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The Philly Sound - the book review

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Yes, this tome has been a long time coming. In two ways. Not only reflected by the journey author Dave Moore and graphic designer Jason Thornton have had from book conception to publication, spanning over at least six-plus years I believe - although the precursors which got them there cross a lifetime of a love of soul music, and at that, on both sides of the Atlantic. A book like this has also been well overdue from a musical reference perspective. Thankfully for the soul music scene there appears to be a current surge of material from new and established soul music loving writers; noble in their quest to permanently document soon-to-be-forgotten artists, recordings and music industry stories. The Philly Sound admirably contributes to this central body of knowledge.

The loose topic matter of Philadelphia soul has of course been tackled over the years in articles, literary series, fanzines and book publications, and across various ‘soul scene’ subgenres. Inevitably, the focus of much of this literature is placed on what the mainstream would probably perceive as the halcyon days, musically speaking, of the City of Brotherly Love (the 1970s and that little green label). The enthusiasm and respect for this work should not be ignored. Indeed, some of it has no doubt laid at least part of the foundation for Dave Moore and Jason Thornton’s thorough research. The primary difference with The Philly Sound to this reviewer’s mind, however, is the sheer scope of historical exploration which exceeds the work of previous authors; and the way in which this information is presented to the reader in terms of accuracy, readability and visual presentation.

Before the reader even immerses him/herself in the core body of the text, the acknowledgements give some idea of sheer quantity and necessary diversity of sources accessed. Relevant experts and industry key players are represented from the UK, Europe and the US. A whole bunch of soul fans, record collectors, dealers and historians, label owners - and of course the artists and their families.

Remarkably, well over a century of African-American musical history in Philadelphia is explored. Documenting how gospel music, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop and R&B developed their own position in Philadelphia’s history, as well as their cumulative influence resulting in a ‘pinnacle’ of soul music (depending on how you look at it), all ensures that the reader is provided with full context. The trick in a reference book as large as this, is telling a complete story which is accurate, without losing sight of the primary target audience. In this case, the soul music fan. Dave and Jason do this by proportionality, as they take us through the decades leading up to the 1960s and to the present. Each chapter is well referenced with follow-up footnotes for the anoraks, source credits and interesting peripheral tidbits.

The Philly Sound has another USP: the quality of book design. Jason Thornton is to be congratulated on applying his skills to present beautiful illustrations and book layout which maintains the reader’s eye and genuinely enhance the stories relayed in the text. A myriad of images adorn the pages of label scans, 45 and LP picture covers, candid artist photographs, promotional shots of individual singers and vocal groups, historical recording studio buildings and theatres. None of it is superfluous; all perfectly and relevantly positioned within the text. Just on appearance alone, if there ever was a coffee table book to go on your Christmas wish list, this is it.

OK, so this book is an important account of Philadelphia’s history for the attention of anyone who appreciates popular US music history and wants to delve deeper. But guess who the bulk of the readership is going to be. Dave and Jason endorse this through the final sections of the book, by covering the record stores, and record dealers of the past and present who will be very familiar names to the serious northern soul fan and record collector. Kind of unavoidable, given the mountain of musical fodder Philly has provided the scene with over the years. I for one can thoroughly recommend this incredible piece of work. Congratulations to Dave and Jason on what is a pretty awesome and essential reference tool, which will undoubtedly become a future collectable. Who needs records when you have books?!

Mark Windle, September 2016.

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