In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff got some things done in the early ’70s. They launched Philadelphia International Records, the first soul label ever to really challenge Motown’s commercial dominance. They developed their production style, an opulent and richly orchestrated take on soul music that effectively changed the sound of the genre. They turned veteran journeyman nightclub acts into bona fide stars. They wrote and produced massive hits like Billy Paul’s “Me And Mrs. Jones” and the O’Jays’ “Love Train.” They paved the way for disco. And as an encore, they wrote the theme song to the greatest black-music TV show of all time and created a mostly-instrumental #1 hit for their studio session musicians. That’s a hell of a run. “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” sounds like victory.
There weren’t any stars in MFSB, the house band at Gamble and Huff’s Sigma Sound Studios. In photos of the band, there’s never any focal point, any one person who stands front and center. I love looking at photos of MFSB — a whole bunch of middle-aged guys, black and white, all wearing suits, looking like an uncommonly funky law firm on office-photo day. They were session musicians, a job that’s really closer to office worker than pop star. But like so many other session groups, before and after, they were absolutely essential to the sound of their era. And unlike so many other session groups, before and after, they got one great collective moment in the spotlight. “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” was that moment.
MFSB didn’t officially become a unit until 1971, the same year that Gamble and Huff started Philadelphia International. But Gamble and Huff had known many of the 30-plus musicians in the group for years, playing with them on Philly’s pop circuit. The MFSB guys were total experts, of course — a group capable of taking the swirling crushed-velvet sounds in Gamble and Huff’s heads and making them into reality. And the mere existence of “TSOP” is a testament to that.
Don Cornelius created Soul Train, the black American Bandstand that he hosted for decades, in 1970. Soul Train started out as a local Chicago show, but it quickly went nationwide. Early on, Cornelius used Memphis bandleader King Curtis’ instrumental “Hot Potato (Piping Hot)” as the Soul Train theme. But in 1973, Cornelius decided that he wanted a new theme for the show, so he went to Gamble and Huff. The duo was in the process of remaking soul music in their image, so they were the natural choice. And Gamble and Huff did not let him down. Cornelius, protective of his trademark, asked Gamble and Huff not to name their song “Soul Train.” Later, he called it “the dumbest move I ever made.” The renamed “TSOP” became the first TV theme ever to hit #1.
“TSOP” is everything that Cornelius could’ve wanted. With its swirling, melodramatic strings, it’s silky and aspirational. But unlike Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme,” another 1974 instrumental soul chart-topper, “TSOP” moves. It’s built around its beat, a pulsating push-pull thump with congas that dance and twirl around the central bass-drum stomp. Everything becomes a part of the rhythm section: the rumbling horn riff, the jittery string stabs, the purring organ. Even the vocals are there to serve the beat.
Those vocals came from the Three Degrees, one more semi-obscure act who suddenly got a whole lot more famous when Gamble and Huff got ahold of them. The Three Degrees formed as a Supremes-style girl group in 1965, right around the tail end of the girl-group boom. They were teenagers when they started, and before they joined Philadelphia International, they hadn’t done much on a national stage beyond a quick cameo in the 1971 Best Picture winner The French Connection. On “TSOP,” they’re an accent, part of the structure of the track. They only sing a few lyrics, and those lyrics become mantras: “People all over the world,” “let’s get it on, it’s time to get down.” Most of the time, they’re instrumentalists themselves, doo-doo-dooing along with the track. And yet they’re still somehow essential to the song. They fill it up, give it dimension, and make it human. (In 1974, the Three Degrees, credited as lead artists, would peak at #2 with “When Will I See You Again.” It’s a 9.)
There’s always debate over when, exactly, disco arrived on the pop charts, and I’ve already made my case that Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep On Truckin’” was the first disco #1. You could look at “TSOP” as the pinnacle of the Philly soul moment, and it probably is that. But it’s disco, too. That beat, that central stomp, is the disco beat. Soul Train was a dance show, and “TSOP” is a track that’s expressly built for dancing. When disco remix innovator Tom Moulton put together his dancefloor edit of “TSOP” in 1977, he didn’t have to change much of anything; he just made it a few minutes longer. The groove was already there, and it was already tremendous.
MFSB — which officially stood for “Mother, Father, Sister, Brother” but which might’ve also been “Mother Fucking Sons of Bitches” — stayed together, in some configuration, until 1981. Various different musicians branched off and launched their own things. Some of them moved over to the Salsoul label and became the backbone of the Salsoul Orchestra. Others formed the Trammps, the disco vocal group who got to #11 with the 1976 track “Disco Inferno.” Soul Train went through a bunch of changes, but it stayed on the air, in one form or another, until 2006. And while the show used different versions of “TSOP” over the years, the song remained its theme until the very end.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the reggae cover of “TSOP,” renamed “Rebel Train,” that Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Upsetters released in 1974:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the violin-based version of “TSOP” that British quasi-soul band Dexys Midnight Runners — a group that will eventually show up in this column — released in 1982:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Duck Sauce, the duo of A-Trak and Armand Van Helden, sampling “TSOP” on their 2009 track “Grand Steppin”: