Every year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum joins the national celebration of Black History Month by devoting the entire month — February — to a different aspect of black music. This year, it’s focusing on Philly soul — the slick, string-leaden, but forceful sound that dominated the charts in the first half of the ’70s, becoming the predominant post-Motown/pre-disco R&B sound. It’s calling this 14th annual tribute Only the Strong Survive: The Sound of Philadelphia.
The impetus behind Philly soul was the Philadelphia International label, featuring the songwriting and production of label founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their colleague Thom Bell, which drove hits by artists like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Three Degrees, Teddy Pendergrass and Northeast Ohio's O’Jays.
The label also produced the familiar Soul Train theme song “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)," a huge Gamble/Huff-penned hit in 1974. They worked with the Jackson 5 as the group was making the transition from a teen-appeal pop group to the more dance-floor-oriented Jacksons in the mid-’70s, helping to pave the way for the group’s second flowering and eventually Michael’s solo career.
The tribute opens with a screening of Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America at 7 p.m. February 3 in the Rock Hall’s Foster 4th Floor Theater, with a pre-screening discussion at 6:30 with executive producer Kenard Gibbs, former president of Vibe magazine. That’s followed at 7 p.m. February 8 by a program with John Jackson, author of A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, hosted by Case Western Reserve’s Baker Nord Center for the Humanities at Clark Hall, room 309, (11130 Bellflower Rd.).
At 7 p.m. on February 17 in the Foster Theater, the From Songwriters to Soundmen series will present a live interview with Weldon McDougal III, a producer who, in the 60s, laid the groundwork for the lush Philly soul sound. Then, at 1 p.m. on February 19, also in the Foster Theatre, the Chi-Lites will be in the interview seat. The Chicago-based vocal group was one of a number of acts (along with groups like the Spinners, the Manhattans and the Stylistics) to have hits in a style very similar to the Philadelphia International groups.
From 7-8:30 p.m. on February 24, in the Foster Theatre, the Rock Hall’s monthly Rock and Roll Night School will give attendees the full scoop on Philly soul, as Dr. Lauren Onkey, the Rock Hall’s vice president of education and public programming, and Jason Hanley, its director of education, will talk about the history of the Philadelphia International label.
The month’s highlight will be a performance on the Rock Hall’s lobby stage by the Manhattans, featuring founding member Blue Lovett and Gerald Alston, lead singer on most of the band’s big hits. Their 1976 single “Kiss and Say Goodbye” was one of the biggest hits of the era. That will be at 8 p.m. Friday, February 26. Tickets are $10 and go on sale Monday through Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000 or ticketmaster.com.
Except for the Manhattans concert, all other events are free with a reservation; call 216-515-8426 to save your place. —Anastasia Pantsios