When eventually, someone decided to write a proper, comprehensive history of Philadelphia International Records, I hope that they separate the music into two parts. The first part was what I’d call Philadelphia International Records’ golden period, between 1972 and 1975 and then the second part, from 1976 onwards. There’s a good reason for doing this. Between 1972 and 1975, music released by Philadelphia International Records featured the classic lineup of M.F.S.B. They’re often referred to as Philadelphia International Records’ house-band. That however, is doing them a huge disservice.
M.F.S.B. were much more than a house-band. These musicians were also songwriters, arrangers and producers. Look at the sleeve-notes to any album released on Philadelphia International Records between 1972 and 1975, and you’ll see that among the arrangers, producers and songwriters were Vince Montana Jr, Norman Harris and Ron Baker. This dispels the myth, sometimes perpetuated by people who should know better, that M.F.S.B. were “just” Philadelphia International Records’ house band. Indeed, M.F.S.B. provided the heartbeat to the music of Billy Paul, The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, The Three Degrees and countless others. M.F.S.B. were also one of Philadelphia International Records’ most successful acts.
Love Is The Message was M.F.S.B’s debut album, released in 1973, with M.F.S.B. following later that year. During 1975, a pivotal year for both Philadelphia International Records and M.F.S.B, M.F.S.B. released two more albums. The first of these, Universal Love would prove to M.F.S.B’s penultimate album for Philadelphia International Records. Philadelphia Freedom was released later in 1975. However, when Universal Love was released, M.F.S.B. and musical auteurs Gamble and Huff were locked in a dispute.
At the heart of M.F.S.B’s dispute with Gamble and Huff was money. Although people involved aren’t keen to divulge exact details, it has been alleged that musicians were only offered a pay increase of $5, from $25 to $30 a session. Arrangers and producers were only offered an increase of $10, from $50 to $60 a session. Now this was a risky situation. After all, M.F.S.B. were Philadelphia International Records’ crown jewels. Replacing the original lineup wouldn’t be possible. Where would you find another Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, Vince Montana Jr, Bobby “Electronic” Eli or Larry Washington? It’s not as if Gamble and Huff would be able to wander down to Manpower and hire an all-star band. Granted Philly had many talented musicians, but not as good as the original lineup of M.F.S.B. This was a high stakes poker game. Who was bluffing?
Dring 1975, while the negotiations continued, there was still music to be made, including albums by M.F.S.B. They would release two albums during 1975. The first was Universal Love.
Universal Love featured eight tracks. Gamble and Huff cowrote just three tracks, Sexy, M.F.S.B and My Mood. Three tracks prove my point about how M.F.S.B. were much more than musicians. Ron Baker cowrote Human Machine with Leon Huff, while Norman Harris and Bobby Martin cowrote T.L.C. (Tender, Lovin’ Care) and Bruce Hawkes and Cynthia Biggs cowrote Love Has No Time Or Place. Norman Harris, Ron Baker and Bruce Hawkes were all locked in the dispute with Gamble and Huff. Of the other two tracks, McFadden and Whitehead plus Victor Castarphen cowrote Let’s Go Disco with Leon Huff. Charles Heardon wrote K-Jee and would later, hit the jackpot, when the track was included on the fifteen-million selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. These eight tracks became Universal Love. Like previous M.F.S.B. albums, recording of Universal Love took place at Sigma Sound Studios in Philly, owned by Joe Tarsia.
The recording sessions for Universal Love proved to be the penultimate appearance of the original and best lineup of M.F.S.B. Playing on Universal Love were all the M.F.S.B. greats. Providing the album’s heartbeat were the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, along with guitarists Bobby “Electronic” Eli and Roland Chambers. Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey and Leon Huff played keyboards, Larry Washington percussion and Vince Montana Jr. vibes. Violinist Don Renaldo was part of the string section and alto saxophonist Zach Zachery plays an important part in Universal Love’s sound. Norman Harris, Bobby Harris and Bruce Hawkes all arranged or produced tracks, while Gamble and Huff produced five tracks. Once Universal Love was completed, it was released in 1975.
On the release of Universal Love in 1975, it reached number forty-four in the US Billboard 200 and number two in the US R&B Charts. T.L.C. (Tender, Lovin’ Care) was released as a single, reaching number fifty-four in the US R&B Charts and number four in the US Disco Singles Charts. Sexy then reached number forty-two in the US Billboard 200, number two in the US R&B Charts and number one in the US Disco Singles Charts. Given how successful Universal Love had been, surely Gamble and Huff would realize just how important M.F.S.B. were to Philadelphia International Records? Was that the case? I’ll tell you that, once I’ve told you about the music on Universal Love.
Opening Universal Love is the Gamble and Huff penned and produced Sexy, arranged by Bobby Martin. Just Norman Harris’ chiming guitar opens the track, before M.F.S.B. kick loose. Vince Montana Jr’s vibes, Bobby “Electronic” Eli’s wah-wah guitar and an uber funky Baker, Harris, Young join growling horns and lush, dancing strings. Soon, the music veers between funk, disco and jazz. One minute it’s choppy and funky, the next strings ensure it flows smoothly along. Horns blaze, strings swirl and the rhythm section provide a pulsating heartbeat. They’re augmented by vibes, percussion and wah-wah guitars as M.F.S.B. lay down a marker, showing just what they can do. In doing so, the irresistibly fuse funk, jazz and disco seamlessly and peerlessly.
Not many bands have a track named after them. M.F.S.B. did. Written by Gamble and Huff and arranged by Bobby Martin, it’s a fitting tribute to M.F.S.B’s combined talents. Stabs of keyboards, a pounding Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section and waves of Hammond organ combine, before the horns and strings get to work. Horns growl, strings dance with joy while, Vince Montana Jr, subtly sprinkles vibes. Soon, M.F.S.B. have hit their stride. The arrangement is a mass of braying horns, cascading string, while the thunderous rhythm section drive the arrangement along. While every member of M.F.S.B. play their part, it’s the horns that tug at your heartstrings. They’re crucial to the sheer beauty, emotion and drama of the arrangement, making this such a potent, powerful and moving track.
Human Machine was penned by Ron Baker with Leon Huff. It has a much more experimental sound. Given the title, this isn’t unexpected. There’s a spacious, choppy and thoughtful sound to the arrangement as it unfolds. The unmistakable sound of Bobby “Electronic” Eli’s wah-wah guitar is at heart of the arrangement. Keyboards, the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section and grizzled horns provide the mainstay of the arrangement. When strings sweep in, they smoothen out the arrangement, which still, has a jumpy, edgy sound and feel. Although this track is quite different to the two previous tracks, it’s an innovative track, something which Philadelphia International Records were famous for.
Love Has No Time Or Place closes Side One of Universal Love. Here, backing vocalists join M.F.S.B. Strangely, it isn’t the Sweethearts of Sigma. They play their part in this grand and lush, dance-floor friendly track. Blazing horns, lush, wistful strings and elegant, crystalline harmonies sweep in while Baker, Harris, Young provide a funk, hustle style backdrop. They’re joined by vibes courtesy of Vince Montana Jr, percussion, keyboards and even synths. While this wasn’t the first time synths appeared on a Philadelphia International Records’ album, they seem out of place in the arrangement. Here’s this grand disco orchestra with all these traditional instruments. Then this slightly space-age sounding synth is added. Thankfully this doesn’t spoil the track, as it floats along, with harmonies, strings and horns key to the track’s sound and success.
T.L.C. (Tender, Lovin’ Care) opens Side Two of Universal Love. Written by Norman Harris and Bobby Martin, a curveball is thrown when a jazzy introduction unfolds. Sultry horns take you back to another era. Then it’s all change. Baker, Harris, Young take charge, combining with a Hammond organ and Bobby “Electronic” Eli’s wah-wah guitar. Next comes rasping horns and swirling strings. Norman Harris lays down some of his unique jazz-tinged guitar lines, while pensive horns, dancing strings and bursts of Earl Young’s thunderous drums play crucial roles. There’s a real hustle sound to this joyful, uplifting fusion of Philly soul, jazz, funk and disco, which quite simply, is one of the best tracks on Universal Love.
Let’s Go Disco is driven along by the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, piano and percussion. Chanted vocals are added before blazing horns and sweeping strings enter. With the vocals and rhythm section combining, this gives the arrangement a real hypnotic, driving sound. It’s catchy, memorable and sheer simplicity. It’s like a mantra, a call to dance, to a soundtrack provided by M.F.S.B.
K-Jee proved to be the most successful track on Universal Love. Charles Heardon who wrote K-Jee, would later, hit the musical equivalent of fifteen consecutive home runs, when the track was included on the fifteen-million selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. From the stabs of keyboards, percussion, urgent flourishes of strings and grizzled horns you’re transported back to disco’s heyday. M.F.S.B. seem to raise their game even higher. A myriad of percussion join Baker, Harris, Young, searing guitars and rasping horns. Strings dance, swirl and sweep and Bobby “Electronic” Eli adds wah-wah guitar. Zach Zachary’s growling alto-saxophone and a wash of wailing Hammond organ provide the icing and cherry for this delicious, cake. So good and tasty was the cake, that it sold fifteen-million slices.
Closing Universal Love is My Mood a much more mellow track. Just a subtle sprinkling of Vince Montana Jr’s vibes, percussion and Norman Harris’ sparse jazzy guitar combine before the arrangement grows. Baker, Harris, Young provide the understated heartbeat. Melancholy strings sweep and swirl, horns rasp and growl while keyboards add a warm melodic sound. M.F.S.B. resist the urge to kick loose one more time. Only the horns, drums and strings are given leeway, but don’t overdo things, bringing Universal Love to a mellow, pensive and quite beautiful close.
The standoff between M.F.S.B. and Gamble and Huff certainly never affected the quality of music on Universal Love. Quite the opposite. It’s almost as if M.F.S.B. were determined to show Gamble and Huff what they were risking losing. This was a high stakes poker game. Universal Love saw the stakes rising. M.F.S.B. upped the ante. Baker, Harris, Young, Bobby “Electronic” Eli, Larry Washington and Vince Montana raised their game, fusing Philly Soul, funk, disco and jazz. This was another impressive addition to M.F.S.B’s discography. After Universal Love, the original lineup of M.F.S.B. recorded one more album for Philadelphia International Records, Philadelphia Freedom. That proved to be a prophetic title. By the time Philadelphia Freedom was released, the original lineup of M.F.S.B. had achieved their own version of Philadelphia Freedom.
Realizing their demands weren’t going to met, they called Gamble and Huff’s bluff. When no agreement could be reached M.F.S.B. headed to New York, taking their considerable talents to Salsoul Records, where they became The Salsoul Orchestra. As a result, Gamble and Huff lost some of the most talented musicians of the seventies. This included the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, who provided M.F.S.B.’s heartbeat, guitarist Bobby “Electronic” Eli, vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr, violinist Don Renaldo, percussionist Larry Washington and keyboard player Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey. By the time 1975 was over, The Salsoul Orchestra’s debut album had sold over one-million copies. The original members of M.F.S.B. had played and won what was a high stakes poker game. Following the departure of many of the original lineup of M.F.S.B. the music on Philadelphia International Records was still among the best in seventies soul, but lacked something.
That something, was the combined talents of the original members of M.F.S.B. There’s no doubt that Philadelphia International Records were affected by the loss of such hugely talented musicians. M.F.S.B. Mk II couldn’t fill the shoes of their predecessors. Not only was that a big ask, but almost impossible. Granted, their replacements were talented musicians, and Philadelphia International Records continued to release critically acclaimed and commercially successful music. However, M.F.S.B. were never the same. After all, how do you replace the irreplaceable?
Ironically, many of the musicians that became The Salsoul Orchestra flourished. It was as if their talents were unleashed. Baker, Harris, Young, Bobby “Electronic” Eli, Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey and Vince Montana Jr. all flourished as songwriters, arrangers and producers at Salsoul. Gamble and Huff’s loss was very much Salsoul’s gain. Anyone who listens to Universal Love will realize that. Not only does Universal Love features M.F.S.B. at the peak of their powers, but whilst playing one of highest stakes poker games in musical history. The lesson to be learnt from this saga, is that “the workman is worthy of his hire.” Standout Tracks: Sexy, M.F.S.B, T.L.C. (Tender, Lovin’ Care) and Love is My Mood.