Alright, I admit it. There’s more Philly Soul covered in this column than music from any other soul capitol. There are a few reasons for that, the primary one being that when I was a kid in Atlantic City it was the music that the Philadelphia kids brought with them to the Jersey shore that made me love soul music in the first place. To this day, across all the years, it remains my favorite music. So this week I’m back with a Philly Soul record that was not only a huge hit but also represents all of the best aspects of the sound.
Great Philly Soul begins with the song and so many of them were the creations of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is one of them. The record was a smash for Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes but it wasn’t intended for them in the first place. Gamble and Huff had another Philadelphia group, Labelle, in mind when they wrote the song. For one reason or another, Labelle passed on the song and that’s when the writer/producers turned to Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes.
They were the Charlemagnes when they got together but by 1954 they were the Blue Notes and they had a long hard road ahead. They had some hits, albeit minor ones, with “My Hero” in 1960, and “Get Out (and Let Me Cry)” in 1965. The tide began to turn for the group when they recruited a drummer named Teddy Pendergrass to play in their backing band in 1970. The Bluenotes lead singer at the time was John Atkins but he left the group the same year the Pendergrass came on board. This led to Pendergrass, who had previously been a member of The Cadillacs (not the well-known Cadillacs from New York) being elevated to the lead singer role. That group, with Melvin, Pendergrass, Bernard Wilson, Lawrence Brown, and Lloyd Parks, was signed to Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1972. It was the same year that they released their breakout smash “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”
The record, which featured an unforgettable Pendergrass vocal, was released on September 11, 1972. It quickly moved up the charts until it was on top of the R&B chart and at #3 on the pop chart. As big a hit as it was for the Bluenotes, 17 years later the English band Simply Red took it even higher. Their version made it all the way to the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The RIAA named “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” one of the Songs of the Century.
The Bluenotes had been together in one form or another for 20 years when they first had major success and it didn’t end there. They dropped one hit after another including “The Love I Lost,” “Wake Up Everybody,” “Bad Luck,” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Despite their success, the lineup continued to change and that situation went critical when Pendergrass, at the height of the Bluenotes success, left for a solo career. Melvin led them forward but the departure of Pendergrass was a blow from which they never really recovered. Still, Melvin led an ever-changing lineup until his death in 1997. Pendergrass had a. massively successful solo career until he was paralyzed in a car accident in 1982. Although he recovered enough to return to recording and performance, it was never really the same. Teddy Pendergrass died from respiratory failure in 2010.
No discussion of Philly Soul or the glory years of Philadelphia International Records will ever be complete without recognition of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes.