TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Philadelphia has a long and complex history of black pop music, largely due to a handful of disc jockeys and, of course, the presence of America's top televised dance show, "American Bandstand." Over the years, what was to become the Philly sound turned into a multimillion dollar business with the arrival of Philadelphia International Records in the 1970s.
But Philly's musical roots are in small labels like Arctic, where a number of famous artists got their start. Rock historian Ed Ward has a review of a set of CDs that covers the entire history of Arctic Records.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD")
THE TIFFANYS: (Singing) Now I know he loves me, I'm the happiest girl in the world. I know at night, no, no, everything looks so fine. Life can be so lonely. Now that I know he's mine, yeah, happiest girl in the world, happiest girl in the world.
ED WARD, BYLINE: Arctic Records opened for business late in 1964, the brainchild of Jimmy Bishop, who was the program director of WDAS - at the time, Philadelphia's number one black radio station. If that sounds like a conflict of interest, you don't know much about the music business in Philadelphia back then.
And anyway, it didn't help Arctic's first single, "Happiest Girl in the World," by the Tiffanys, three local teenagers who sang backups in various studios. But it was only a few months later that Arctic had its first - and only - national smash, thanks to a young girl who'd caught the ear of Weldon McDougal, lead singer of the Larks and a good friend of Bishop's.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YES, I'M READY")
BACKUP SINGERS: (Singing) Are you ready? Yes, I'm ready. Are you ready? Yes, I'm ready.
BARBARA MASON: (Singing) I don't even know how to love you just the way you want me to. But I'm ready...
BACKUP SINGERS: Ready.
MASON: ...to learn.
BACKUP SINGERS: (Singing) To learn.
MASON: (Singing) Yes, I'm ready...
BACKUP SINGERS: (Singing) Ready.
MASON: (Singing) ...to learn.
BACKUP SINGERS: (Singing) To learn.
MASON: (Singing) To fall in love, to fall in love, to fall in love with you.
WARD: Barbara Mason had had one mild hit on Arctic by the time "Yes I'm Ready" came out in March 1965. Backed by the Tiffanys and three guys - Weldon McDougal, Kenny Gamble and Herb Johnson - Mason's untutored, straightforward delivery sold the song, which she says she'd written in imitation of Curtis Mayfield.
It went Top 10 on both the R&B and pop charts, and established both Mason and Arctic as forces to be reckoned with. Following it up, though, wouldn't be easy. Soul music was catching on in a big way, and although Jimmy Bishop thought of himself as Philly's answer to Berry Gordy, Gordy had more talent that he'd been developing longer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M CONFESSING")
HONEY AND THE BEES: (Singing) When you're with me, baby. Ooh, baby. The feelings get stronger. And when you leave me. Ooh, baby. The minutes get longer. Ooh, baby. Oh, my, I love you so. Honey, I don't know, but, honey, I, ooh, baby, I love you...
WARD: Honey and the Bees were four young women who made a number of singles for Arctic, some like, "I'm Confessing," their first record, good but not spectacular. Then there was the problem of coming up with a male group - which, in a city like Philadelphia, should have been no problem.
The Ambassadors, Arctic's main male group, suffered from an inability to sing in tune, as well as a lead singer who wasn't as strong as he should have been. The label also had the Volcanoes, one of whom sported a hairdo that looked like a mushroom cloud, and another problematic group: the Temptones.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SAY THESE WORDS OF LOVE")
THE TEMPTONES: (Singing) They say that the course of true love never runs smooth. Whoa, whoa. Just like a rough and raging river, always on the move. Whoa, whoa. Some assurance can slow that river down. A little loving, darling, can turn that course around. Don't worry about the past. We're going to make our true love last. All you got to do is say it. Say it. That you love me so much. Say it. Say it. That you thrill to my touch. These sweet words could mean so much to me. All you got to do is say it, baby. Ooh, yeah. Say these words of love.
WARD: The problem with the Temptones sure wasn't talent. They'd beaten both the Ambassadors and the Delfonics in a contest at the Uptown Theater. It wasn't their name being too close to The Temptations. The Temptations were fans, and offered management advice.
No, it was the fact that the Temptones, whose name had been modified from Templetones, because the group all went to Temple University, were white. Lead singer Daryl Hohl had a great voice, and they could dance like crazy. Without anything but local success, though, they eventually fell apart, and Hohl changed his name to Hall, and, with their guitarist John Oates, moved to Atlantic Records, which knew a thing or two about white soul.
Around the time the Temptones were falling apart, so was Arctic. Kenny Gamble, who'd been a singer and an engineer, started concentrating on running the mixing board along with his friend, keyboardist Leon Huff, and they started writing songs together, like this B-side from 1967.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT DOES A MAN DO")
HAROLD MELVIN AND THE BLUE NOTES: (Singing) Whoa, what does a man do now? What does a man do now? When he's all alone and blue now? He's all alone and blue. Tell me, what does a man do? What does a man do? When he's got no one to talk to now? Does he sit around and twiddle his thumbs? Or does he go out, go out and have some fun? Tell me what, what, what does a man do? I've got to know now. Tell me what a man do? Because I've never been that way, been that way, when I think about it every night and day. Night and day. Please, tell me.
WARD: The group, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, only made one record for Arctic, but Gamble and Huff kept in touch, and the next time they saw them, it was an entirely new group, except for Melvin. His drummer, Teddy Pendergrass, had a pretty good voice.
Arctic definitively fell apart at the end of the 1960s, and released its last record in 1971. By that time, Jimmy Bishop had disappeared entirely, and to this day, nobody knows what happened, although rumors of his preaching in Mississippi have surfaced. Barbara Mason, Hall and Oates, Gamble and Huff and the studio band that coalesced around the label and became the house band at Philadelphia International, though, have every reason to thank him for starting Arctic Records.
GROSS: Ed Ward reviewed "Cooler Than Ice: Arctic Records and the Rise of Philly Soul." You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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