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The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia: “Love Train” by The O’Jays

The O’Jays single for Love Train

Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “Love Train” from The O’Jays’ 1972 album Back Stabbers.

In some ways, we’ve saved the best for last. The most unifying, the most uplifting, the most iconic.

“Love Train” is also the only Essential Love Song of Philadelphia that was not made by a Philadelphia band. Canton, Ohio pop vocal ensemble The O’Jays spent the 60s kicking around as a five-piece with single releases here and there that occasionally gained some notoriety on the R&B charts (“Lipstick Traces” being the most notable) but never broke through to the top, nor to the overall Billboard Top 40. By 1972, the band was at a crossroads that saw founding members Bill Isles and Bobby Massey part ways with their bandmates Walter Williams, Eric Grant, and Eddie Levert. Ironically, this was where The O’Jays’ fortunes began to change, with the newly-minted trio coming under the wings of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Continue reading →

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The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia: “When Somebody Loves You Back” by Teddy Pendergrass

Teddy Pendergrass’ 1978 album Life Is A Song Worth Singing

Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “When Somebody Loves You Back” from Teddy Pendergrass’ 1978 album .

There’s an amazing scene (one of many) in the extraordinary new Showtime documentary, Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me, a look at the Philly R&B superstar who sang lead on so many classic Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes songs, and who then went to an incredible solo career. In the clip, Pendergrass appears on television talk show host Tom Snyder, who introduces him by saying “May I just list four songs? ‘Come Go With Me,’ ‘Close The Door,’ ‘Turn Off The Lights,’ ‘Do Me.’” After a quick pause, both laugh, and as Pendergrass extends his arm for a handshake, Snyder aks “Have I got it?” Pendergrass, lighting up with a big smile says, “You got it.” Continue reading →

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The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia: “A Long Walk” by Jill Scott

Jill Scott | still from video

Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “A Long Walk” from Jill Scott’s 2000 album Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1.

Last fall, Jill Scott broke the internet (as folks like to say), when a YouTube video went viral showing the Philadelphia singer, songwriter, and poet onstage and imitating oral sex using her microphone as an apropos prop. While there was much pearl-clutching among casual listeners who maybe gravitated towards the wholesome facade of her music, longtime fans pointed out that Jilly from Philly has always celebrated sexuality in her art — with Questlove’s take, as usual, being the best: “Lol at y’all Jill Scott newbies. Y’all thought she was incense and sandals huh?”

But why is this even a choice? Why can’t Scott be a proud sexual being as well as somebody who revels in the simple things in life and love, like commitment and devotion? Let’s go back to her first album Who Is Jill Scott: Words and Sounds Vol. 1 and one of her first big hits to see how both things coexist.

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The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia: “Lucy Stone” by Katie Ellen

katie ellen
Katie Ellen | photo courtesy of the artist

Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “Lucy Stone” from Katie Ellen’s 2017 album Cowgirl Blues.

Though she was born 200 years ago, it’s still possible to find heaps of inspiration in a historical figure like Lucy Stone. The 19th century activist was among the early feminists, fighting first for the abolition of slavery and later for women’s rights and suffrage. She was also one of the first high-profile women to keep her last name when she married — a bold move in 1855. In Lucy Stone’s story, Katie Ellen found the name for a song, and it’s the modern day feminist anthem we didn’t know we needed.

With “Lucy Stone,” songwriter Anika Pyle digs into the sexist social expectations that have stuck around even as times have changed. Even with a society that’s moved further toward equality, there’s a gray area when it comes to personal relationships — plenty of people are happy to conform to patriarchal social norms without question, but what are the folks who view marriage as a “social economic prison” to do? As Katie Ellen reveals, traditional parameters are not so easily shed. Continue reading →

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The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia: “Baby’s Arms” by Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile
Kurt Vile | photo courtesy of the artist

Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “Baby’s Arms” from Kurt Vile’s 2010 album Smoke Ring For My Halo.

It’s hard to imagine Kurt Vile as anything but a goof. He’s the person with a smarmy half-smirk looking at you from out of the album cover of Bottle It In. He pays compliments to the fashion choices of his own reflection in “Pretty Pimpin’.” He wrote an entire song, “Loading Zones,” about how to find free parking in Philadelphia. And the wordplay; Vile is big into wordplay, and at the opening of his 2013 album Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze, he combines his prankster and poet leanings for a lyric that is possibly peak KV: “Risin’ at the crack of dawn / And I gotta think about what wisecracks I’m going to drop along the way.”

Acclaimed guitarist, spectacular vibe-caster, noted smartass — that’s our Kurt. Except for those moments when he’s being unexpectedly, unabashedly, heart-warmingly sincere. The song that opens his pop breakthrough LP, 2011’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, is one such moment. Continue reading →

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The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia: “Love, Need, and Want You” by Patti LaBelle

Patti LaBelle’s I’m In Love Again | via Genius

Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “Love, Need, and Want You” from Patti LaBelle’s 1983 album I’m In Love Again.

From Motown to Stax, every classic label had its own musical style and signature. In the late 60s through the 80s, the records produced at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, under the production guidance of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, were no exception. The Sound of Philly was applied to the incredible Patti LaBelle, when she signed with Philly International after releasing four solo albums on Epic Records. With her mid-70s success behind her, she released her sixth studio album, I’m In Love Again, in 1983.

I’m In Love Again put LaBelle back on the record charts and the radio after several years. The album produced two hits, the biggest of which was “If Only You Knew,” which spent four weeks as the number one on the Billboard R&B charts. The follow-up single, was “Love, Need and Want You,” written by Kenny Gamble and Bunny Sigler. The song is a quintessential Philly International turn-the-lights-down low and let’s make love jam. Vocally, it’s pure Patti. She rides the melody like gorgeous midnight blue, yearning in love, hopeful in love, shouting about being in love at the top of the mountain. Continue reading →

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The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia: “You Make My Dreams” by Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates’ You Make My Dreams 45 | via Twitter

Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “You Make My Dreams” from Hall & Oates’ 1980 album Voices.

The thing about hit songs, though: sometimes they become so massively, immensely popular, that pop culture completely takes over. It’s like that songwriter’s aphorism: it doesn’t belong to you anymore, it belongs to the world. And the world often steers it down a path that maybe the songwriter did not exactly have in mind, but probably they’re making such bank that they don’t care all that much.

I was thinking about this earlier in the week, when I heard “Bargain” from The Who’s 1971 album Who’s Next, a record that predated my birth by a solid seven years — meaning I never got to experience that song in its unadulterated form. What do I think of when I hear “Bargain”? I think of car commercials, obnoxious car commercials played ad infinitum on television and commercial radio. And even though it’s a perfectly fine classic rock song from a perfectly fine classic rock album, I will never hear that when it comes on; I will always hear a button-down shirt-and-tie guy with slicked-back hair and a booming voice trying to sell me a 24-month lease on a new Mazda with no money down and no interest for the first six months, or what the heck ever.

“You Make My Dreams” from Daryl Hall and John Oates suffers a similar fate; I will never hear that song without thinking of some drunk uncle archetype attempting to sloppily cut a rug at Sandy and Bobby’s wedding at the Pennsauken Country Club ballroom but it’s like 10:45 at night and he’s been going hard on the Jack and Cokes since happy hour and all the bopping and clapping pushes him over the edge, causing him to trip over Sandy’s train and shove past Aunt Gladys, relieving his GI tract of the salisbury steak and mashed potatoes from a couple hours before, all over the centerpiece no less. Poor, poor Hall & Oates.

Is wedding vomit a fair image to have in mind when listening to one of their most popular songs? Hardly. The Philadelphia born and bred, Temple University-schooled hitmaking duo might have leaned hard into the overly-polished, overly-saccharine production of the 80s as they entered their second decade of making music — they might have crafted their songs for maximum accessibility and appeal, at the expense of the nuance of the blue-eyed soul classics from Abandoned Luncheonette but that doesn’t mean they’re not sincere. Hall & Oates are corny, yes, but they’re not monsters. Continue reading →

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The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia: “South America” by Thin Lips

Thin Lips
Thin Lips | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “South America” from Thin Lips’ 2018 album Chosen Family.

“There’s nothing dense about it,” said singer-guitarist Chrissy Tashjian during Thin Lips‘ 2018 Audiotree session, after the band performed the song “South America.” “It’s just the truth.”

On the one hand, Tashjian is correct — the two-minute, fifty-four-second punk jammer is a barrage of feelings screamed in catharsis from the depths of a West Philly basement. It’s a very literal and direct accounting of emotions felt in the aftermath of love. It’s uncomplicated: a breakup song, pretty much. But it’s not a resentful one, nor is it a self-pitying one. Rather, “South America” is the rare look back at love gone wrong, presented with utter clarity. It’s a breakup song where the person doing the reflecting owns up to their own faults, as well as the flaws in compatibility that combine with those faults to stop a long-running love affair dead in its tracks.

And then, that person’s ex goes to South America. With a woman that they only met last month. WTF.

At gigs, Tashjin says she doesn’t really feel the need to introduce the song — anything that could be said about it is said within the song itself. But it’s in that raw honesty, that vulnerability, that Thin Lips is able to arrive at something profound. Continue reading →

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The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia: “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul

Billy Paul | still from video

Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “Me and Mrs. Jones” from Billy Paul’s 1972 album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul.

Back in the day, in the late 60s and 70s, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records produced their share of incredible love songs. From “Expressway To Your Heart” by the Soul Survivors and “La La Means I Love You” by The Delfonics, to The Spinners’ “Then Came You” and the smooth soul of “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” by Lou Rawls, L-O-V-E was this label’s bread and butter. That’s to say nothing of Philly International’s ultimate love man, Teddy Pendergrass, whose songs illustrated the full range of love; requited, unrequited, and in the timeless ballad “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (recorded in 1972 with Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes), tortured love.

But three months later, in December 1972, the now-classic R&B song “Me and Mrs. Jones” sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 in the number one spot for three weeks. The ballad — sung by Philly International legend Billy Paul (originally from just across the river, in Blackwood, New Jersey) and written by Gamble, Huff, and Cary Gilbert — was about marital infidelity, a secret love, and sung from the man’s perspective. On top of a smooth, sultry groove, and a memorable, dramatic string arrangement that heightened the tension of the affair, Paul sings “We both know it’s wrong, but it’s much too strong to let it go now,” about their daily meeting (“the same place, the same cafe, the same time”). Continue reading →

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The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia: “Easier to Love” by Kississippi

Kississippi | photo by Megan Thompson | courtesy of the artist

Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “Easier to Love” from Kississippi’s 2018 album Sunset Blush.

Kississippi cycles through almost countless emotions over the course of the stark and vulnerable “Easier to Love.” Coated in a synthy sheen, the song takes a careful look emotionally draining aspects of a not-quite-right relationship as the narrator reflects on what happens when you change yourself to make things easier for someone else, and how trying to “exist better for two” can make you forget who you are. Continue reading →