On a 1990s History of Rock & Roll documentary that focused on the history of Funk music, the great trombonist and funk arranger Fred Wesley spoke of the Philadelphia Soul sound as “putting a bowtie on the funk.” Last weeks episode of UnSung covered the career of the Philadelphia singing group The Delfonics. The show was very insightful by featuring several prominent players in the Philadelphia music scene as well as documenting some of the interesting sources of inspiration for the songs of William and Wilburt Hart. It also touched on some very interesting work that William is doing currently, and an unfortunate brotherly dynamic that keeps the two brothers who drove the groups success from working together and recording together today.
The Hart brothers grew up in Philly in a family of 8 children. William Hart spoke of the sound that came from being under a bridge that was in their neighborhood. He spoke of that sound as being what he was trying to achieve, which I thought was interesting for the classic output of the Delfonics. The Delfonics classic records feature some of the highest levels of reverb and loudest machine gun snare sounds to be heard in all of popular music, which is especially unique because their stock in trade was ballads. It’s as if they make ballads influenced by the clamourous sounds of the city. If we see their classic music in this way, the falsetto and high tenor voices of William and Wilbur Hart become the comfort and the calm in the middle of the loveless city that allow romance to bloom. It’s been noted that the sounds of sweet soul falsetto groups such as the Delfonics were especially popular in the east coast big cities in the 1970s, and it’s interesting to contemplate the juxtaposition of the big city and warm romantic vocals.
The Hart brothers attended Overbrook High School in Philly, an institution of learning that has produced a score of noteable people across generations, including the basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, and motion picture star Will Smith, who’s production company is named after the school. It’s interesting to note William and Wilbur Hart, while brothers, were in seperate groups in high school. While this is not totally unusual, in light of the sibling troubles revealed later in the episode it causes one to wonder if they had a sibling rivalry that led to their current troubles.
The episode features excellent commentators such as Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble, and Nelson George. Thom Bell is one of the greatest music producers in American pop history and was particularly dominant in the 1970s. Bell pioneered a different approach than that stressed by other greats of the era. While many black groups began to emphasize a harsher, more rootsy, percussive dance based sound that was in league with the black consciousness of the era, Bell brought romance, slow tempos, balladry, high male voices, strings and sweetners, that reflected the upward mobility afforded at that point in the long struggle for civil rights. Bell was of the lineage of Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington, Miles Davis work with Gil Evans, Doo Wop groups and Burt Bacharach, and he had contemporaries in Issac Hayes, Barry White, Holland Dozier Holland and others who emphasized the sophisticated side of black music. Bell’s music featured harps and strings, flugelhorns and other symphonic touches, but don’t think that didn’t mean he couldn’t strike up a groove! Bell comes across as an intersting figure, he mentioned on the film that he didn’t wanna HIT you over the top of the head with his music (which immediately made me think of the great James Brown), but that he wanted to hold you and caress you with his music, build up to that moment of passion and power. It’s a credit to the times that such diverse musical approaches were able to coexist.
William Hart told a great story about how the Delfonics career igniting hit, “La, La, La” came about, mentioning his son William Hart Jr, who was also featured in the episode, use to always say “la, la, la” as a baby. He mentions that he thought it was trite, but he learned the power of simplicity. Interestingly, someone in radio mentioned that the Delfonics at that time provided love songs that were a respite from heavy social commentary, the Vietnam War, Black Power, Womens rights, and all the things that captured attention on the news. At that particular time, the Temptations had moved from singing pure love songs to singing songs of social commentary such as “Ball of Confusion”, “Cloud Nine”, “Message from a Black Man”, and “Slave.” It’s interesting that at this time we complain about the lack of social commentary, or even socially responsible music in the streams of mass popularity, but when the Delfonics hit in ’69, a lighter touch was needed as an alternative. However, the Delfonics were influenced by the times as well, but transmitted the tensions of the times through love songs, as exhibited by their song “Are You Gonna Break Your Promise”, which William said he wrote with soldiers who were leaving their ladies behind in mind.
The Delfonics cornered that sweet soul market at that time, being one in a slew of male falsetto voices in black music, including The Dells, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, the Stylistics, the Chi Lites, Eddie Kendricks, and later, Phillip Bailey. The program mentioned their outrageous ’70s outfits, their super hip mod uniforms, their African Kufi’s, and their capes they bit off Liberace. They also wore Matador suits, and William Hart mentioned the coolness of the matador, which reminded me of Miles Davis and Sketches of Spain. There was a trend among American men in the ’50s, inspired by people such as Ernest Hemingway, that valorized the Matador as a symbol of masculinity and virility. The Delfonics tapped in to this, which is a good symbol of their mix of powerful virility and tender softness in both their image and music, a mixture that was right in league with the gender politics of the times and would influence the R&B male approach for many years.
That mixture of masculine virility and tender understanding was very appealing to the Delfonics female fans as well. William Hart speaks of women disrobing as they performed. Nelson George observed that a man singing in a womans range seems to have a special effect on women, a point duly observed by artists such as Prince, who both based his career on falsetto singing (and androgynous clothes) and covered the Delfonics “La, La, La Means I Love You.”
The episode deals with the tremendous musical textures the Delfonics gave the world of R&B ballads. “Ready or Not” in particular was covered, a song sampled in Missy Elliot’s late ’90s hit, “Sock it To Me”, a funky song in which she and Lil Kim donned Mega Man outfits. I recall at the time a music writer referred to the songs “Evil empire” horns. I myself at the time had a hard time believing such a powerful horn sound had been concieved way back in the ’70s. The music sounded like it could have been the theme for Darth Vader in Star Wars. Interestingly enough, Bell mentioned the song in cinematic terms, remarking the horns on the intro are like announcing the “big bad bear’s” arrival. “Hey Love” was a classic written by brother Wilbur Hart. He mentioned he thought up the song when he and his wife were in their “pshychedelic room.” I thought that was dope, it made me think of black lights and zodiac sex sign posters and crushed velvet couches and wood paneled wet bars. The song itself was described as a “pshychedelic love song.”
The Delfonics and Thom Bells innovations in sound were picked up by many in the future worlds of hip hop and R&B. Many rappers on the east coast buil their hip hop sound on sampling R&B ballads. This was intersting to me because hip hop had it’s roots in James Brown, funky records and records that had an aggressive rhythmic base. The slow tempos (good for rapping over), unusual instruments, good vocals, and unique musical flourishes of soul ballads have become a bigger source of samples and instrumentation in recent years however, including the Wu Tang Clan. The episode also featured Adrian Younge as a commentator, a composer/producer/instrumentalist who specializes in creating authentic ’70s sounds. He actually worked with William Hart on a new album that revives the classic Delfonics sound. I also remember Ghostface Killah did a song with the Delfonics called “Wu Delfonics.”
The episode was marred by the Delfonics business struggles. Usually, songwriting is the surest way to make money in the music business. The Delfonics were great songwriters, writing all of their hit material, much of it in conjunction with Thom Bell, but they still got exploited by their managers and the record label. This exploitation seemed to embitter the group to an extent because even though the Hart brothers are family and started the group together, William Hart secured ownership of the group name and the right to tour under that name. The episode ended with the future of the group in doubt, as they exist in two seperate camps. I also want to mention original member Randy Kane, who has passed, and the member who replaced him, Major Harris, a smooth singer who was great in his own right, singing the late night soul classic, “Love Don’t Let Me Wait”, has also passed on. All in all, a great episode about an underreported time period in soul music, but I hope the Hart brothers can resolve their differences and come together, because it seems they could still produce great music if they found it in themselves to do so!