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.
In his great critical pop-music history Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, the writer and Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley tells a story about the first time he visited Philadelphia. Stanley had heard tell of this one record store where you could still find rare, unheard Philadelphia soul singles. And as a devotee of the genre, Stanley needed to find this place. So he drove down from New York. Along the way, Stanley was shocked at what a dingy, grimy, tough city Philadelphia turned out to be. He had no idea.
It took that trip to Philly for Stanley, an Englishman, to learn something: Sometimes, soft and luxuriant sounds come from places that aren’t soft or luxuriant at all. Philly soul, in all its crushed-velvet splendor, was aspirational music, music for dreaming of something better. And before he saw the city for himself, Stanley imagined the city as a pure abstraction. I wonder if Elton John felt something similar when he recorded “Philadelphia Freedom,” his jubilant ode to a town that was about 3,500 miles away from his birthplace.
The Philadelphia of “Philadelphia Freedom” certainly sounds like an abstraction. Elton John usually took whatever lyrics his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin gave him, and then he fashioned those lyrics into songs. But “Philadelphia Freedom” was one of the rare occasions where Elton John gave Bernie Taupin something to write. Elton wanted a song called “Philadelphia Freedom,” and Taupin had to come up with something. Later on, Taupin more or less admitted that his lyrics meant nothing.
Elton had specific reasons for wanting Taupin to write “Philadelphia Freedom.” A couple of years earlier, he’d met the tennis great Billie Jean King at a party. King was in the process of becoming a feminist hero. A few weeks after she met Elton, King beat Bobby Riggs in the extremely hyped-up Battle Of The Sexes match at the Houston Astrodome. Riggs, 55 at the time, had said that tennis was a man’s game and that he could beat any woman in the sport. King proved him wrong, winning in three sets. Elton and King quickly became friends. And over the years, they both also became LGBTQ icons, though both were still in the closet back in the ’70s.
John started showing up at King’s matches, cheering himself hoarse, and she had a custom uniform tracksuit made for him. At the time, King was the player/coach of the Philadelphia Freedoms tennis team, and John told her that he was going to write a song for her. That’s when he gave Taupin the assignment. Taupin said that he didn’t know about tennis, so he couldn’t write about that. So he just wrote what basically amounts to a generic uplift anthem. And John wrote the music, fully intending that the song would become a single. “Philadelphia Freedom” was credited to the Elton John Band, the unit that was in the process of dissolving by the time the song hit #1. And for years, it was a stand-alone single, available on none of Elton’s albums.
On the label of the “Philadelphia Freedom” 45, John included a dedication: “with Love to B.J.K. and the music of Philadelphia.” The second half of that is, of course, the other side of the equation. John loved American R&B. He always had. He sang in what amounts to an American accent, and he was thrilled when “Bennie And The Jets” got R&B radio play. A couple of years after “Philadelphia Freedom,” he recorded an EP with the great Philly soul producer Thom Bell. (It wasn’t a one-way love affair, either. Billy Paul included a Gamble & Huff-produced cover of “Your Song” on 1972’s 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul, the same album that yielded OG Philly soul #1 “Me And Mrs. Jones.”) “Philadelphia Freedom,” recorded during the sessions for 1975’s Captain Fantastic And The Dirt Brown Cowboy, is pretty fascinating as an outsider’s version of that Philly soul sound.
Elton John is not a soul singer. His voice is a muscular bray, and it’s got none of the silky, understated sweetness that Philly soul generally demands. While Elton includes all the sonic hallmarks of the genre on “Philadelphia Freedom” — the swooping strings, the exultant horn-bursts, the rubbery bassline — he combines them with hard guitar stabs and Pete Townshend-ish reels and wild-eyed shout-along energy. And in its pulsing synths and kickdrum stomp, “Philadelphia Freedom” also evoked disco, the genre that was just then emerging from and supplanting Philly soul.
If Elton John had attempted to make a pure Philly soul pastiche, he probably would’ve fallen directly on his face. Instead, he found some grand and crowd-pleasing middle group between his own glammy Broadway-Vegas gesture-rock and the music that he so obviously admired. Like “Bennie And The Jets” before it, “Philadelphia Freedom” did well enough on black radio to reach the middle realm of the R&B chart. (It peaked at #32 there.) John performed it on Soul Train, too. (In its popularity, “Philadelphia Freedom” ended up outshining some great actual soul songs that were in the top 10 at the same time — Rufus & Chaka Khan’s “Once You Get Started,” Ben E. King’s “Supernatural Thing – Part 1,” Hot Chocolate’s “Emma.” But that’s not Elton John’s fault.) Another thing that “Philadelphia Freedom” had in common with “Bennie And The Jets”: It worked better as a pop song than a soul one.
Taupin might claim that the “Philadelphia Freedom” lyrics are nonsense, but it’s possible to glean some meaning from them. The song’s first verse, it seems to me, is about getting past the protests of the ’60s, finding adult life beyond: “I used to be a heart beatin’ for someone, but the times have changed / The less I say, the more my work gets done.” And later on, John indulges in freedom from responsibility: “I like living easy, without family ties.” The chorus celebrates some vague sense of forward progress: “Philadelphia freedom took me knee-high to a man / Gave me peace of mind my daddy never had.”
But if there was nuance in the lyrics, Elton delivered the song as a straight-up anthem, and that’s how it was received. America was building up to its big Bicentennial celebrations, just over a year later, and so “Philadelphia Freedom” apparently resonated as an Englishman’s song of American patriotism: “From the day I was born, I’ve waved the flag.” As it happened, “Philadelphia Freedom” finished its run at #1 just four days before the last American helicopter left Saigon. Maybe America needed a win. Maybe “Philadelphia Freedom” sounded like one.
Seen from a few decades’ distance, there’s something beautiful about that. One gay icon writes a song for another. At the same time, he also embraces the sound of a subjugated black minority. He’s not American. It doesn’t matter. A beaten-down America still finds joy in this song, adapting an outsiders’ anthem as its own. I love that. Good song, too.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the jazzy and mostly-instrumental cover of “Philadelphia Freedom” that Philly soul orchestra — and “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” chart-toppers — MFSB released in 1975: