MY FAVORITE BOX SET: VARIOUS ARTISTS (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Philly Soul: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and the Story of Brotherly Love (1966–1976)

Good title…

This might be a bit of a cheat, and, to tell the truth, if I put Gamble and Huff in the “single artist” category, this would probably be my favorite there, too. But Various Artists feels more appropriate even if the dazzling variety heard here was guided by a common vision.

However defined, a box set should be a great listening experience first and foremost and one that can be taken in all at once. My own “all at once” has a limit of around 3-4 hours. The single greatest box ever is probably this one…

But, at 6 discs and well over seven hours running time, it’s impossible to take in without setting aside the whole day. Rhino made plenty of other definitive genre boxes: for garage bands, rockabilly, surf music, doo wop, even a box of girl group rarities that never quits and comes in the greatest–or at least grooviest–ever package…

All of these are essential and will become more so as time marches along and memories of Rock and Roll America fade.

But Philly Soul has an advantage besides its relative brevity (3 discs, about three-and-a-half hours of music) and the cohesion of a strong vision. Call it an extra level of awareness. The difference between fighting the good fight in the disintegrating seventies versus riding the wave of the (mostly) optimistic sixties.

It offers a concept then, and, like any other concept album, a great box should also take you on a journey. And, if the compilers, not to mention the original artists, get it right, that journey, by dint of its sheer length, can be more complex and nuanced than any single album.

The danger is that it might quit on you.

Philly Soul doesn’t quit. It wanders now and then, perhaps in keeping with the artists’ guiding vision and the contradictions they meant to both raise….

and resolve….

But it doesn’t quit.

It almost can’t.

For one thing, the story’s too good: Black America coming to terms with itself and America in general.

Like the narrative it supports–gliding under and around all the slices of black (especially the emerging black bourgeoisie) life–it ebbs and flows. But with each wave it creeps a little closer to shore and, when it gets there, it doesn’t let you just stop and take a look around. It cries out for an ending that only the culture could have provided…and laments the absence of the clean triumph the best music here has so clearly earned, even as it questions the likelihood of justice, and the inherent naivete of expecting a reward, an acknowledgment, a resolution, all along the way.

That the culture failed to provide such an ending–and whether it was a near miss or a pipe dream all along is a question even Philly Soul cannot answer–is a tragedy that, upon sufficient reflection, rides the shoulder of every cut here, from the triumphal ebullience of Kenny and Leon’s first big hit, the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart,”…

All the way to Bunny Sigler’s somber, almost painful, re-imagining of the “Love Train.”

Along the way, themes develop: Brotherly Love of course, but also the haves trying not to be had by the have-nots….

The black family’s stand against the dark forces that would, ultimately, undermine it..

and, of course, celebrations of the beat, the beat, the beat…

It all developed from a multiracial vision, in keeping with the last vestiges of the preceding era’s hopes–the first disc features not only the Soul Survivors’ impeccable blue-eyed soul but soaring sides from Dusty Springfield and Laura Nyro, and, of course, it’s all underpinned by a hand-picked house band that looked liked this…

Mother, Sister, Father, Brother indeed.

But, beginning near the end of the first disc, there’s no question the sound in your ear–and the vision in your mind–became blacker. Hard not to when the middle passage (end of first disc to beginning of third) amounts to a cutting contest between the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ Teddy Pendergrass…with interludes that range from the hardest soul….

to the smoothest, most sublime, pop…

It’s a measure of Pendergrass’ quality that he kept it a fair fight throughout…and a testimony to his genius that he walked off with the title in the end…gospel-scatting over the last four minutes of the record that summed up Gamble and Huff’s entire ethos so thoroughly

that a pause for a spirit of reflection, long since earned–and a retreat from the top of the charts, first gradual, then sudden–was almost the only way left.

The one record that might have answered “Wake Up Everybody”–the O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy,” a close-to-the-bone account of the real Middle Passage–is the one essential cut missing from this life-affirming “pure listening” experience that doubles as the greatest documentary we’ll ever have of the moment we flew closest to the sun.

SEGUE OF THE DAY (8/30/12)

Joe Bullard/The O’Jays

The O’Jays (“Stairway to Heaven”–studio)

Errand day.

I got in the car and the station that now specializes in playing things rarely heard on the radio in their day kicked off the mid-morning drive to town with “Tonight’s the Night,” Neil Young’s hole-in-the-sun tribute to Jan Berry’s overdosed roadie brother (Berry was the creative half of Jan and Dean until he paralyzed himself in a car smash-up near enough to the real life “Dean Man’s Curve” for legend-building purposes). Then they backed it up with Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” one of his own hole-in-the-sun specials which Linda Ronstadt happened to cover in her I-radiate-so-much-sex-I-don’t-have-to-bother-with-changing-gender-specific-lyrics-unless-I-maybe-feel-like-it phase–a phase which freaked Costello so thoroughly he has been dancing around his objections to her existence ever since (not least, I imagine, because he also admits the massive royalties he received from her covers “gave me the freedom not to have to conform to any record company pressures”–a freedom he used to make the albums his reputation has rested on ever since. He eventually satisfied his habitual Cotton Mather impulse by donating some of the royalties to the African National Congress after Ronstadt defied the ban on playing South Africa and refused to explain herself.)

I really thought that would be something I could work with.

Then a commercial came on and I switched over to the R&B station where Joe Bullard–the local answer to why God made dee-jays–was preaching an uplift sermon, admonishing his listeners to take the time to read the four New Testament gospels between now and the end of the year. Somewhere along the way, the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” (Gamble and Huff’s, not Plant and Page’s) started playing underneath and when the gentle sermon finished, the O’Jays stepped in on cue.

Left the holes in the sun a long, long way behind.