CULT CLASSIC: M.F.S.B.-UNIVERSAL LOVE.

Cult Classic: M.F.S.B.-Universal Love.

Unlike Motown, countless books haven’t been written about Philadelphia International Records. That’s a missed opportunity, as there are many stories waiting to be told. Until now, only parts of the Philadelphia International Records’ story has been told. Many of those who played an important part in the rise and rise of Philadelphia International Records, haven’t had the opportunity to tell their story. This is a missed opportunity as Philadelphia International Records is one of the most important labels in the history of soul music.

The history of Philadelphia International Records can be separated into two distinct periods. In 1971, the label was founded by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff within a year they were enjoying  commercial success and critical acclaim. This was the start of the  label’s first period, a golden era which lasted between 1972 and 1975.  

From 1976 onwards was Philadelphia International Records’ second period.The label still released the a number of classic soul albums, and some of their releases enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim. However, by the late-seventies through to the early eighties, there sometimes seemed to be a lack of quality control at the label, and the albums released were a mixed bag. Some of the artists just weren’t good enough to be signed to Philadelphia International Records. It was a very different label to the one that released some of the finest soul music between 1972 and 1975.  

During that period, Philadelphia International Records released a string of classic soul albums. Playing their part in the sound and success of these albums was the original and classic lineup up 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 members of M.F.S.B. like Vince Montana Jr, Norman Harris and Ron Baker were arrangers, producers and songwriters. This dispels the myth sometimes perpetuated by people who should know better, that M.F.S.B. were “just” Philadelphia International Records’ house band.  Instead, they 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, which was a pivotal year for both Philadelphia International Records and M.F.S.B, they released two more albums.

The first of these, was Universal Love, which would prove to be M.F.S.B’s penultimate album for Philadelphia International Records. Philadelphia Freedom which proved to be M.F.S.B’s swansong for Philadelphia Freedom was released later in 1975. However, by the time Universal Love was released, M.F.S.B. and musical auteurs Gamble and Huff were locked in what was a bitter 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 per session. Arrangers and producers were only offered an increase of $10, from $50 to $60 per session. This was a risky situation as M.F.S.B. were Philadelphia International Records’ crown jewels and featured on every album.

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 ad onlookers wondered which side was bluffing?

During 1975, while the negotiations continued, there was still music to be made, including albums by M.F.S.B. This included Universal Love.

It featured eight tracks, with Gamble and Huff contributing just three, Sexy, M.F.S.B and My Mood. Leon Huff  joined forces with McFadden and Whitehead plus Victor Castarphen to write Let’s Go Disco. One of the best know racks on the album was K-Jee which was written by Charles Heardon and later, was included on the fifteen-million selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

The three other tracks that would feature on Universal Love prove that  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). Bruce Hawkes and Cynthia Biggs cowrote Love Has No Time Or Place. Just like previous M.F.S.B. albums, recording of Universal Love took place at Sigma Sound Studios in Philly, which was owned by Joe Tarsia.

By the time the recording sessions began, Norman Harris, Ron Baker and Bruce Hawkes were still all locked in the dispute with Gamble and Huff.  The members of M.F.S.B. were professionals and didn’t let the dispute affect their performances during the session. Sadly, 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 and were joined by percussionist Larry Washington and vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr. 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 later 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. When T.L.C. (Tender, Lovin’ Care) was released as a single, it 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. Surely now  Gamble and Huff would realise just how important M.F.S.B. were to Philadelphia International Records? They were responsible for a successful album that had won over critics and has stood the test of time.

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 rhythm section 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, but M.F.S.B. did. It was written by Gamble and Huff and arranged by Bobby Martin, and is a fitting tribute to their considerable 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 across the arrangement.  Soon, M.F.S.B. have hit their stride and the arrangement is a mass of braying horns and cascading string as the thunderous rhythm section drive the arrangement along. Here, every member of M.F.S.B. play their part, but it’s the horns that tug at your heartstrings. They’re crucial to the sheer beauty, emotion and drama of the arrangement and make this such a potent, powerful and moving track.

Human Machine was penned by Ron Baker with Leon Huff and 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. It’s quite different to the two previous tracks, and is best described as innovative track, something which Philadelphia International Records were famous for.

On Love Has No Time Or Place backing vocalists join M.F.S.B. Strangely, it isn’t the Sweethearts of Sigma who were also such an important part in Philadelphia International Records’ sound and success. The backing vocalist play their part in this grand, 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 space-age synths. While this wasn’t the first time synths appeared on a Philadelphia International Records’ album, and they seem out of place in the arrangement. 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) was written by two legends of Philly Soul, Norman Harris and Bobby Martin. Straight away, a curveball is thrown when the jazzy introduction unfolds and sultry horns take you back to another era. Then it’s all change. Baker, Harris, Young take charge and join forces with a Hammond organ and Bobby “Electronic” Eli’s wah-wah guitar. Next comes rasping horns and swirling strings before Norman Harris lays down some of his unique jazz-tinged guitar lines. Meanwhile, 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, and Universal Love saw the stakes rising.

Baker, Harris, Young, Bobby “Electronic” Eli, Larry Washington and Vince Montana Jr. had raised their game on Universal Love fusing Philly Soul, funk, disco and jazz. M.F.S.B. had upped the ante with another commercially successful and critically acclaimed album. It was another impressive addition to their 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.

Realising their demands weren’t going to met, M.F.S.B. 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, which had been founded by the Cayre brothers. The members of M.F.S.B. became The Salsoul Orchestra  who nowadays,  are regarded as the greatest of the disco orchestras. They played their part in the rise and rise of Philadelphia International Records. 

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. This was a huge loss for Gamble and Huff. They couldn’t replace the irreplaceable.

By the time 1975 was over, The Salsoul Orchestra’s eponymous 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., Philadelphia International Records still released a number of classic soul albums that were commercially successful. However, by the late-seventies and into the early eighties there seemed to be a lack of quality control at Philadelphia International Records. Some of the artists and groups that were signed weren’t good enough, and others were living on past glories. The albums they released were mixed bags at best and destined for the dollar bins after failing  to excite critics or record buyers. It was changed days for Gamble and Huff

By the mid-eighties, Philadelphia International Records was no longer as successful as it once was. Gone were the days when albums would sell a million copies, and a roster included legends of Philly Soul  like Billy Paul, The O’Jays, The Three Degrees, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes and later, Teddy Pendergrass. Long gone were the original lineup of M.F.S.B. who had played such an important part in the Philadelphia International Records’ story. 

There’s no doubt that the loss of the combined talents of the original members of M.F.S.B. affected Philadelphia International Records. They were hugely talented musicians, arrangers, producers and songwriters and played an important part in the success of Philadelphia International Records between 1972 and 1975. M.F.S.B. Mk II couldn’t fill the shoes of their predecessors. That was almost impossible and while they were talented musicians,  the music Philadelphia International Records never sound the same. It  was the end of an era.

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 realise that. Not only does Universal Love features M.F.S.B. at the peak of their powers, 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.” Especially if they’re as talented as the original and classic lineup of M.F.S.B.

Cult Classic: M.F.S.B.-Universal Love.

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2 Comments

  1. Now here’s a project for you Derek a book on the Philly Sound. 🙂

    • A friend in Philly mentioned that to me a few years ago. They they felt that nobody had written the definitive history of Philly Soul, and only part of the story has been told. I’d love to be the person that wrote the book. Maybe one day.

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