if arranger Lenny Pakula dares them. A flute, thunderous, dramatic Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section are joined by blazing horns, searing guitars and a Lenny Pakula’s wailing Hammond organ. Having given the track a jazzy twist, they add elements of funk, rock and soul. As the horns kick loose, they reveal a heartfelt, soulful, emotive sound, that draws you in. Searing rocky guitars explore the track’s nuances, while the rhythm section add drama whilst providing the track’s pulsating heartbeat. Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and percussion are almost a calming contrast to the drama, energy, enthusiasm and power of the rest of M.F.S.B. For six minutes plus, they take Backstabbers, explore its subtleties, secrets and nuances, deconstructing and then reconstructing the track. In doing so, they rebuild, revitalize and reenergize a classic track, M.F.S.B. style.
Lay In Low is arranged by Norman Harris and given a delicious, jazzy twist. Space, beauty and emotion are ever-present, with just Vince Montana Jr’s vibes, Earl Young’s thoughtful drums and Norman Harris jazz-tinged guitar combining. Sultry horns are joined by Lenny Pakula’s Hammond organ and percussion courtesy of Larry Washington. Soon, M.F.S.B. have locked into the tightest, sultriest and most beautiful jazzy grooves. So good and so beautiful is the track, you hope it goes on forever and that you find the secret of eternal life, so the track can massage your weary soul.
Closing M.F.S.B. is Poinciana, arranged by Vince Montana Jr. He gives the track an orchestral sound, using swathes of the lushest strings and dramatic flourishes of grandiose piano. This time, the rhythm section’s role is to provides a steady heartbeat. The piano, flute and quivering, shivering strings take centre-stage. They’re the stars of the show, while bursts of wah-wah guitar drift in and out. Later, Norman Harris steps forward, adding a jazzy guitar solo, while layers of strings sweep above, providing an emotive backdrop. The result is a dramatic, grand and orchestral track, where Vince Montana Jr, shows how innovative, talented and creative an arranger he was.
Having previously provided the musical backdrop for artists like The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes and Billy Paul, it was time for M.F.S.B. to show they were more than the hottest house-band in America. It was like a challenge. Not only did M.F.S.B. rise to the challenge, but revelled in it. They kicked back and then kicked loose, showing that now was the time they stepped out of the shadows. Suddenly, all this creativity was unleashed. Cover versions new and old were reinvented. Songs subtleties, secrets and nuances were explored. Then the song was deconstructed and then reconstructed in a way that had never ever been envisaged. Proof of this are Freddie’s Dead, Backstabbers and Family Affair, where funk, soul and jazz become one. Proving M.F.S.B. were no one trick pony, is the jazz-tinged beauty of Lay In Low and the majestic, orchestral sound of Poinciana. While M.F.S.B. might not have been M.F.S.B’s most successful album, it showed their versatility and creativity. It also showed that M.F.S.B. were an innovative, multitalented band.
Without M.F.S.B, Philadelphia International Records might not have become the success story it became. Maybe, critical acclaim and commercial success might have eluded them. History may have been very different. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. At least Gamble and Huff realised just how talented M.F.S.B. were. They went on to become one of Philadelphia International Records’ most successful artists. The album that started this off was M.F.S.B. It’s proof, if any were ever needed, of just how versatile, creative and innovative a band M.F.S.B. were. Standout Tracks: Freddie’s Dead, Backstabber, Family Affair and Lay In Low.