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A House On Fire : The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul
For all the impact the city of Philadelphia had on soul music of the 70s, there are relatively few literary documents on the era. The first book on the Philly sound in 30 years, A House On Fire tells the story of a movement through articles and interviews with such legends as Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell, the O'Jays, Dexter Wansel, Teddy Pendergrass and Cynthia Biggs. 

The book is heavily tilted towards Gamble, Huff and Bell.  Relying mainly on Bell's recollections (Gamble and Huff declined to participate), we get an up-close and personal account of the inner workings of Philadelphia International Records.  Grossing upwards of $30 million a year at its peak, PIR revolutionized the music industry and established a business model for untold numbers of rap entrepreneurs. The balanced narrative also sheds light on the dark side of the company. Readers learn of the series of problems that eventually derailed their success, among them the financial disputes that resulted in the loss of the original MFSB backing band, the inability to adapt to changing tastes (namely funk and hip-hop) and the ultimately fractious relationship between Gamble and Huff.  The central character in the drama is Gamble, whose ego and religious confusion led to his divorce from Dee Dee Sharp Gamble as well as a nervous breakdown in 1975.  

While the focus on the Mighty Three is understandable, the result is a paucity of information on artists who operated outside that tight circle. Barbara Mason, Blue Magic, Fat Larry's Band and Instant Funk are among those who get short shrift from the author. Most baffling, however, is the virtual omission of the Trammps, whose core of Ronnie Baker, Norman Harris and Earl Young was the rhythm section and creative source behind nearly all of Philly International's most popular hits, in addition to their own productions for First Choice and Eddie Kendricks. It's as if once Baker-Harris-Young broke free from PIR they were no longer considered part of the Philly sound in Johnson's opinion.  

Nevertheless, A House On Fire is a much-needed examination of a classic era of music and the people behind the sound. 

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Published 2004 by Oxford

 

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