Monday, December 4, 2006

Book Review: A House On Fire

John A. Jackson’s A House On Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul (Oxford University Press, 2004) is a highly convenient source of information on Philly soul, the style that was to the ‘70s what the Motown sound had been to the ‘60s. Jackson builds his story around the three men at the top of the Philly soul heap—Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell—but in the process he sheds much light on numerous lesser-known, but pivotal, figures in the history of the subgenre. These include arranger/producer Bobby Martin, record executive Ron Alexenburg, and jack-of-all-trades Weldon McDougal. Jackson also delves deeply into the personalities and backgrounds of the recording artists, session musicians, songwriters, engineers, and Gamble/Huff subordinates who made the Philly sound possible. His narrative follows a fairly straightforward, linear chronology. A survey of major trends in R&B and the shape of Philadelphian society in the ‘40s and ‘50s leads to that fruitful-yet-frustrating early ‘60s phase in which Gamble, Huff, and Bell struggled to make names for themselves. Things heat up in the mid-to-late ‘60s as the Philly sound begins to blossom and find favor with the public. By the early ‘70s, Gamble and Huff form Philadelphia International Records and Thom Bell is flying high as an independent producer with intriguing ties to many of Philly’s power players. The Philly sound influences everything from rock to disco as the decade wears on, and the Philly soul train appears to be unstoppable—until 1979. Then, it’s a slow and painful decline, especially for Philadelphia International, which survives into the 21st century despite being a mere shell of its former self.

Jackson clearly did a massive amount of research for this project, drawing from a vast selection of books, articles, CD liner notes, and original interviews. He was unable to conduct any of the latter with Gamble or Huff, but this is not surprising. Huff was never the most talkative individual, and Gamble is known for being picky about whom he’ll tell his story to. Fortunately, Jackson collected so many Gamble and Huff quotes from other sources that the reader still gets a good idea of the masters’ perspectives. His detailed storytelling exposes a seemingly endless stream of secrets, rivalries, recording techniques, and mentalities, making well-worn chestnuts like “Love Train,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine),” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” seem new again. He also makes it extremely clear that Philly soul was the result of collaborations that transcended obvious boundaries. Soul may be considered a black music style, but several of the Philly sound’s key studio musicians, songwriters, producers, and arrangers were white. The names most associated with Philly soul belong to men, but Jackson shows that many women played highly important parts in the story as well. Most importantly, what do The Spinners, Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler, The O’Jays, and Archie Bell & The Drells have in common? They all made exemplary Philly soul records, yet they were not from Philadelphia. What mattered was that they cut those records in the City of Brotherly Love.

For all the good things that can be said about A House On Fire, the excitement of reading it comes from the actual information presented and not from Jackson’s clumsy, limp writing. On page 181, he writes, “In the end, CBS refused to meet Gamble’s demands for control of future recordings by Philadelphia International, although an agreement whereby CBS continued to market and distribute Philadelphia International’s records was worked out. But beginning in 1976, the control of all future Philadelphia International master recordings, as well as the publishing rights to them, reverted to Gamble and Huff.” The message of those sentences comes through eventually, but only after navigating Jackson’s confusing wording. A House On Fire is full of such passages.

More troubling is Jackson’s imbalanced treatment of racism. A book about soul music should devote considerable attention to this subject, but it’s hard to see any method to the way Jackson handles the issue. As a means of setting up his narrative, he opens the book with the story of a race riot! Is this a tome about racism or music? Pages 20-21 contain this infamous tirade: “When you leave [downtown Philadelphia] traveling east over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, headed for the morass of urban mismanagement, decay, and corruption known as Camden, New Jersey, the first building of significance to the left that you see is Riverfront State Prison. Riverfront is an apt metaphor for Camden, itself a prison to the overwhelming majority of poor blacks and other minorities who live there. Leon Huff […] was one of those fated Camden residents. But Huff […] successfully made it over the wall.” Read this paragraph after checking out the rather whitebread photo of the author on the cover jacket, and Jackson is begging to be tagged a “guilty white liberal”—a stance that is quite patronizing, even insulting, in this context. He lays on the race issue with a trowel until around page 100, when the story enters the early ‘70s. Then he cools off for the rest of the book, simply placing the music in a larger social context, discussing racism when relevant but not structuring his story around it. This strikes me as a misstep. I have many relatives who made the simple mistake of being black in Philadelphia during the ‘70s (in case you’re wondering, my ancestry is mixed). Any one of them can tell you that Philadelphia was a hotbed of extreme racial tension at the time, with the notoriously racist former police chief Frank Rizzo serving as the city’s polarizing mayor. If Jackson was going to focus on racism during Philly soul’s formative years, why not devote more attention to the issue when discussing the subgenre’s peak period? It’s not surprising that Thom Bell was discriminated against as a musician seeking high-profile work in the early ‘60s. It is surprising that a black-run, Philly-based music empire experienced so much prosperity during the tumultuous Rizzo era.

Finally, Jackson commits a few errors that are just plain stupid. For example, he describes The Intrigues’ “In A Moment,” one of the watershed moments in Philly soul, as a “falsetto-led ballad” (90). Apparently he’s hearing-impaired; “In A Moment” is a fast, funky dance track with about three seconds of falsetto in all. But Jackson’s known for such goofs; no one who read his American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire (Oxford University Press, 1997) can forget his deadpanned assertion that The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” came from their Sgt. Pepper album. Still, A House On Fire is worth reading, if only because it provides so much insight into a style of music that we have come to take for granted and compiles so much data into one concise source. Unfortunately, I must offer the same words of caution that I offer readers of most writings on the history of popular music: take what you read with several grains of salt.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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