John Legend didn’t move to Philadelphia for the music. At the age of 16, Legend – then still known mostly as John Stephens – moved from his native Ohio to the City of Brotherly Love for a different sort of education. At the University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League school in the heart of West Philly, Legend was an English major.But for an aspiring soul singer, Philadelphia was the place to be. (And set aside for the moment that Legend’s college roommate, Devo Harris, was a cousin of singer/producer Kanye West, who would become an essential figure in Legend’s career.) Legend, who had started singing with his family in church as a child, found all the inspiration he would need in Philly. He directed Penn’s a cappella group and the gospel choir at an area church. When he wasn’t conducting, he was rubbing elbows at open-mike nights with the rest of the local talent – which, in the mid-1990s, included such rising stars as the Roots and Jill Scott, two cornerstones of the vibrant neo-soul sound.”I did a lot more music than studying,” said the 26-year-old Legend from London, where he was promoting his debut CD, “Get Lifted.””I saw The Roots, who were at open-mikes a lot then. So that was fortunate,” he said.
Legend, who now lives in New York City, seems the latest soul start to emerge from Philadelphia. “Get Lifted,” released on Kanye West’s Getting Out Our Dream label, an affiliate of Columbia Records, has risen like a rocket since its October release. Two weeks ago, it entered the charts at No. 7, making it Billboard’s Hot Shot Debut.Yet, Legend was largely oblivious to the heritage from which he has emerged. From the late ’60s on, Philadelphia has been soul central, giving birth to numerous soul singers. The confident-but-not-cocky Legend was going to be a musician wherever he went.”My whole life was music,” said Legend. “I was a musician no matter where I was going. I didn’t know about the Philly tradition.”Aspen, though, is about to get educated in the Philly sound. Of the main musical acts featured this X Games weekend, three of the biggest – The Roots, G. Love & Special Sauce and Legend – have Philadelphia running through their veins.***
In most tellings of the Philadelphia music story, the critical era was the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, and the key figures were Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. The two, who had begun writing and producing together in 1963, formed Philadelphia International Records in 1971. The label created hits by such local products as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass and the Intruders, putting Philadelphia at the center of the soul music map, and earning Philadelphia International the nickname the Motown of Philadelphia. The O’Jays, though Ohio-bred, recorded the bulk of their hits with Gamble and Huff. David Bowie recorded his “Young Americans” album at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, using musicians from the Philadelphia International’s house band M.F.S.B., which later, under the name the Trammps, had its own mega-hit with “Disco Inferno.” The scene surrounding Philadelphia International included the Stylistics, the Delfonics, Patti Labelle and Jerry Butler.To another musician who came out of that scene, the sound traces its lineage back to another critical era in Philadelphia, and figures even better known than Gamble and Huff. John Oates, who hooked up in the late ’60s with Daryl Hall at Philadelphia’s Temple University, sees the roots of the music in the Colonial years, when Philadelphia was populated by the likes of William Penn and Ben Franklin.”If you got to the roots, Philadelphia was the first northern city in the East,” said Oates, who has lived in Woody Creek since the early ’90s. “And you had a really unusual combination of people from the South, primarily black, and this colonial settlement – William Penn, the Quakers. So you have church music, white Anglo-Saxon church music, and this Southern influence.”If there is a distinguishing characteristic of the Philly sound, it is the keyboard. Leon Huff was a keyboardist, as is Legend. Daryl Hall wrote much of the Hall & Oates repertoire on piano. The classic Philadelphia records were built on piano, rather than guitar, giving them a sense of sophistication.
The Philadelphia sound, said Oates, is not like that of Chicago, where blacks migrated from the rural South and brought guitar and the blues. “It’s more sophisticated,” said Oates, who grew up in North Wales, Pa., 25 miles north of Philadelphia. “There are a lot of keyboard changes, a lot of vocal harmonies. That’s what makes Philadelphia unique. I can’t think of one guitar player who had a big influence on the Philly sound. It’s all about the harmonies.”It can be startling just how strong and evident the Philly style is. On the wonderful “Number One,” from Legend’s “Get Lifted,” featuring Kanye West, the bubbling clean vocals sound like they could have been taken right off a Hall & Oates song.”It’s Hall & Oates – but it’s really Philadelphia,” said Oates, a big admirer of Legend’s record. “The same influences he has, we had. It’s a certain kind of chord changes, and a certain way Philadelphia people put melodies over chords.”***Twenty years after its heyday, Philadelphia reemerged in the ’90s as a center of new-soul and soulful hip-hop. Much of the present focus on the city is due to the Roots. The group has its origins in the 1987 meeting – in the principal’s office at the Philadelphia High School of Creative and Performing Arts – of two misbehaving students, rapper Tariq Trotter and drummer Ahmir Thompson. The two, known respectively as Black Thought and ?uestlove, began doing vocal-and-percussion gigs. The band’s major-label debut, 1995’s “Do You Want More?!!!??!” earned praise for a musicality that transcended the hip-hop formulation of cursing, posing and rapping. The Roots by then were an actual band, featuring the likes of bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard and keyboardist Kamal. The band continued treading new ground on “Iladelph Halflife,” “Things Fall Apart” and “Phrenology,” albums that greatly broadened the terrain, both musical and lyrical, of hip-hop. A far cry from the gangsta vibe that dominated the New York and Los Angeles rap scenes, the Roots seemed influenced by their hometown soul.
Among those impressed by the Roots and what they did to turn attention to Philadelphia was singer-guitarist G. Love. “The Roots, really, I give a big hand to them,” said Love, who went by Garrett Dutton III during his childhood in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, and lives now in Philly’s Queen Village. “They single-handedly developed Philadelphia as the center of the new-soul movement, playing on a lot of people’s albums and live projects. They’re responsible for keeping hip-hop vibrant in Philadelphia.”Not that Philadelphia didn’t already have its niche in the hip-hop world. Love grew up listening to DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, the Philly duo that featured then-rapper Will Smith as the Fresh Prince.”That was straight Philly,” said Love. “That’s a part of Philly, and some of my favorite hip-hop I listened to was like Will Smith, that old-school stuff. He can be really fun, and still tell a story.”Love says his main inspiration came more from singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Lightning Hopkins than from hip-hop. Still, when Love and his band Special Sauce released their eponymous 1994 debut, it was a unique blend of old folk blues and hip-hop rhythms. Love says the mix was a product of his Philly roots.
“In Philadelphia, even if you’re in Center City, you’re only 10 blocks from the projects,” he said. “Musically, there’s a lot of different cultures coming together. I was exposed to all the hip-hop culture – the graffiti, the skateboarding and then the music. Like any big East Coast city, it’s a vibrant multiculture.”Though hip-hop and blues are the primary ingredients in the Special Sauce, it’s one doesn’t have to strain to hear the Philly sound in Love’s music. The vocal harmonies on tunes like “Numbers,” from 1999’s “Philadelphonic,” and “Lay Down the Law,” from 1997’s “Yeah, It’s That Easy,” are sophisticated in the Philly tradition. (Also on the latter album: “I-76,” Love’s shout out to the highway that runs through Philadelphia and the action that surrounds it.) “Part of that Philly sound, the O’Jays records, that is in everybody,” said Love.Love said the thing that has made Philadelphia unique is how it is overlooked. Situated between New York and Washington, D.C., it gets a rap as a second-class city, a tag that runs deep in Philadelphians.”Part of it is the underdog vibe,” said Love. “You look at ‘Rocky’ – that’s Philadelphia right there. The Eagles, now they’re a Cinderella story. Those are classic Philadelphia stories – they get beaten down but you know they’re coming right back.
“Philadelphia has a lot of heart and a lot of grit. Philadelphians are hardheaded and there’s a certain amount of soul.”Especially in the music.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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