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Listening Report: Vinyl Me, Please’s The Story Of Philadelphia International Records Boxed Set

Mark Smotroff gets his Philly groove on…

One of the latest in the series of fun anthologies from the good folks at Vinyl Me, Please (VMP) focuses on the music created by the legendary soul label, Philadelphia International Records. This company was the home for so many massive hits! The movers ’n shakers here not only helped forge new directions for soul and pop music in general for the 1970s but also rather expertly rode that fine line between creative quality and commercial success. In other words, they had many hits without artistic compromise.

Across eight LPs, The Story Of Philadelphia International Records gives you an excellent snapshot of what the label was about both in terms of hit making prowess as well as musicality. One of the things I found very interesting in the choices of albums here is that not all the obvious big hits are included. In fact some lesser known albums are included to paint a bigger picture of what the label was about. There is a great booklet included in the set and, in keeping with VMP’s multi-media aesthetic, you also get access to exclusive Podcasts about the music in the set. 

Another thing to remember about the appeal of a bold collection like The Story Of Philadelphia International Records is that not only have the albums been remastered lovingly – in an all analog process by Bernie Grundman from tape sources – they are pressed at RTI on high-quality 180-gram vinyl that sounds great (and which happens to be colored vinyl too!). 

There are many other factors making this set desirous for audiophiles.  Perhaps most notably is the hard reality that trying to find clean original copies of these albums is actually not that easy.  Most of the albums in the collection were popular party records back in the day and they were not played on the best audio gear. In fact, they were probably mostly played on inexpensive record players, because that is what most teenagers had back then. I have half of these albums albums in my collection and I can personally attest to how difficult it has been to find good sounding copies of albums from this label and time period.  Countless times I have upgraded as I find increasingly better condition copies of the albums (especially The O’Jay’s album!).

Another reason to consider embracing the new remasters vs. original pressings is that in the mid 1970s — the label’s peak years — America was undergoing a major oil crisis so there were restrictions on usage. For those not in the know, oil is a key ingredient in making vinyl!  And while almost nobody admits to it as far as I’ve read, it was fairly common knowledge among collectors — and sometimes quite obvious if you worked in retail and saw the returns coming in — that labels were cutting production corners with lower quality controls and seemingly using inferior vinyl formulations (and rumored recycling of old vinyl records).

Bottom line: vinyl pressings in the mid-70s could often be a bit noisy.  

Thankfully, these new reissues sound excellent, checking off two key factors in my watchlist: they are dead quiet as far as surface noise goes and well centered (which is crucial because otherwise the music can waver in and out of tune!).  

Also, they sound very very similar to my original editions (sans the surface noise!) which I’ve compared them to.I didn’t even have to adjust volume levels when I switched between the different records, they were that closely matched. 

One thing you might want to know note is that the recording sound on many Philadelphia international records was inherently rich and round. Each of the new editions seem to deliver a wee bit more brightness to the overall sound which I find quite welcoming as the originals often sported a quite mid-range-y vibe (if you will). At the end of the day, these grooves sported a taste of high hat to keep the smooth funky feel going on but in general these were never trebly recordings (like many modern recordings). That said, Philadelphia International recordings tend to sound real good when you turn them up loud (and most were dance/party records meant to be played loudly so, it stands to reason). 

Playing The Story Of Philadelphia International Records you may feel like you are on a time warp to 1976!

Among my favorites is the O’Jays classic Back Stabbers which is again one of those albums that is very difficult to find clean condition (I’ve upgraded copies of this at least three times over the years in my quest to find a cleaner original pressing). 

Billy Paul’s classic album with his smash hit “Me and Mrs. Jones” — 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul — was an obvious choice and it sounds terrific as well. 

Initially I was a little surprised at the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes album included as it was not the one with their really big early hit — “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” The album included, Wake Up Everybody was important in its own way thematically which you will be able to read about in the liner notes. This album contains the original version of a song which became an iconic pop disco smash hit for Thelma Houston: “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”

One of the more fascinating titles in The Story Of Philadelphia International Records boxed set is by producer Dexter Wansell, a member of the influential group MFSB. I had never heard or even seen this album around quite honestly and it is really excellent.  Mostly instrumental, this one features sounds bordering well into jazz-fusion spaces and definitely has a smooth funky soul vibe to it which just works.

While we’re near the topic of MFSB, their included album Love Is The Message is the home to the original Grammy winning 1974 hit “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” which became the theme song for legendary TV show Soul Train. This million selling song was a #1  crossover hit on Billboard’s pop and R&B charts. MFSB — which breaks out to “Mother Father Sister Brother” — was effectively The Wrecking Crew of Philadelphia, a group of musicians who played on recordings by most of the groups in this set as well as The Stylistics, The Spinners, Blue Magic, The Delfonics and many others. This album is in many ways ground zero for the music that became known as “disco.”

The Three Degrees 1973 album for Philadelphia International Records is important as it contains their mega huge hit “When Will I See You Again” which no doubt helped the label grow.  This is one of those albums which benefits greatly from the remastering as I don’t remember it ever sounding this rich and crisp on the original pressings.

One of the most interesting albums in the set is a compilation called Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto, a fundraiser from 1977 in which 100% of the net profits from the sale of the album went to fund Community Development Programs in Philadelphia. This collection works because of its diversity and yet it has just enough continuity from the underlying musicians.  Here you get tracks from many of the featured artists in The Story Of Philadelphia International Records boxed set plus The Intruders (who recorded the first singles for Gamble back in the ‘60s which led to the formation of Philadelphia International). Archie Bell & The Drells (which had early hits on Atlantic Records in the ‘60s) and Teddy Pendergrass (by then solo from his stint with Harold Melvin’s Bluenotes). 

Speaking of Harold Melvin, his cover here of Fred Neil’s classic “Everybody’s Talkin’” (a top 10 hit for Harry Nilsson in 1969) is one of the most interesting in the set. Foregoing the driving disco-leaning dance beats of the day (which were already in some ways becoming stale), this version pre-echoes the Afro-beat vibes of no less than King Sunny Ade.

The title track of Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto not only features most all the artists on the album doing the Gamble-Huff tune arranged by Dexter Wansel, but it also features a groove that feels more like a Bohannon track than Philadelphia International. Its a subtle detail but if you know Bohannon’s sound you’ll know what I mean (he’s one of the inspirations for many of Talking Heads’ relentless booty-shaking grooves). 

Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto  is also the only place in the set featuring Lou Rawls on the opening track, “Trade Winds.”

Since I mentioned Lou Rawls, I have to comment that perhaps the one conspicuous omission in this boxed set is his 1976 smash hit album on Philadelphia International called All Things In Time.  Not only was it the biggest album of his career, the hit Gambel-Huff-penned single “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” crossed over from the R’nB charts reaching the #2 spot on the pop charts. The album made it to #7 on the Billboard Top 200 charts. 

This was a very very popular album. How popular was it? Well, my Dad — who at the time was managing a warehouse in Passaic, NJ where I have no doubt he first heard the music — bought the album and played it incessantly when he was home. Truly, it was a crossover hit and it was this little suburban NJ kid’s first exposure to the label (I have the album in my collection today and it brings back so many memories of that moment in time). 

All that said, I suspect there might have been reasons it was not included such as licensing as well as perhaps that it simply didn’t necessarily fit with the underlying vibe of the set thematically. Fortunately for you, Dear Readers, you can easily find All Things In Time on CD, streaming and on vinyl. Don’t want to spend a lot of money? No problem. Check your local record store bargain bin or a thrift shop or flea market and you’ll find it there, I’m sure. Its a fun spin!

Other than that omission, The Story Of Philadelphia International Records is another all around excellent collection from the folks at Vinyl Me, Please. This set is a great way to get a solid initial deep dive education about the label and its music. Plus, for many of these albums, this is the only place to get these new remasters and in colored vinyl! 

Isn’t it time you got your Philly groove on? 

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