Philadelphia International Records was a label of refinement and musical excellence. The musically diverse label was started in 1971 by Philadelphia producers/writers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, and was originally distributed by Columbia Records. In short order, PIR became one of the leading labels in all of music and its roster had acts like The O’Jays, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and later Jean Carn, The Jacksons, Lou Rawls, and solo Teddy Pendergrass. For many, Philadelphia International Records would be nothing without its house band, MFSB, and producers like Gamble-Huff, Thom Bell, Bobby Martin, Norman Harris, and Dexter Wansel among many others.
Philadelphia International’s The 40th Anniversary Box Set, released in 2013 by the U.K. label Harmless Records to commemorate PIR’s 40th anniversary, features the work of many artists, producers, arrangers, writers and players.
The well-crafted set boasts 175 songs spanning the years 1972-1995. Unlike other sets, such as 1997’s The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff: The Story of Brotherly Love and 2008’s Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia, the 40th Anniversary Box Set includes no work from other labels. It does, however, include work from Philadelphia International’s subsidiary labels like Golden Fleece, Gamble Records (later TSOP), and Thunder. The 40th Anniversary Box Set also had a knowledgeable compiler at the helm—Ralph Tee, a Philadelphia International historian renowned for his 1986 14-album set, The Philadelphia Story 1971-1986. For The 40th Anniversary Box Set, Tee seemed to dig deeper, adding more obscurities as well as the definitive songs that capture Philadelphia International’s multitude of moods, styles, and production values.
The first disc centers on uptempo tracks that solidified Philadelphia International as a creator and/or forerunner of disco. The set list works up a dizzying pace and includes well-known and influential tracks like MFSB’s “K-Jee,” “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” “Sexy,” and the People’s Choice’s “Do Any Way You Wanna.” There’s not much in the way of surprises, except for two tracks from the Three Degrees including the all but forgotten “Year of Decision” and the prime and still charming “Take Good Of Yourself.”
Disc 2 continues with hard-edged work like the People’s Choice “Jam Jam Jam (All Night Long)” and MFSB’s “Get Down With the Philly Sound” sharing the same space with better known songs like Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody,” and The O’Jays’ “Love Train” (in its 1977 Tom Moulton remix and not the original album version.)
To its credit, The 40th Anniversary Box Set features a number of rare songs (particularly on Disc 3) that show the strength of the label’s trademark sound and the depth of its catalogue. The great songs in this vein include The Ethics’ first rate early ’70s tearjerker “Who’s Gonna Love Me,” as well other great tracks like Kaleidoscope’s “I’m a Changed Person,” Derek and Cyndi’s “You Bring Out the Best in Me,” and the Ebonys’ “You’re the Reason Why.”
The middle of The 40th Anniversary Box Set all but represents the changing sounds and styles of Philadelphia International. Much of the old guard had splintered into outfits like the Salsoul Records and had gone to work on other labels. For the most part, the players were replaced and the sound became more breezy, streamlined, and urbane. Discs 4, 5, and 6 encapsulate this era and the big hits include Lou Rawls’ “Lady Love,” Teddy Pendergrass’ solo songs like “When Somebody Loves You Back,” and of course tracks from the Jones Girls including “Life Goes On” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else.” Songs like The O’Jays’ “Use Ta Be My Girl” and Jerry Butler’s “( I’m Just Thinking About) Cooling Out” had a slightly anachronistic sound upon their release and proved how easy it was for the label to access its best sonic and production traits.
The 40th Anniversary’s seventh disc has great work from Dexter Wansel including “Life on Mars” and “The Theme from the Planets” doing battle with so-so jazz entries from acts like Monk Montgomery, Michael Pedicin Jr., and Thad Lewis and Mel Jones. The true jazzy swing of Philadelphia International was infinitely better illustrated by the O’Jays’ “You’re My Favorite Person” and Patti LaBelle’s “Lover Man.” Disc 7 also has MFSB featuring Thom Bell’s brilliant 1973 track “Something For Nothing,” which was the original flip side to “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).”
Disc 8 is arguably one of the strongest compilations of post-1977 Philadelphia International work that’s ever been assembled. This particular disc has 10 great songs in succession, including Patti LaBelle’s breathtaking “I’m in Love Again,” Dexter Wansel’s “The Sweetest Pain,” and Silk’s smooth “I Can’t Stop Turning You On.” This disc also includes textbook, late ’70s, early ’80s Philadelphia International fare like Jean Carn’s assured “Don’t Let it Go To Your Head,” The Stylistics’ “Mine All Mine,” The Futures’ “Ain’t Got Time Fa Nothin’,”and the Jones Girls’ great version of “Children of the Night.”
Unlike a lot of sets, The 40th Anniversary Box Set couldn’t end on a high note since the label seemed to be fraught with issues ranging from a depleted roster to difficulty adjusting to the changing musical landscape. Still, discs 9 and 10 offer gorgeous latter-day Philadelphia International songs like Phyllis Hyman’s “First Together,” Patti LaBelle’s “I Can’t Forget,” and the Stylistics’ instant classic, “Hurry Up This Way Again.” The 40th Anniversary Box Set ends with Teddy Pendergrass’ “Heaven Knows” and the Jones Girls’ “Baby Don’t Go Yet,” two songs that were released after the artists left the label.
Although The 40th Anniversary Box Set is a staggering 10 CDs, there are a few perplexing omissions. Philadelphia International classics like the Futures’ “Love Is Here,” The Three Degrees’ “I Didn’t Know,” The Intruders’ “I Wanna Know Your Name,” Bunny Sigler’s “That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You,” and Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love TKO” didn’t make the cut. Rare songs like Kaleidoscope’s “We’re Not Getting Any Younger” and work from Carolyn Crawford, the Soul Survivors, City Limits, and Elliott Hoffman were also omitted from the final list.
Nevertheless, Philadelphia International Records’ The 40th Anniversary Box features brilliant work from one of music’s most enduring labels.
Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and a music journalist.