Click the map to see the patterns of the Great Migration close up
Philadelphia was one of the chief beneficiaries musically of the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities. Philly followed only New York and Chicago in numbers of in-migrating black people from the old Confederacy. In 1900, fewer than 800,000 blacks, mostly locally born, lived in the North. By 1970 the total number residing in the North was more than 10 million.
These migrants brought with them a musical heritage that stretched back to Africa that was touched by Caribbean influences, and already steeped in genres ranging from the Blues, Country and Folk to the savory, complex gumbo dished up along the Gulf and into the coastal deltas and bayous.
They came to a town with an enormous musical history already. In 1805 via a German-American Catholic church, the Christmas hymn “Adestes Fideles (O, Come All Ye Faithful)” was introduced to the world. Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore had its Western Hemisphere debut at the Academy Of Music, which until the opening of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House was the finest music hall in America.
The first black female opera star, Marian Anderson, was born in Philadelphia in 1897. Her paternal grandfather was a former slave who had moved to South Philly, then an African American neighborhood, shortly after emancipation. Anderson had what Arturo Toscanini described as a voice heard once in 100 years. Nevertheless she suffered discrimination, but later triumphed through the activism of President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt leading Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a massive integrated crowd numbering around 200,000.
The city’s huge German population brought hundreds of musical performances and programs to Philadelphia at scores of venues. This variety and excellence culminated in the brilliant work of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1930s and ’40s, before the war, when it was led by Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, and later by Ormandy alone. It is still considered to be one of the premier classical orchestras in the world.
Additionally, Jazz pioneer and overall music god John Coltrane spent part of his childhood and his formative training years in Philadelphia.
By the time Dick Clark took over American Bandstand in 1956, the Philly Rock-N-Roll scene had already burst its britches. He began as a local Philly phenomenon but Clark’s ability to stay white as Wonder Bread while cool as a smokey Bebop horn player was one of the keys to his enduring popularity. He demonstratively liked the teens on the show, they liked him and he was American as apple pie so parents loved him. He was a secret agent for the introduction of Rock-N-Roll to the (white) adult mainstream.
Clark also was a TV host who early on featured black performers on his shows, and it was on Bandstand that white and black children first danced on the same floor at the same time and sat in the studio gallery side by side, an example not just of the power of the media to desegregate, but the power of young people to live and get along in a rapidly changing world.
By the time American Bandstand decamped for Los Angeles in 1964, its viewership routinely reached 20 million and, when a particularly special line up of performers was publicized in advance, it sometimes reached 50 million.
Of all the performers who had been inducted into the Rock-N-Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland up to 1990, fully two-thirds made their television debut on Bandstand. The show, and Clark’s influence, cannot possibly be overestimated.
But Clark, an aw-shucks kind of guy from Mt. Vernon, a close-in suburb of New York City, succinctly described his professional achievement: I played records, the kids danced, and America watched.
Clark’s fame and influence were magnified when one of the founders of Rock-N-Roll, Chuck Berry, mentioned the TV show in his slyly humorous 1958 #2 hit, “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
‘Cause they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand In Philadelphia, PA Deep in the heart of Texas And round the ‘Frisco Bay All over St.Louis Way down in New Orleans All the cats wanna dance with Sweet Little Sixteen
Sweet Little Sixteen She’s got the grown-up blues Tight dresses and lipstick She’s sportin’ high-heel shoes Oh but tomorrow morning She’ll have to change her trend And be sweet sixteen And back in class again
It bops, it doo-wops, it spins, it swings, it rocks. It’s one of the stones in the first layer of the foundations of Rock-N-Roll. A little creaky now, it’s missing a prominent guitar and even the ’50s signature saxophone break.
But the piano is a pounder, and the drumming is a four-alarm fire on the skins.
Lead singer Danny Rapp’s vocal is pure Philly accent injected with baboon testosterone. It swaggers with self-confidence. The Doo-Wop backing harmonies are untouchable.
“At The Hop” had foundered when Danny & The Juniors were still called The Juvenairs and the song was called “Do The Bop.” Dick Clark heard it, changed the name of the song and once it aired on his American Bandstand TV show, the number soared.
Rapp committed suicide in an Arizona motel at the age of 42 while on an oldies/revival tour of the Southwest. Listening to his valiant, buoyant youthful vocals in “At The Hop,” it is hard to believe he could ever put a gun to his head.
Well, you can swing it you can groove it You can really start to move it at the hop Where the jockey is the smoothest And the music is the coolest at the hop All the cats and chicks can get their kicks at the hop Let’s go!
Dione LaRue became Dee Dee Sharp overnight when her producers changed her name to better fit with her upcoming release, “Mashed Potato Time.” They literally thought the name was sharper.
Sharp had worked her way up through singing in Philadelphia churches to back up singer for the likes of Jackie Wilson and Frankie Avalon and eventually to a duet in “Slow Twistin’” with the then-megastar, Chubby Checker.
“Mashed Potato Time” maintains its position as one of the greatest Rock-N-Roll dance tunes of all time.
One of the dozens of hit-making machines that worked out of the Cameo-Parkway Record stable, The Orlons cranked out gold records like a diner cranks out pancakes on a Saturday morning. They were unstoppable for about 18 months in 1962 and ’63.
Their first – and greatest – hit was “The Wah-Watusi,” a medium tempo dance tune that is seriously sexy, smooth and seductive. A short, wailing sax break, a male basso counter vocal to the high-end singing of the rest of the group, all “girls,” is one of the many hooks. Fabulous back-beat drumming with a hooky tambourine also stands out, along with the Fats Domino, New Orleans-style piano line.
Baby, baby, when you do The Fly Your arms are wasted wavin’ in the sky Come on and hold me like a lover should The Watusi makes you feel so good
Wah-a, wah, wah-a Watusi Oh, baby, it’s the dance made-a for romance Yay!!
If you want some pure, unadulterated joy reflecting falling in love without restraint, give a listen to “Wonderful Dream.” The song gives off showers of sparks of happiness, the likes of which are hard to come by in the 21st century.
You’ll also hear the roots of early Jackson 5 hits like “I Want You Back” and “ABC,” The Hues Corporation’s “Rock The Boat,” and Jean Knight’s killer, “Mr. Big Stuff.”
Ricky Cordo’s falsetto is the prominent hook. But the back-up vocals are spot on and the Swing-dance rhythms point to a world that was once much more light-hearted.
Last night I had a wonderful dream I dreamed I held you in my arms And you thrilled me with your charms In a wonderful dream I had last night Your lips were oh so soft and warm And a wonderful love was born
We were all alone, you told me that you care And I never will forget how happy I was That we were there
Last night I had a wonderful dream And now that I’m alone with you My wonderful dream will come true Please come true
Songs like “Party Lights” signaled that the ’60s were waking up from their early torpor.
Unfortunately, Claudine Clark was a one-hit wonder with her own composition, 1962′s “Party Lights,” a song about a girl who has been forbidden to go to a party at a neighboring house by her mother. Worse, this entry from Chancellor Records in Philly never really received the promotion it should have commanded.
It’s a drop-dead monster dance song, despite the fact the singer is trapped inside her house being tormented by the fun she can see going on from her window, even her boyfriend arriving to enjoy those party lights.
Claudine belts out her lines, adding a nice comedic twist to rescue what otherwise would have been a bummer of a tune. Her lack of follow-up hits is a real loss to Rock-N-Roll.
Lady Mama dear, a tell me
Do you hear The party tonight? I tell you, I can’t sleep Because across the street oh oh oh oh I see the party lights
I see the lights, I see the party lights They’re red and blue and green Oh everybody in the crowd is there But you won’t let me make the scene
Oh, Mama dear, a looka here look here There goes Mary Lou I see Tommy and Joe oh oh and Betty and Sue Oh oh oh oh – there goes my boyfriend, too I see the lights I see the lights…
Hey, Mama dear, a looka here look here I’m feeling hepped up too They’re doin’ the twist, the fish The mashed potatoes, too I’m here a lookin’ at you I see the lights I see the lights…
Jim Croce was born in South Philadelphia, studied at nearby Villanova University, and got his start in and around the City of Brotherly Love. He hammered out hits at the anvil of Folk, Pop and Rock.
“Bad Bad Leroy Brown” was his best rocker although there were mirrors of it before and after, including “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” “Workin’ At The Carwash Blues,” “Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy),” and “Speedball Tucker.”
None of the others entered American consiousness the way “Leroy” did. Croce manages to work the African American vernacular hard without sounding patronizing. And somehow, Leroy’s comeuppance causes us to celebrate. He is, in the end, a bully, and probably a pimp.
He got a custom Continental He got an Eldorado too He got a 32 gun in his pocket full a fun He got a razor in his shoe
And he’s bad, bad Leroy Brown The baddest man in the whole damn town Badder than old King Kong And meaner than a junkyard dog
As is well known, Croce wrote a dozen or so achingly beautiful ballads, some about self-examination addressed to the world at large and others about the loss of love.
“Leroy” offered a different kind of message:
Well he cast his eyes upon her And the trouble soon began And Leroy Brown had learned a lesson ‘Bout a-messin’ with the wife of a jealous man
The Spinners were pure Detroit. Or were they? No disputing that they hail from the Motor City, but their one rockin’ hit was written by a pair of composers who were two of the inventors of the Philadelphia Soul sound of the 1970s – Linda Creed and Thom Bell.
The songwriting duo were the concept people behind the smooth Philly sound of The Stylistics, penning songs like “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” “You Are Everything (And Everything Is You),” “Break Up To Make Up” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New.”
Creed was also responsible for being one of the two writers on Whitney Houston’s love anthem, “The Greatest Love Of All.” Bell can claim half credit for The Delfonics slippery smooth “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time).”
Without sacrificing an ounce of hot buttered Soul, and slapped up with plenty of Funk,“Rubberband Man” is a trip into inner-city Rock-N-Roll, mid-’70s. It was stoner Disco music. Sit and nod your head, or get up and dance.
Funky, funky guitar and the vocal pyrotechnics of Philippé Wynne highlight the song, but the Afro-Island rhythms and the unbelievably tight backing vocal of the rest of The Spinners push it along, until, when it’s over, you can’t believe how fast it went by, even on the over 7-minute version during which Wynne does some ad-libbing that will make your head, well, spin.
The Spinners had a moment when they could have taken the next radical step pioneered by the Sly-And-The-Family-Stone School of Urban Funk. Too bad. They retreated into the honeyed-up, homogenized softly-softly sound so typical of mid-1970s black music – and it all emanated from Philadelphia. Therein lies the impetus for the rise of Rap and Hip-Hop.
You’re bound to lose control
When the rubberband man
Starts to jam
Ominous, admonitory, “Streets Of Philadelphia” stands as one of Bruce Springsteen’s landmark achievements, an exploration of the sinister effects of bigotry, an indictment and a public hanging of the devils who cause such problems.
I walked the avenue, ’til my legs felt like stone I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone At night I could hear the blood in my veins Black and whispering as the rain On the Streets of Philadelphia
It received every “official” accolade imaginable. Anyone who has ever doubted Springsteen’s soulfulness, and his desire to pinpoint the social ills lingering around the dusty skirts of American exceptionalism needs to listen to this song.
When the most vulnerable – in this case those beaten into pulp by the AIDs epidemic – are cast out, denied the most fundamental rights, the essential dignity of being a human being, we show our moral failures, and succumb to the dark glamor of evil.
The movie Philadelphia – about the bigotry against gay people and the shunning of AIDs victims – is piercing. The song “The Streets Of Philadelphia” boils the film down and exposes the bitter brew the merchants of hatred would have the rest of us drink.
That the movie and song are set in one of the “cradles of liberty,” the “city of brotherly love,” is painfully perfect. There’s that Liberty Bell hanging over a nation’s conscience.
Back behind the 30th Street Station lies West Philly, once home to a neighborhood called “Black Bottom,” since displaced by the University of Pennsylvania and various medical and other quasi-public buildings. Until Black Bottom was demolished in the 1960s in the destructive movement known as urban renewal, it was a poor, but stable, racially mixed neighborhood.
Into that neighborhood was born Solomon Burke – “King Solomon” – a potent, under-appreciated soul singer who rivals the best of the best. He takes no back seat to Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin,Marvin Gaye, or even James Brown. Burke is complete, deep, and sings sweet as a day in heaven and pained as a night in hell.
Like many successful recording artists, King Solomon moved on from his preaching, shouting, mourning vocals in street corner “people’s churches” in Black Bottom. He found moderate to high recognition and made a life for himself in recording away from Philadelphia.
But those roots were his strength and his glory. “Fast Train” was written by Van Morrison and issued on his album Down The Road. Burke makes it rumble down the tracks on the edge of Blues, Rock and Folk.
It’s hard to take a Van Morrison song and make it better. Burke does it in spades. And that’s going some distance.
Oh going nowhere, except on a fast train Oh trying to get away from the past Oh keep on moving keep on moving on a fast train Going nowhere, across the desert sand Through the barren waste On a fast train going nowhere On a fast train going nowhere