At its peak, which lasted for much of the 1970s, the music of the Philadelphia International label found the sweet spot between classic Motown and full-throttle disco. Gospel-schooled singers, vibrant grooves and brilliant arrangements of hook-filled songs combined to make a sound that had a smooth, high-gloss finish but was never merely slick. What stood out was a warmth that still goes right through you as soon as “Back Stabbers”, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” or “The Love I Lost” come on the radio. And if you were paying attention, there were some classics between the cracks and on the albums: the O’Jays “Stairway to Heaven”, Bunny Sigler’s “Tossin’ and Turnin'”, and Billy Paul’s epic version of “Your Song”, which I practically wore out when it appeared on the B-side of “Mr and Mrs Jones” in 1972.
My favourite of the lot is “Bad Luck” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, a track from their album To Be True and a Top 20 hit single in 1975, when its six and a half minutes were spread over two sides of a 45. It’s featured on Be for Real, a new three-CD box containing the group’s first four albums — I Miss You, Black & Blue, To Be True and Wake up Everybody, including all their big hits — on two discs, with a third devoted to a selection of disco mixes and live tracks.
“Bad Luck”, produced by label bosses Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and written by the in-house team of Victor Carstarphen, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, is the gloomiest uptempo dancefloor-filler you’ll ever hear, an unrelieved tale of woe delivered by Teddy Pendergrass: “Played a number ’cause that number’s hot / But the bookies get you for every cent you got / Walkin’ round in a daze with your pockets bare / Got to see your woman and she ain’t even there…” And there’s more despair where that came from.
Of course it’s the music that really grabs you, as it was always meant to. A boiling rhythm track from the MFSB team features Earl Young’s flying hi-hat, Vince Montana’s vibes and, most of all, Ronnie Baker’s colossal bass guitar lines, featuring Jamerson-level passing notes and register leaps and a two-bar downward run at the end of every eight-bar unit that is the record’s real hook, the turnaround to end them all. (You can hear it even more clearly on the eight-minute Tom Moulton 12-inch mix, at the cost of a de-emphasising of Young’s drums.)
The breakdown is stunning, Bobby Martin’s great arrangement clearing space for Pendergrass to do his thing as the singer riffs on the world’s discontents and turns the tune into a protest song. He brings home the morning paper, sits down and opens it up, and doesn’t like what he reads: “Saw the President of the United States / The man said he was gonna give it up / He’s givin’ us high hopes / But he still turned around and left us poor folks behind / They say they got another man to take his place / But I don’t think he can satisfy the human race…” And then he glimpses redemption: “The only thing I got that I can hold on to / Is my God, huh, my God / Jesus be with me / Jesus give me good luck / Help me, Jesus…” As he cuts loose in the Sigma Sound vocal booth at the close of this epic, we’re reminded that at the age of 10 Teddy Pendergrass was already an ordained deacon — and also, in the brilliant timing of his half-choked whoops and hollers, that it was as a drummer that he joined the group in 1970, before Melvin spotted his potential as a lead singer.
These three discs are littered with fantastic tracks: “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”, “I Miss You”, “Yesterday I Had the Blues”, “Be for Real”, “It’s All Because of a Woman”, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and so on, with a Vegas-lounge version of “Cabaret” virtually the only misstep. They defined a whole scope of feeling: a particular lush anguish that Pendergrass exploited so well. And “Bad Luck” is one of the masterpieces of its era.
* Be for Real: The P. I. R. Recordings 1972-75 is out now on the Soulmusic label.