(CD, Epic/Legacy Recordings)
The introduction to Jamel Shabazz' Back in the Days suggests an alternate, pre-hip-hop soundtrack to the book's images. In particular, it names two Philadelphia producers whose work is legendary, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Coincidentally, this week sees the reissue of a series of the duo's legendary recordings; titled "Philly Soul Classics," the collection puts its best foot forward on this hits package.
For many, this disc will be a revelation: "They produced that? And that? And wrote them?" From the sultry "Me and Mrs. Jones" to the O'Jays' most irresistible dance tunes, to the soul balladry of Teddy Pendergrass on Harold Melvin's "If You Don't Know Me By Now," it's a diverse group that's unified by a lavish sonic approach in which soaring strings are balanced by strong, supple bass lines.
Or, as the liner notes describe the bass parts, "round, rhythmic bottoms." Nowhere does that bottom shake more than on the O'Jays' epic "For the Love of Money." It's an unforgettable, eternally sampled track that epitomizes Gamble & Huff's philosophy that dance music could and should raise the consciousness of the community — kind of the opposite of Funkadelic's "Free your mind, and your ass will follow" social improvement plan.
These tracks wander around the border between funk and disco, but have a heart that was missing in much of the disco repertoire. Listen, for instance, to Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes doing "Don't Leave Me This Way." The song went on to be a smash hit for dance diva Thelma Houston (and later, for disco revivalists the Communards), who can't compare to the soul oozing out of this track's impassioned vocal. It's enough to set your speakers on fire — but you may be too carried away to notice.