Bobby, could you tell me about this misconception
about Rock 'n' Roll.
Yes, uh, a lot of people
have the common misconception that the term Rock 'n' Roll was invented by
the late Alan Freed, a DJ who originated in Cleveland. But actually rock 'n'
roll is a term that's been used by black people since the '20s and '30s,
even before that. It was a colloquial term for the sex act. And it's been
used in Joe Turner records and Ma Rainey records, back in the blues era,
whatever. But Alan Freed came along and him being white or whatever adapted
it, and everybody thought that he was the man. But he wasn't the man. He
took it away from the black people, who invented the term.
I'd like to get right into the whole, when we talk about
the elements that make up the Philly sound, we were talking about I love
music. And there are so many elements that go into that, one is jazz, one is
the beat, it can be the Rock 'n' Roll beat. I'd just like you guys to talk
Okay, Bobby, you want to start
off with that?
Just kind of repeat the last
part of it. I was like ...
Well, I can
start it off. Okay, the Philly sound, it's a lot of input of a lot of
different talents. Like Earl was saying, his different drum grooves that he
got from past drummers and so forth and things he added, a combination of
the older drummers and through Motown. And it's a development of the sound
not only rhythmically, it, it's musically too. Like the vibes, I can explain
that best, and Bobby could explain the guitar. But the vibraharp, you know,
uh, my idols were like, uh, Lionel Hampton. When I was a kid I used to go to
the Earl Theater in Philadelphia, it was 12th and Market, and I used to
watch the big Lionel Hampton Orchestra playing "Flying Home." You know,
da-da-da. And he'd play the hell out of the vibes. But he used a faster
vibrato, where I use a slower vibrato and I used to blend my chords in, in
other words I used three mallets, but usually, most of the time I play, when
I play in clubs I play with four mallets. But I'd play three and I'd pay the
upper partials of their basic chord. In other words like if it was an
E-major-7th, well I would play like the upper partials. I'd play like --
[plays]. Things like that, but they'd be playing the other notes. And so
forth. And that added to the Philly sound. My inversions of the different
chord changes. I would see a chord chart and see C major. Well, I wouldn't
play a C major. I'd play like a, an E-minor-9th, on top of the C major,
understand, or a G major on top of C major. So it was my transformation of
my chord patterns that would give it that something. Then the vibraharp,
which is this instrument here, I would slow, they have a little motor in
here that slows the vibrato, it's like a doppler system. When you hit a note
-- [bing] -- it has a little vibrato. Now I can speed that up. [plays] See
how fast that is now. All in accordance with the tempo of the song, I would
slow that up and give it that beautiful sound like this. [plays] Or [plays].
Okay, you know that song. And so forth. That was my, and my background of
jazz, playing with Charlie Parker and all those people, Buddy DeFranco, way
back in the '60s and the '50s, I was really, basically, I always wanted to
be a jazz player, but I never got around to it. Everybody else made it as a
jazz player, but I stayed with the, you know, the recording end of it in
nightclubs, I had to make a living. So that was part of my contribution
toward the Philly sound. Like Earl developed his sound. He had like a skip
beat on the drums that he invented, and they call it house groove now.
What's his name from Chicago, uh, Frankie Nuggles developed house music
because he used to work at the warehouse. And they go, where you going,
we're going to the warehouse to listen to house music. Okay? But that man
was responsible for that groove. And Bobby has his own thing that he
contributed, they used to call him, well they still do, Electronic Eli,
because he came in with all kinds of contraptions and sound effects.
Whenever you hear a bawawawawaw on a guitar, well that was Bobby. But if you
heard a real like, like a Wes Montgomery sound which developed later, Norman
Harris, the great Harris machine, would play that sound on his
Yes. And we all loved him and really. And Baker
would have his own sound on, on bass. He used to have that real funky,
thuddy sound on bass. And Bobby can explain a lot more about that.
Yeah, uh, Ronnie Baker was the quintessential bass
player. He made no qualms about being anything other than that. He didn't
try to play like Larry Graham and try to pop his strings or anything. He was
a bass player. As a matter of fact, his strings were probably ten years old
and had grit, dirt on it, that was part of the sound. If you gave him clean
strings, it just wouldn't work. You had to have the dirt and the old funk
and everything. And that was part of his bottom. Ronnie Baker had the best
bottom in the business. Even mastering engineers always from out of town,
they'd say, man where'd you have, where'd you get the bottom from? You know,
what's the secret? I ain't telling the secret.
Ronnie loved that bass player from Motown.
Jameson. Now I heard some things by James Jameson, and if you took the bass
off of those Supremes records, it wouldn't be anything at all, but you put
that bass back on it, it sounds incredible. The lines that this guy would
play. Same way with Ronnie Baker. Ronnie Baker would come up like --
[sings]. That wasn't written in the music.
the spot, just like that, on the spot.
The only thing was written in the music was when we used to come in as
arrangers, we used to listen to the rhythm track, and then we used to notate
it, and say, okay, I could, well, if I did the arrangement, which I didn't,
uh, I don't know who did the arrangement on that.
Bobby Martin, okay.
Now, Bobby would take the track home, an incredible track, and uh, he'd
listen to it, and say, well, okay, maybe I want trumpets to play that. Now
let's see in my head let me hear how that would sound. [sings] No, that
wouldn't sound good. How about violins? [sings] No. Let me see, a bassoon?
[sings] No, leave it alone. The bass sounds great just the way it is, right?
So then he would go on to something else. In the basic rhythm track. So
he'd, he'd take the basic rhythm track with the vocals, than what he would
do is arrange something what we would call sweetening. He would sweeten it
up, put the icing on the cake. And we had like sometimes six, two and one
violins. We'd have six violins, two violas and one cello. Or sometimes we'd
have 12 violins and just double it. And uh, he would write the arrangements
and then we would double that in the recording end of it, which would be
incredible. And then we'd have a hallway there, remember the hallway,
The long hallway that, um, Joe Tarsia put at one end a microphone,
and the other end he'd put a speaker. And he'd put the strings, he'd record
the strings through there, and it would sound like it was in a big stadium
somewhere. The different effects. And I guess Joe Tarsia can get into that
technical end more than I could because he invented that, he started that
sound. And that's part of that sound. And then we had a brass section, right
Bob? Rocco Benny, and all those guys, and Jack Wilson and Bobby Hartsall
And Don Renaldo on violins, and oh my God, it was just a wonderful
time of my life. I think that was the best years of our lives,
It was a combination of every kind of
ethnic persuasion you could possibly think of. I you'd have walked in the
room and saw these people playing together. You know you had little balding
Italian men from South Philly eating pepper and egg sandwiches and reading
the racing form in between takes, and you'd have us guys, or the younger
guys of the crew, you'd have black, white, Italian, Jewish whatever,
everybody playing in one room together. The magic, the intensity and magic
was wonderful. You know, never to be duplicated ever again.
Absolutely. Bobby, you must tell them about
yourself. Your sound, your guitar. And then we'll get into T.J. Tindall and
Cotton and Ron Kersey and all the guys.
you tell me about that, just tell me that story about how you
Oh yeah, back in the late '70s, I was
at Philadelphia International Records one day and a letter came to my
attention and it said, Dear Mr. Eli, we are glad to announce that you've
been chosen to be in the Who's Who of Black Americans for the year 1978 I
think it was. And I was very flattered, you know, because, uh, you know, and
I was going to send them a letter back thanking them, and I thought twice. I
said, well, I don't want to lie, I'm not a liar, I want to be -- they asked
for a photograph. I could've had it retouched but I said, nah. So I wrote
them a kind letter back and I said, thank you for choosing me to be in this
manual, but I'm in fact white and Jewish, and if you still would like to
have me in there, I'd be glad to be there. I'll send you an unretouched
photo and a history of my music. And uh, I was very flattered. I still have
the letter somewhere.
Tell me about how the
material was actually written for the…
on the first Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes album featuring Teddy
Pendergrass, all the songs on the album were originally scheduled to be
recorded by the Dells. Gamble and Huff were going to do an album on the
Dells. But for some reason the project was never okayed by Chess Records, so
the first Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes album was scheduled to be
recorded, and somebody had mentioned, hey, why don't you try Teddy. He's,
uh, sounds just like Marvin from the Dells. And at that point Teddy was a
drummer. So anyway, they, uh, they gave Teddy the shot to sing the leads.
And what happened on one of the songs, called, uh, "The Love I Lost," "The
Love I Lost" was originally a ballad, which was like -- [plays] -- like a
3/4 ballad. So anyway, Gamble said, nah, nah, pick it up, pick it up, pick
the tempo up. So Earl Young invented the so-called disco groove on that
particular number. You know, and the rest is history. It became a standard,
a club standard.
In terms of the voices
I think Bobby was more into
Well, everybody that they chose had a
stamp, an identity, and you could tell one from the other, unlike the
records of today. The O'Jays, for instance, were actually recording since
the early '60s. And they had a couple of hits on Bell, "I'll Be Sweeter
Tomorrow" and "Look Over My Shoulder" and whatever. And Eddie Lavert had had
a natural, churchy kind of sound in his voice and everything. And when the
O'Jays were looking for a deal, Gamble and Huff put the feelers out and
invited them to come to Philadelphia and they talked business. And the first
batch of sessions had "One Night Affair" and "992 Arguments" and so forth,
and that was through their initial deal. And then the first deal fell apart
or whatever, and then Philadelphia International was started in '71 and the
O'Jays became one of the first acts on the new, on the new label. And all
those songs, "Backstabbers" and "Stairway to Heaven" and all that were
written for that first album, based on Eddie Lavert's voice, the same voice
and character that he used in all the old records that he did in New York
Could you give me the guitar thing on
Yeah, it will take a combination of all
of us playing together. Like Earl was saying earlier, it's not just one
person. It's a combination of everybody, on that one anyway.
I want to move to MFSB and the whole orchestral sound and
how that __________. Could you tell me how that came about? How did MFSB
Okay, I could backtrack a little
bit before MFSB as the name. What happened was one day, Gamble and Huff
called us all in the studio to experiment with some instrumentals, right?
And at that time, Curtis Mayfield was out with the "Superfly" movie and
stuff. So we did a, uh, a track on the song "Freddie's Dead" and then we did
a track on Sly Stone's "Family Affair." And they initially put it out on an
independent label called, uh, North Bay Records, right? And the group was
called the Family, it wasn't called MFSB, it was called the Family. And then
later on after Don Cornelius called up and said he wanted a new theme for
"Soul Train" and he came down and, uh, a lot of us contributed different
songs for the theme song, but the one that was chosen was the one that we
all know as "TSOP". So that song along with the Family, and Sly Stone song
and all that were put together for that first, uh, "Love Is The Message"
album. Actually, there was an album prior to that, uh, MFSB album, sort of
an unknown album for collectors only kind of thing. But uh, it really
started to, uh, uh, blossom on that "Love Is The Message" album.
Bobby, tell them about TSOP, what that
TSOP means The Sound of Philadelphia.
MFSB could stand for Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, or it can be
interpreted otherwise with words I don't want to use, various expletives and
what have you.
Thinking about your sound, what
is the Bobby sound.
Wow, the Bobby Eli sound.
Is, it, it, it comprises of less is more. You know, like a lot of, uh,
musicians want to show their chops and stuff. With me, it's, I'm sort of an
unchopped person, you know. I'm not exactly the most schooled musician in
the world, but I was always good at coming up with figures that were usually
copied in the arrangements with the strings and horns. I was very good at
coming up with very simple, you know, guitar figures, you know. [plays] Or
whatever. They were spontaneous, you just can't do it like this. But it was,
it was picking up from the vibe that was in the room, and there were very
heavy vibes, no pun intended, in the room at the time. And it was just, uh,
us grooving, sometimes Ronnie Baker may have done a bass line, and I might
have doubled it on the guitar or what have you. Vince, myself and Cotton
Kent, one of the keyboard players would like that George Shearing kind of
sound -- [plays] -- with a lot of jazz, minor 9ths and 13ths, and major
7ths, which nobody really used before. Everybody was doing straight chords,
straight dominant chords, and we invented this kind of stuff, that kind of
stuff -- and this.
We sort of got into
the upper partials of the chords. In other words like he said, all the rock
groups would play just -- [bing] -- C major. Well, we got into -- [plays].
We spread the chord out.
Among us. Of course we all had the ability and the
knowledge, that was the main thing. Plus that big sound of the strings and
like eight brass -- [buzz] -- would kick the heck out of a tune, with those
voices. Those voices were like jazz singers, or gospel. It was a combination
of jazz, gospel, uh, what have you. It was just incredible. We'd walk out of
With the, uh, the voices alone, I
mean they had like a combination of, uh, jazz singers, gospel, uh, you name
it, right Bob? I mean it went into a lot of different ethnic type of music
that they brought out in their own sounds. They had their thing. And it was
all incorporated with this, this sound. Plus the strings was a very
sophisticated sound, very. I mean we'd orchestrate everything that was ever
written. So I, I've known you, you, you looked at some of the scores, and
you see every note, it was written down. Maybe not with MFSB, but with South
Soul Orchestra, when I produced South Soul Orchestra, uh, we'd have to write
every note, and Bobby with all your --
Magic, Major Harrison.
Blue Magic and
all. And it was a great time of our life, I think.
Can I hear a little bit of "Love Is The Message"?
With a duo, you think we can sound like that big
A little bit of both.
Bobby, you were more --
Okay, if I remember correctly, as far as Teddy Pendergrass goes, a lot
of times he was out on the road working, and uh, we basically ran down the
tracks with Kenny and Leon, uh, knowing well in advance how Teddy's voice
sounded, so we had a handle on it. But generally, he may have been there for
a few of the sessions, but for most of the time he came in later and did his
vocals without the guys. Early on though with the Blue Notes, they were all
there at the session, the first two albums collectively they were
The only, well, there was a lot of
artists not --
Well, for the first two albums
what was that process like? Did you feel that Gamble or Huff was actually
helping them develop their sound or getting their sound together?
The sound was essentially developed by Gamble and Huff
with Teddy Pendergrass's gospel background. He was, was an ordained
minister, and he sang a lot as a, as a teenager in church, and he had the
built in rasp in his voice, like, I was saying, like Marvin in the Dells.
And everything, once they found out that he had that in his voice,
everything was written with him in mind. Even Harold himself did a few
leads, and Harold had a smooth voice, but he had similar phrasing. So I
would say even Kenny, Leon and Harold, Harold was a good focal coach too
because he goes back a long time. He's had the Blue Notes since maybe the
late '50s or '60s with different lead singers or what have you, and he was a
very good vocal coach. He knew all the tricks, he knew all the runs, all the
phrasing. So Harold's input was, uh, very helpful I would say to Teddy
Pendergrass's vocal style.