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.
The famed songwriting team had worked loosely with The O’Jays in the past, and signed them to their Philadelphia International label for the release of their debut long-player, Back Stabbers. Recorded at Sigma Sound Studios, with PIR’s Mother Father Sister Brother house band backing them up, the album’s opening title track went on to be the band’s biggest-selling song to date. The closing track, “Love Train,” was even bigger. It was the first number one for The O’Jays, and it went on to become a staple not only in its own generation, but subsequent generations as well. Philly duo Hall & Oates covered it in 1989 for the soundtrack to Earth Girls are Easy. Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue sang it on her 1991 tour. A Justin Timberlake version was in a television soundtrack in recent years. And as one of Philadelphia International’s earliest major hits, its production style — grandiose, but down-to-earth, and full of life and love — went on to define what’s become known as TSOP: The Sound of Philadelphia.
To say that “Love Train” is an enduring soundtrack to Philadelphia’s cultural and social life is an understatement. Its swift syncopated bassline and groovy keyboard tones lit up Soul Train in the 70s. Its stratospheric vocal performances blasted from speakers lining the Ben Franklin Parkway at Super Sunday in the 80s. The sweeping string arrangements shine on today, whenever a newsreel supercut needs to come together and evoke, not only nostalgia for the Philadelphia of a time gone by, but the timelessness of values like love, community, and interpersonal harmony — things that the outside world might not immediately associate with our city, but all Philadelphians know is them to the core.
The song dares to imagine the ideal of world peace — people all over the world, joining hands, starting a love train — and the verses find The O’Jays enumerating the stops this global mass-transit system had planned: England, Russia, China, Egypt, Israel, and Africa. Lyrically, it’s simplistic, but endearingly so; its sentiment is able to be comprehended by small children, their elders, and everyone in between, and sonically it has a rhythm that hooks you in.
And then there’s the auspicious occasion of the single’s entry into the top 40: January 27, 1973, the day that the Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending the Vietnam War. It was a short-lived moment where hundreds of thousands of people believed that giving peace and love a chance could actually change the world; it’s a spirit we could use more of today.
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