The Building Blocks of Philly Soul

New box set Cooler Than Ice: Arctic Records and the Rise of Philly Soul

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CoolerThanIce 5x5

 

Kenny Gamble

Kenny Gamble

Packed away in this tri-fold hardbound set from Jamie/Guyden is a treasure trove of history from Philadelphia’s soul scene. Covering both the Arctic label as well as its sister label, Frantic, 121 tracks adorn the set on CD. Of those, 115 belong to Arctic as it released its output from late September 1964 through late August 1971. The remaining six tracks on CD belong to its sister label, which released one 45 per year between 1965 and 1967. Bound in the middle of the set, though, is an additional twelve previously unreleased tracks from the likes of Barbara Mason, Kenny Gamble, the Ambassadors, and more, on six 45s. Ladies and gentlemen, Cooler Than Ice is stone-cold classic music.

Barbara Mason

Barbara Mason

The biggest hit on the set, by far, is Barbara Mason’s “Yes, I’m Ready,” released in March of 1965. Other hits accompany it such as Della Humphrey’s “Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad” or “Storm Warning” by the Volcanos. Mostly, however, this collection is one that gathers music that is otherwise unknown unless you’re either a deep-soul aficionado or from Philly back in the day—and that’s exactly what makes it such a worthy and essential collection. Track by track, you can trace the evolution of the Philadelphia sound, as the set travels chronologically through every single—A- and B-side—released on the labels.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the smooth soul of the Temptones—the group where Daryl Hall got an important start in his career—or the jarring gospel of Mary De Loach and the Brockington Chorale Ensemble closing out the final four tracks of the third disc, you will be moved. If you were a mover and shaker in the Philly scene, chances are you were involved by playing, writing, promoting, singing, or producing on one of the records on here. A who’s who list of talent can be found throughout, like the aforementioned Daryl Hall, Leon Huff, Kenny Gamble, Jimmy Bishop, Weldon McDougal, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Honey and the Bees, and the soon-to-be MFSB rhythm section.

Jimmy Bishop in the studio

Jimmy Bishop in the studio

A sampling of some of the hard-hitting material contained within the set:

The Ambassadors “I Really Love You”

Ambassadors

The Ambassadors

Pete Rock may have made a beautiful beat out of this group’s “Ain’t Got The Love of One Girl” (also included on this collection), but this group of teenagers straight-up kill the spotlight on this Jimmy Bishop/Kenny Gamble track that was released just as 1968 was expiring. In the first twenty-five seconds, you have such an eloquent intro. Rimshot to start it off, sick guitar line, spoken-word clip of the title, a quick but deadly harmonizing right before the lyrics start, and then BOOM, Bobby Todd nails the timing in the first verse, “I can’t used to / not having you to / take out on a date.” To close out the verse is a masterful songwriting stroke as the instrumentation flips from pocket material into staccato genius straight into the chorus where the band drops out as the vocalists sing a cappella around a single horn stab and rimshot before the beat kicks back in. How this only managed #43 R&B/#123 Pop is a damn crime. This can start off anyone’s next love mixtape.

Mary De Loach “Move This Thing Pts. 1 & 2”

Written by the artist herself, this vamp was split into two halves to fit onto your standard 45, and where it leaves off from side 1, it picks right up on side 2. Bill Dahl writes in the liner notes that “Arctic’s intermittent gospel series didn’t get any more inspirational than this,” and we can’t disagree. This sanctified sister begs the lord for mercy on the back side and the listener feels the same way. If you ever want to hold a church service in your house when snowed in, let this one lift you up to the Lord.

Honey and the Bees “Baby, Do That Thing”

From 1969, this Honey and the Bees cut is starting to dip into funk territory in part due to the wicked bass line and bouncy horns. Oddly enough, it’s not unique, as it’s a cover of Winfield Parker’s “Shake That Thing,” released about a half year earlier on Arctic. Both are superb, but this Bobby Martin arrangement sounds oh-so-sweet with Jean Davis, Cassandra Wooten, Gwen Oliver, and Nadine Felder leading the charge.

Kenny Gamble and the Romeos

Kenny Gamble and the Romeos

The liner notes are spread out across fifty pages and expertly written by Bill Dahl. Each couplet of songs gets multiple paragraphs, so you quickly get a sense about how the group formed or the song was written, among a number of other facts. Tucked away are a bevy of period photos and press shots to gain a visual sense of how the scene was shaping up.

It’s unfortunate that a set of this magnitude hasn’t gained a larger buzz. In the U.S., the set has been out for over a year, and Ace recently picked up its distribution in the U.K., and although it did get a nod in the New York Times 2013 Holiday Gift Guide, elsewhere it has been sadly overlooked.

However, hopefully now that Sony is going to be taking a bigger look back at Philadelphia International Record’s post-’75 catalog later this year, more people will take the time to learn where the roots of that label came from. This set is the best place to start.

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