In the seventies, Philadelphia was a musical hotbed, with the City of Brotherly Love giving the world some of the greatest groups of the decade. Everyone remembers artists like Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass and Barbara Mason, plus groups like The O’Jays, The Three Degrees, M.F.S.B, The Trammps and Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes. Dig deeper, and Philadelphia as a musical city has so much more to offer. Love Committee, The Jones Girls, First Choice, Double Exposure and Archie Bell and The Drells to name a few. As disco began to rival Philly Soul as the Philadelphia’s most popular musical genre, other groups sprung up in Philly, including The Ritchie Family. They went on to become one of disco’s pioneering groups. Between 1975 and 1983, The Ritchie Family released nine albums, with lineup constantly evolving. Their debut album Brazil, was released before The Ritchie Family’s lineup was established. Taking charge of the vocals were another legendary Philly trio, the Sweethearts of Sigma. They were the greatest backing vocalists of the seventies, and played their part in cementing The Ritchie Family’s reputation as pioneers of disco. You’ll realise this when I tell you about Brazil, The Ritchie Family’s 1975 debut album.

When Honey and The Bees, another Philly group split-up, Cassandra Wooten and Gwen Oliver enrolled at Philadelphia’s School of Performing Arts. There they met Cheryl Mason Jacks. Later, the trio met Philadelphia record producer Richie Rome, who had lent his name to The Ritchie Family. Adding a T to his christian name, The Ritchie Family, who were created producer Jacques Morali were born. Little did they realize, that in The Ritchie Family, here was one of disco’s pioneering groups were born. All that was still to come. For The Ritchie Family’s debut album, Brazil, there was no established lineup of The Ritchie Family, three legendary Philly backing vocalists would fill this void… Sweethearts of Sigma.

With The Ritchie Family having no established lineup yet, the three legendary Philly backing vocalists the Sweethearts of Sigma, must have seemed the perfect choice. Their backing vocals can be heard on productions by Thom Bell, Gamble and Huff, Norman Harris and many more. Look at the sleeve-notes to any classic Philly Soul album and the Sweethearts of Sigma’s name will be there. Evette Benton, Carla Benson and Barbara Ingram were the Sweethearts of Sigma. Later, they’d provide backing vocals at Salsoul Records and became the voice of The Salsoul Orchestra and The Salsoul Strings. For The Ritchie Family’s 1975 debut album Brazil, the Sweethearts of Sigma provided the vocals. 

While the Sweethearts of Sigma provided the vocals, Beauris Whitehead, French producers Henri Belolo and Jacques Morali cowrote five of the tracks. This included Dance With Me, Life Is Fascination, Lady Champagne, Let’s Pool and Pinball. The other three tracks were cover versions, including Peanut Vendor, Frenesi and Ary Barroso’s Brazil. These eight tracks were recorded at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios.

At Sigma Sound Studios, Richard Rome arranged the tracks and was assistant producer. Producing Brazil was Jacques Morali, while the Sweethearts of Sigma added the vocals. Accompanying The Ritchie Family were a band that included the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, assisted by bassist Sugar Bear Foreman, drummer Charles Collins and guitarist Bobby “Electronic” Eli. Richie Rome played piano, congas came courtesy of Larry Washington, Vince Montana Jr, supplied vibes and Don Renaldo provided the strings and horns. Once the eight tracks that became Brazil were recorded, Brazil was released in 1975.

The lead single from Brazil was the title-track Brazil, which reached number eleven in the US Billboard 100. Dance With Me, the second single, then stalled at number eighty-four in the US Billboard 100. When The Ritchie Family’s debut album Brazil was released, it reached number fifty-three in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty-six in the US R&B Charts. Considering Brazil was The Ritchie Family’s debut album, and the group didn’t even have an established lineup, Brazil proved a commercial success, and launched one of disco’s pioneering groups, as you’ll realize when I tell you about Brazil.

Peanut Vendor opens Brazil, with a sound that’s made in Philly written all over it. A combination a funky, powerhouse of a rhythm section from Baker, Harris Young joins Bobby “Electronic” Eli’s wah-wah guitar, braying horns, lush, dancing strings and breathy backing vocals from the Sweethearts of Sigma. As strings cascade and horns blaze, Vince Montana Jr, sprinkles his vibes across the arrangement. Tender, sensuous harmonies sweep in, while jazzy horns, funky guitars and swathes of dancing strings combine. The clincher is the Sweethearts of Sigma vocal and harmonic masterclass. Their vocals veer from sweeping, sensuous, whooping and punchy. Combined with this all-star Philly band, it’s a glorious combination, joyous, innovative and pioneering, where Philly Soul, funk jazz and disco seamlessly become one. 

From the get-go, Frenesi bursts into life. Bursts of Earl Young’s drums, Larry Washington’s congas and Bobby “Electronic” Eli’s wah-wah guitar before bang, it’s all change. Horns growl, strings sweep and swirl frantically and Baker, Harris, Young kick loose, driving the track along. Woodwind provide a jazzy sound, Vince Montana Jr’s vibes provide a contrast as swathes of strings dance and high-licking horns unite, as this eight-minute epic reveals its secrets. When the Sweethearts of Sigma, needy, sensual harmonies enters, that’s the finishing touch. After that, a myriad of percussion, woodwind, grizzled horns and swirling strings join the Sweethearts of Sigma in taking you on a mesmeric musical journey where drama, beauty, sensuousness are ever-present.

Brazil was the lead single from Brazil, giving The Ritchie Family a number eleven single in the US Billboard 100. No wonder. After just a few notes you realise why. It’s grandiose, flamboyant and dramatic. Growling horns, frantic, cascading strings and a pulsating heartbeat from the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section give way to whooping, cooing and elegant harmonies from the Sweethearts of Sigma. Their harmonies float above the arrangement, atop layer of the lushest strings and punchy horns. Soon, the Sweethearts of Sigma’s harmonies become punchy, urgent and dramatic. With blazing horns, swirling strings and the Sweethearts of Sigma’s harmonies they close Side One in flamboyant, soulful and dramatic style.

Opening Side Two of Brazil is Dance With Me, the first of five consecutive tracks penned by Beauris Whitehead, Henri Belolo and Jacques Morali. There’s certainly no let up in the drama. The Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, growling horns and cascading strings join a deliberate, sultry and heartfelt vocal. Vince Montana Jr, adds subtle vibes, Bobby “Electronic” Eli’’s guitar is funky, wah-wahing its way across the arrangement. Whoops of joyous harmonies sweep in, with jazz-tinged rasping horns and woodwind for company. Soon the Sweethearts of Sigma take charge. They showcase their considerable vocal prowess. Behind them, the band seem spurred on, to ever greater musical heights. Strings sweep even higher, horns rasp that bit more and the rhythm section provide a heartbeat that’s even more pulsating. Now wonder, given the Sweethearts of Sigma spurring them on.

Life Is Fascination sees musical genres and influences combine. Swirling strings with classical stylings, funk is supplied by the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section and Bobby “Electronic’ Eli’s guitar while the Sweethearts of Sigma add vocals and harmonies that are Philly Soul through and through. They even outdo The Three Degrees for soulfulness. Horns rasp, strings swirl and sweep furiously and the rhythm section add a powerhouse of a rhythm section. However, it’s the Sweethearts of Sigma at their very best that make this one of Brazil highlights.

Dramatic. That’s the best way to describe the introduction to Lady Champagne. Bursts of the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, flourishes of strings and growling horns set the seem for the Sweethearts of Sigma. A sassy, powerful vocal is accompanied by punchy, whooping and doo-wop harmonies while jazzy woodwind and Ron Baker’s bass play important roles. Strings sweep and swirl, as the vocal grows in power and passion. Jazz, Philly Soul, funk and disco strings all play their part in this dramatic, impassioned slice of vintage sounding soulful music.

As Let’s Pool begins, it’s not unlike something you’d expect to hear on a Three Degrees album released on Philadelphia International Records. A combination of rasping horns, swathes of strings, Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section ensure this. Soon, it’s all change, and the track heads in a direction direction. You could almost cha cha to the arrangement and its jazzy sound. Plucked strings, punchy, breathy harmonies from the Sweethearts of Sigma and growling horns joining the rhythm section. Drama, beauty and flamboyance are combined, with the tight, talented band of Philly’s finest musicians and the Sweethearts of Sigma becoming one. They tease and tantalize, taking you on a genre-sprawling musical genre that’s truly irresistible.

Closing Brazil is Pinball. Against a backdrop of sound effects meant to replicate a pinball table, the arrangement unfolds. Recreating this sound is percussion and Vince Montana Jr’s vibes, before the rhythm section, bursts of braying horns and layers of urgent strings. The Sweethearts of Sigma add sassy vocal and punchy harmonies. These are perfect for the arrangement, that unravels at breakneck speed. Driven along by a pounding bass, layers of strings and sweeping harmonies that accompany a dramatic vocal, this brings Brazil to a dramatic conclusion.

Listening back to The Ritchie Family’s debut album Brazil, one thing that strikes me as something of a mystery? That’s why the Sweethearts of Sigma weren’t chosen as the permanent vocalists for The Ritchie Family. Given the Sweethearts of Sigma experience and considerable talents, which they showcased on Brazil, they were the natural choice. That this wasn’t the case, seems a missed opportunity? Richie Rome and Jacques Morali had the vocalists for The Ritchie Family already. There was no need to look elsewhere. No matter how hard or long they looked, they’d never find a trio of singers with the talent that Evette Benton, Carla Benson and Barbara Ingram had. Quite simply, the Sweethearts of Sigma were peerless. They’d no equal. Similarly, the musicians that played on The Ritchie Family’s debut album Brazil played their part in the album’s success.

With legendary musicians like Baker, Harris, Young plus Vince Montana Jr, Bobby “Electronic” Eli and Larry Washington playing on Brazil and providing the backdrop for the Sweethearts of Sigma’s vocals, it’s no surprise that The Ritchie Family’s debut album Brazil was such a success. Add to the equation producer Jacques Morali and Richie Rome’s arranging and production skills. It’s only then that you realize just why from The Ritchie Family’s debut album Brazil, they cemented their reputation as one of disco’s pioneering groups. This meant that yet another name was added to Philly’s musical hall of fame…The Ritchie Family. While The Ritchie Family went on to enjoy commercial success after Brazil, I just wonder whether they’d have enjoyed much more commercial success and critical acclaim with the Sweethearts of Sigma adding vocals, like they did on Brazil. Standout Tracks: Peanut Vendor, Brazil, Dance With Me and Life Is Fascination.


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