By 1977, The Salsoul Orchestra had established their reputation as disco’s premier orchestra. They’d been formed in 1975, and had already released a trio of albums, where disco, Philly Soul, funk, jazz, Latin and classical music were seamlessly fused. Much of the emphasis was on individual members stepping into spotlight and showcasing their considerable skills. With so many talented musicians in The Salsoul Orchestra’s lineup, their was abundance of talent. Baker, Harris, Young provided the rhythm section, Bobby “Electronic” Eli played guitar, Larry Washington congas and percussion while Vince Montana Jr played vibes. Add to that a full horn, string and woodwind section. The finishing touch were the legendary Philadelphia trio of backing vocalists, the Sweethearts of Sigma, who took charge of vocal duties. That’s why The Salsoul Orchestra was so successful. 

Founded and lead by vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr, who wrote, arranged, conducted and produced much of The Salsoul Orchestra’s music, it seemed they could do wrong when they released their fourth album Magic Journey in 1977. After all, their three previous albums had proved commercially successful, innovative and provided the soundtrack to many dance-floors. Would The Salsoul Orchestra’s fourth album Magic Journey continue this run of commercial success and critical acclaim?

Two years before the released Magic Journey in 1977, The Salsoul Orchestra released thir 1975 eponymous debut album The Salsoul Orchestra. It had reached number twenty in the US Billboard 200 and number fourteen in the US R&B Charts, selling a million copies in the process. In 1976, The Salsoul Orchestra released two albums. Nice ‘N’ Nasty reached number sixty-one in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts. Then following in the tradition of artists like Phil Spector, The Salsoul Orchestra released their classic Christmas album Salsoul Jollies, which reached number forty-eight in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-eight in the US R&B Charts. The Salsoul Orchestra it seemed, could do wrong. When The Salsoul Orchestra released their fourth album, Magic Journey, they were hoping to continue this run of successful albums.

For The Salsoul Orchestra’s fourth album Magic Journey, nine tracks were chosen. This included cover versions and new material. Of the Salsoul personnel, Vince Montana Jr, contributed three tracks. He wrote Magic Bird of Fire and cowrote Runaway and It’s A New Day With Janice Gugliuzza and Ronnie James. Vince also arranged covers of the folk song Guantanamera and Andre Mathieu and Victor Vogel’s Theme From Montreal Olympics, 1976: Farewell Song and Ballet of the Closing Ceremony. This would prove a controversial choice of song to cover. Other tracks included a cover of the Short Shorts, given a seventies makeover, plus Pasquale Spino’s Journey To Phoebus and Alpha Centuri, written and arranged by Peter De Angelis. So Magic Journey included an intriguing and eclectic collection of tracks that The Salsoul Orchestra recorded at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios.

When The Salsoul Orchestra arrived at Sigma Sound Studios, a few familiar faces were missing. Usually, Baker, Harris, Young provided the rhythm section. This time, only drummer Earl Young was present. Earl was joined bassists Michael “Sugarbear” Foreman, Gordon Edwards and Jimmy Dejulio, while Charles Collins also played drums. Guitarists included Bobby “Electronic” Eli, T.J. Tindall and Ronnie “The Hawk” James. Giving Magic Journey its percussive sound were Larry Washington, Crusher Bennet and Peter “Choki” Quintero who added congas, bongos and timbales, while Vince Montana Jr played vibes, timpani, wind chimes, bells and marimba. Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey and Cotton Kent played keyboards. Violinist Don Renaldo and  flautist Jack Faith were part of a fill string, woodwind and horn section. Adding backing vocals and harmonies were Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Evette Benton, the Sweethearts of Sigma. Arranging, conducting and producing Magic Journey was Vince Montana Jr, which was released in 1977.

On the release of Magic Journey in 1977, it reached number sixty-one the US Billboard 200 and number fifty-one in the US R&B Charts. The title-track, Magic Journey was released as a single, reaching number three in the US Dance Music/Club Play Charts. Then Getaway was released as a single, reaching number thirty-three in the US R&B Charts. Incredibly, Runaway featuring Loleatta Holloway’s classic vampish vocal, wasn’t released as a single. So, Magic Journey wasn’t as commercially successful as previous albums by The Salsoul Orchestra, but was the music as good as on previous albums?

Opening Magic Journey is It’s A New Day, written by Vince Montana Jr, with Janice Gugliuzza and Ronnie James. The arrangement bursts into life with the familiar sound of The Salsoul Orchestra. This means a pulsating disco beat courtesy of the rhythm section, dancing strings, flourishes of keyboards, a myriad of percussive delights and rasping horns. They drive the joyous arrangement along, providing a dance-floor friendly, infectiously catchy, joyful sound. What really makes the track are the harmonies. They’re punchy, urgent and soulful. Especially thanks to the Sweethearts of Sigma’s contributions. Like previous albums, they’re at the heart of the song’s joyful, hopeful and hook-laden sound, as disco, Philly Soul, Latin music and jazz unite.

Short Shorts was a track that puzzled critics. It’s a three-minute cover of song released in 1960, albeit with the lyrics changed to include band members. It’s like a trip back in time, to the late-fifties, early-sixties. There’s everything from R&B, surf music and jazz included. Think the hot rod and surf sound and you’re getting there. WIth the sound of an engine gunned, sassy harmonies from the Sweethearts of Sigma join a driving rhythm section, piano and bursts of blazing saxophone. Not only do they help drive the track along, but they help conjur up the sound of California from over fifty years ago. Surfing, hot roads, sandy beaches and drives-ins all come to mind during this three minutes trip back in time. Although sniffy seventies music critics fixated on west coast rock music didn’t like the track means nothing. Instead, it’s a vintage sounding slice of musical sunshine, guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Runaway saw The Salsoul Orchestra joined by the legendary diva Loleatta Holloway. Although it wasn’t released as a single, it’s since become a stonewall classic. Opening with Earl Young’s thunderous drums at the heart of the rhythm section, quickly, the introduction grows. Rasping horns, swirling strings and percussion accompany Loleatta. Her vocal is confident, defiant and powerful, while powerful drums punctate the arrangement and lush strings cascade. Vince lays down one of his best vibes solos, and with the chiming guitar sound, you’re in disco heaven. The arrangement sweeps along, with its potent combination of dramatic horns and drums, while percussion, vibes and strings provide a contrast. What makes the track is Loleatta’s vocal, as she confidently and defiantly vamps her way through a genuine and timeless disco classic.

A cover of the folk song Guantanamera might seem a strange choice for The Salsoul Orchestra. However, their talents could transform a track totally. Congas, bongos and a plucked harp combine, before the rhythm section, swathes of lush strings and Vince Montana Jr’s vibes take charge. Horns growl, then tender harmonies sweep in. Soon, a delicious fusion of musical styles unfolds. There’s everything from disco, Latin, lounge, jazz and even Caribbean music. Later, Jack Faith adds a flute solo, before layers of strings, growling horns and a myriad of percussion bring new life and meaning to an old song.

Probably the most controversial inclusion on Magic Journey was Andre Mathieu and Victor Vogel’s Theme From Montreal Olympics, 1976: Farewell Song and Ballet of the Closing Ceremony. Critics argued that The Salsoul Orchestra’s traditional soulful sound was sacrificed at the altar of classical music. The counter argument is that with its classical influence, especially the layers of sad, emotive strings at the heart of the arrangement was innovating and challenging and educating listeners. Along with flourishes of harpsichord, healthy sprinklings of percussion, a slow melancholy heartbeat from the rhythm section and the haunting addition of woodwind instruments it was an innovative, challenging track. It took some listener’s in a new direction. Maybe Vince Montana Jr, wanted to educate, as well as innovate. In the process, he allowed the musicians to demonstrate their versatility and considerable talents. That’s no bad thing.

Side One of Magic Journey opens with Getaway. Just subtle bongos and congas open the track. Then The Salsoul Orchestra get down to creating an uber funky track. This means the rhythm section, blazing, braying horns and layers of sweeping swirling strings. They join percussion, wah-wah guitars and keyboards. Horns growl, soaring above the arrangement as searing guitars and cascading strings demonstrate just why The Salsoul Orchestra were by 1977,disco’s premier orchestra. They’re at their best when they kick loose. Here, they fuse funk, jazz, disco and even rocky guitar licks, creating a peerless, funky Magnus Opus.

Magic Bird of Fire was the only track on Magic Bird written by Vince Montana Jr. There’s a real sinister, moody sound, thanks to the strings and grizzled horns. The rhythm section and percussion provide a pulsating, dramatic heartbeat as quivering, shivering strings provide a haunting contrast. A jangly boogie woogie piano adds another contrast and layer as the drama builds and builds. Eventually, it reaches a dramatic climax, then rebuilds, allowing you to enjoy this musical journey again. Again, it’s like the soundtrack to a film. Vince Montana Jr and the rest of The Salsoul Orchestra paint pictures, reminiscent of something Alfred Hitchcock in his prime would’ve produced.

As Journey To Phoebus begins you realize something special is unfolding. Gradually, the drama builds. Cinematic strings, growling horns, wah-wah guitars and a rhythm section that injects a dramatic, pulsating heartbeat. A myriad of percussion, melancholy, wistful woodwind and grizzled horns join bursts of thunderous drums. It’s not unlike the soundtrack to a seventies Blaxploitation movie, albeit one that’s yet unmade. A haunting, sinister vocal is added, before The Salsoul Orchestra continue painting pictures, pictures that are dramatic, moody and funky with a capital F. The result is one of the highlights of Magic Journey.

Closing Magic Journey, The Salsoul Orchestra’s fourth album is Alpha Centuri. The tempo drops, floaty strings, flourishes of harp and a sprinkling of percussion combine with lush strings. The Earl Young’s drums add pounding disco beat, while Bobby “Electronic” Eli adds his trademark guitar sound. What really makes the track is the strings, sweeping and swirling, providing a beautiful, elegant backdrop. Ethereal vocals are added as the drama builds, and the the rhythm section, braying horns and percussion join the lush strings in ensuring this Magic Journey ends in a hauntingly beautiful, ethereal but dramatic high.

While Magic Journey, The Salsoul Orchestra’s fourth album divided opinion among critics at the time, that has to be taken in context. Many critics weren’t fans of disco. Instead, they still were fixated on washed out sixties stars, West Coast rock and the first wave of punk music. To them, disco was the antithesis of their idea of what was fashionable and what people should be listening. They’d set themselves up as arbiters of taste and musical fashion. Given the power they had, they should’ve realized responsibility comes with it. What these reviewers missed, was a genre-sprawling album. 

Over nine tracks, The Salsoul Orchestra fused disco, Philly Soul, funk, jazz, Latin and classical music. Like previous albums, The Salsoul Orchestra, lead by Vince Montana Jr, lead the way for disco orchestras. Others may have tried to replicate the sound of The Salsoul Orchestra, but they were fearless trailblazers and innovators. Although they strayed from their previous sound on a couple of tracks, this was quite brave. It took real courage, risking incurring the wrath of acerbic, Cyclopean critics. Although Magic Journey wasn’t The Salsoul Orchestra’s most successful album, it saw The Salsoul Orchestra lay down a gauntlet and challenge their listeners. The challenge was accepting and understanding a complex fusion of music. Despite the critics saying Magic Journey lacked the Philly Soul sound of previous albums, if they’d released similar albums to The Salsoul Orchestra and Nice ‘N’ Nasty they’d have been criticised as releasing formulaic music. Like musicians and especially innovative musicians, The Salsoul Orchestra were dammed if the do, dammed if they don’t. Instead, The Salsoul Orchestra, lead by its brave and innovative took their listeners on a Magic Journey that crossed musical genres, as they started the next chapter in the Salsoul Records’ story. Standout Tracks: It’s A New Day, Runaway, Getaway and Magic Bird of Fire.


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