homeprev issuesexecpublic affairsSTAFFASA home

2005 ASA Annual Meeting... Our 100th Meeting!

The Philadelphia Sound

This is the fourth article in a series highlighting ASA’s upcoming 2005 centennial meeting in Philadelphia.

by Jerome Hodos, Franklin and Marshall College, and David Grazian, University of Pennsylvania

Since World War II, music has been Philadelphia’s public face to the world. While fulfilling their duties as unofficial representatives of the “City of Brotherly Love”, local musicians worked to codify and symbolize the state of the city’s black community through a succession of distinct musical styles. From a sociological point of view, three features of these recurring “Philadelphia sounds” stand out: the music’s roots in neighborhood institutions like churches; a dense, localized network of musicians who gig and record with each other, making innovation a collaborative process; and the countless local enterprises (recording studios, record shops, nightclubs, and more) that the network builds and popularizes.

Popular cultural scenes and their producers draw from the working class and minority groups, rather than from historic elites. The neighborhoods that serve as home to most black musicians in Philadelphia are parts of the large urban ring that served as areas of first- and later second-generation migrant settlement: just south of Center City in South Philadelphia, lower North Philadelphia west of Broad Street north through Germantown, Mt. Airy, West Philadelphia, and (recently) Overbrook. Many celebrated performers attended school together or lived on adjacent blocks. .

Collectively, these neighborhood-based ethnic communities provide a protected, fertile enclave in which cultural production can germinate. Musical innovation has relied on the vitality of largely segregated community institutions such as the black church. For instance, rhythm-and-blues pioneer Solomon Burke long led his own congregation in the city. (Another example: the white, teen pop of the late 1950s was made popular via Dick Clark’s TV show American Bandstand, taped in a studio at 46th and Market Streets. Its major performers—Bobby Rydell, Fabian, and Frankie Avalon—grew up in the same working class, Italian-American neighborhood of South Philadelphia, and got into the business with the help of neighborhood entrepreneurs and musicians.)

The music hardly stayed in these enclaves. Each group of musical innovators founded its own set of locations and companies. Since the 1950s, these music mavens have sought each other out for rehearsal, live dates or guest appearances on records; attracted musicians from other cities eager to work with local talent; and used their collaborations to articulate a collective sound that came to define a time and a place. Three main periods and styles of innovation have been deeply rooted in the African-American community in Philadelphia: hard bop in the 1950s and 1960s, the soul music of the famed “Philadelphia Sound” in the 1960s and 1970s, and the 1990s “neo-soul” movement, in which R&B (and occasionally jazz) elements are intertwined with hip-hop.

Philadelphia was one of the most important centers for jazz in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The city was home to more jazz musicians than perhaps any city, save New York. Musicians found each other gigs and played together—John Coltrane, for example, played in both Jimmy Heath’s and Jimmy Smith’s bands, and later hired local talents Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner for his own classic quartet. In search of a more urban, gritty, and what was thought of as a more authentically African-American sound than they had previously heard in the California-centric “cool” jazz movement, East Coast jazz musicians in the mid-1950s created a roots-oriented jazz—called hard bop—that incorporated significant elements from blues and black church music. Philadelphia was a main center for hard bop, home to crucial performers like Clifford Brown, Benny Golson, John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, Hank Mobley, Jimmy Heath, and McCoy Tyner (Nisenson 1993; Nisenson 1997). The city became the center of the jazz instrument through musicians like Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott.

As hard bop faded and jazz overall collapsed temporarily around the time of Coltrane’s death in 1967 (Giddins 1998), new sounds in soul music emerged, transforming rhythm and blues with new instrumentation and new themes. A community of musicians and producers converged on Philadelphia International Records, including the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes (with alumnus Teddy Pendergrass), and MFSB. At Philadelphia International, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created a signature sound, mixing irresistibly danceable grooves with arrangements for large horn and string sections on unforgettable records, such as Joe Simon’s “Drowning in the Sea of Love,” Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and the Intruders’ “I’ll Always Love My Mama.” They pioneered the ten-minute anthems of soul—for example, the theme song from Soul Train—that provided the building blocks for disco and modern dance music. Gamble and Huff combined these musical elements with a commitment to black ownership and control that made them a crucial symbol for and representative of the Philadelphia black community. Thematically, the Philadelphia Sound mixed a commitment to racial equality and social uplift with an emotional sophistication and bittersweet tone that helped set the cultural tone for post-civil rights America.

During the 1990s and today, a subsequent generation configured a new hybrid of soul with hip-hop. Musicians and producers like the Roots, Bahamadia, King Britt, Jill Scott, and James Poyser have made Philadelphia a center for a distinctive African-American club music that uses live instruments more than drum machines. The participants in this network recognize Gamble and Huff’s work as an inspiration, and they carry on its themes while integrating them with the rhythmic and lyrical flavors of rap. Their organizational base is a collection of studios and music offices north of downtown, including Poyser’s Axis Music Group, the offices for the Roots and the Okayplayer website and multimedia enterprise, and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s studio, A Touch of Jazz (Moon 2000). The combination of soul and hip-hop that Philadelphia musicians crafted in the 1990s not only revitalized the local club scene but also helped shift the aesthetic sensibilities of both source genres nationwide.

Continuous threads of black musicianship, cultural innovation, entrepreneurship, and community participation run through all three genres. Deeply rooted in Philadelphia’s historic black neighborhoods, cultural vitality has in some cases helped lead to physical revitalization. Kenny Gamble, for example, through his Universal Companies, is one of the most important participants in the redevelopment of the neighborhoods just south of downtown, along the city’s Avenue of the Arts. Of course, these networks and the cultural products that spring from them are fragile resources, and some of the core nightlife institutions that sustained the 1990s hip-hop and neo-soul network sadly no longer exist. Still, the varying styles of Philadelphia’s black music landscape can be experienced on any given weekend night in entertainment nightspots throughout the Center City downtown district and its surrounding neighborhood enclaves.

With its refined dining room and glamorous staff, Zanzibar Blue (200 S. Broad St.) is easily the city’s most elegant jazz venue, attracting world-renowned artists covering traditional American jazz styles as well as the more eclectic international sounds of the city. For a more intimate vibe, Ortliebs’ Jazz Haus (847 N. 3rd Street) in Northern Liberties offers lightning-hot jam sessions, jazz-infused poetry nights, and other collaborative musical adventures in a narrow space that evokes the hip Philly jazz joints of the hard bop era. Back downtown, Chris’ Jazz Café (1421 Sansom St.) often features jazz virtuosos from Philadelphia’s many music academies and local old timers.

The recently-upgraded studios of WXPN radio, The World Café Live (3025 Walnut St.) features a creative range of in-house live jazz, blues, reggae, R&B, zydeco, folk, world music and other roots-oriented performers from Joshua Redman to Meshell N’degeocello, Sister Sledge to Buckwheat Zydeco. On South Street, Tritone (1508 South St.) excels in producing equally diverse musical offerings from punk and rockabilly to the intergalactic freestyle funk of the still-swinging Sun Ra Arkestra. Across the street from Tritone,

Bob and Barbara’s Lounge (1509 South St.) is a favorite among Philly hipsters who jump and shout on the weekends for Nate Wiley and the Crowd Pleasers, the bar’s perennial R&B house trio.

Finally, contemporary hip-hop and soul fans should be thrilled by the virtually limitless offerings provided by local DJs who spin tracks all over the city, including the Five Spot (5 S. Bank St.), featuring a female-friendly open-mic jam session that launched the career of neo-soul queen Jill Scott; Filo’s (408 S. 2nd St.), a laid-back underground lair where carefree patrons groove to Jamaican rhythms and 1970s soul; and Fluid (613 S. 4th St.), where every Saturday night Roots’ drummer ?uestlove (pronounced “Quest Love”) pays homage to the jazz, soul, rhythm-and-blues, and disco of the Philadelphia Sound, the music of the City of Brotherly Love.


Gamble, Kenny, and Leon Huff. 1997. “The Philly Sound.” New York: Sony Music Entertainment.

Giddins, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moon, Tom. 2000 (October). “The Philadelphia Story.” Pp. 122+ in Vibe.

Nisenson, Eric. 1993. Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest. New York: Da Capo.

—. 1997. Blue: The Murder of Jazz. New York: Da Capo.