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A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul [Kindle Edition]

John A. Jackson
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

"If You Don't Know Me By Now," "The Love I Lost," "The Soul Train Theme," "Then Came You," "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now"--the distinctive music that became known as Philly Soul dominated the pop music charts in the 1970s. In A House on Fire, John A. Jackson takes us inside the musical empire created by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell, the three men who put Philadelphia Soul on the map.
Here is the eye-opening story of three of the most influential and successful music producers of the seventies. Jackson shows how Gamble, Huff, and Bell developed a black recording empire second only to Berry Gordy's Motown, pumping out a string of chart-toppers from Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Spinners, the O'Jays, the Stylistics, and many others. The author underscores the endemic racism of the music business at that time, revealing how the three men were blocked from the major record companies and outlets in Philadelphia because they were black, forcing them to create their own label, sign their own artists, and create their own sound. The sound they created--a sophisticated and glossy form of rhythm and blues, characterized by crisp, melodious harmonies backed by lush, string-laden orchestration and a hard-driving rhythm section--was a glorious success, producing at least twenty-eight gold or platinum albums and thirty-one gold or platinum singles. But after their meteoric rise and years of unstoppable success, their production company finally failed, brought down by payola, competition, a tough economy, and changing popular tastes.
Funky, groovy, soulful--Philly Soul was the classic seventies sound. A House on Fire tells the inside story of this remarkable musical phenomenon.

Product Description


"The definitive account of Philadelphia Soul. John Jackson's five years of research have resulted in a fascinating study of the hit sound that left lasting impressions on both the recording industry and American culture. A House on Fire is a wonderful human drama set in the tumultuous world of pop music, and John Jackson expertly captures the full breadth of this rollicking story." —Gerald Posner, author of Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power

About the Author

John A. Jackson is the author of the award-winning books Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock and Roll and American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock and Roll Empire. He lives outside Tampa, Florida.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 4643 KB
  • Print Length: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (1 Jan. 2004)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0014AL2N4
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #697,276 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars AN UNDERRATED GENRE 13 July 2009
The subject of soul music from Philadelphia is one that has received little interest from music writers. I've owned and treasured Tony Cummings "The Sound Of Philadelphia" for over 30 years, so when I saw John A. Jackson's book I bought it immediately. I have to say I haven't been disappointed. Jackson's book covers the behind the scenes battles and resentments of many of the players in the story, and it explains how justified many of them are in their bitterness at being denied credit/fair payment.
Because the book was published in 2004 it covers the death of the "The Sound Of Philadelphia" right to the very end and to be honest, there isn't much new information to add in the last 5 years. I think he treats the all powerful triumvirate of Kenny Gamble/Leon Huff/Thom Bell fairly and he's interviewed many important lower profile figures who come across as refreshingly candid.
In conclusion, if you've loved the golden period of Philadelphia soul, you've got to read this book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read 12 Jun. 2011
By Marco
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Loved this book. Well researched and very well written. A total joy from start to finish. Reading it made me want to play all the albums and tracks mentioned. In some ways a sad story but the fact that the Philadelphia sound ever happened in the first place is something to be treasured. I wish we had more music histories of this standard.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Gamble, Huff and Bell 11 Oct. 2013
By John11
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Right at the start the author explains his attempts to interview Kenny Gamble, despite being told by others that he wouldn't get an one. He eventually gave up. So many of the quotes within the book are from third party sources. Having said that all of the sources are provided in extensive notes which accompany each chapter.
I found the first couple of chapters heavy going but after that the remainder of the book is extremely readable, never mind a fascinating read. The extensive notes really need to be read as you are directed to them so a bookmark is recommded in order that you can move back and forth.
I hadn't realised until I received it but this is a hardback book.
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Format:Kindle Edition
Good read with a lot of info and facts about the history of soul in Philadelphia from the early 60's through to demise of the legendary Philadelphia international records
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  25 reviews
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At last a thorough book on the Philly soun 4 May 2005
By Jbug - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In 1975, Tony Cummings wrote a book titled 'The Sound Of Philadelphia.' The book has been long out of print and was written well before the demise of TSOP. Ever since I read it, I wondered why no one else had thought to do a follow up book, perhaps one with a new slant. With so many hit records and albums produced it was difficult to understand why only one book had been written on the subject. For years, I was completely baffled and could not understand how in the music business a company could be so big yet fly under the radar. Finally, John Jackson answered the bell. There was so much I didn't know about the whole picture. I had never heard any of the negative stuff nor was I aware that some of the people responsible for the music had passed away.

For me, it started with two singing groups The Intruders ("Cowboys To Girls") and Archie Bell & The Drells ("I Can't Stop Dancing"). The albums put out on both groups were the first I ever purchased as a teenager. They had a totally different sound than what I was hearing on the radio from other groups. I was pleasantly surprised while reading the back of the albums that both groups shared the same writers, producers, arrangers, musicians and recording studio. This was my introduction to the Philly Sound.

Jackson's book is the better of the two because it's focus on the subject is tighter. Cummings book takes in the whole Philadelphia music scene pre and leading up to TSOP. Because the Cummings book was written while the show was still in progress, it adds little insights and information that you won't find in the Jackson book. I caught a mistake in the Cummings book when he says that when Bobby Starr takes over the lead singer role from the Intruders "Little Sonny," that he does one record and then departs to parts unknown. The truth is that Bobby did an entire album titled, "When We Get Married," plus a handful of singles. Jackson's book is a fasinating look at the behind the scene workings that I felt privileged to watch unfold but Jackson doesn't go into details about events such as the death of Little Sonny. I wanted to know the mindset and circumstances that led to him taking his own life.

There is still room to do another book on the "Philly Sound." I would like to hear more from the singers and musicians who were mentioned but not interviewed for one reason or another. I want to hear more from arranger Bobby Martin whom I thought was just as important as the big three. I would like to get his insight on his style of arranging songs. I would also like to know (if it can be explained) how he and Thom Bell came up with those (inner ear) sounds that were common with the Philly sound. The genius of Gamble & Huff was that they had a different sound on each group or individual. Archie Bell didn't sound like the Ojays and the Ojays didn't sound like Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. Billy Paul had a sound and Lou Rawls had his own sound. That was one of the big differences between TSOP and Motown.

As the saying goes, "All good things must come to and end." I would add that all man made things come to an end and the Philly sound saw its day in the sun and that same sun setting on them. Bittersweet to say the least. I have read this book multiple times now now and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in music history. The Philly sound rivaled the world wide, well known Motown Sound. If you ask people have they heard of G&H or Thom Bell or TSOP don't be surprised if they say no. The music and the artist are better known than the men who helped create it which to me is rather sad. To my knowledge there aren't any documentary films or videos on the Philly sound. Not even PBS has tackled the subject. I'm still scratching my head on this one but at least after more than two decades, we finally get a second book. I hope the next one comes from someone who was an insider. Regardless, thanks to you Mr. Jackson.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read on incredible music 19 Dec. 2004
By Timothy R. Sullivan - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I believe the soul music coming out of Philly in the 1970's is the best music ever made, and this book gets on the inside on how it all came together.

Jackson's exhaustive research is impressive. He has documented everything in detail, talked to 100's of people, read many documents, and just plain got his reserach down perfectly.

Jackson tells how the music was made with interesting anecdotes throughout the book. Mostly it's about the business side of music and how Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell not only created and produced, but also assembled teams of amazing musicians, writers, and singers to develop this amazing music.

It doesn't always paint a rosy picture, remember this is not only the rise, but also the fall of Philly soul. And if you're a Kenny Gamble fan, this book doesn't portray him in the most positive light, though much of it is earned by Mr. Gamble himself. One can put the blame on his big, fat ego for the downfall of the world's most incredible music company, Philadelphia International.

All kinds of musicians are interviewed. I would've preferred to have heard more words from The O'Jays and Spinners, and other big groups, but clearly Jackson's intent was to focus on Gamble, Huff, and Bell, and the backing musicians who labored hard without much glory. (But what's a music book without whiney studio musicians?)

Philadelphia soul hit its peak in the early and mid-70's led by The O'Jays, Spinners, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and The Stylistics just to name a few .. then the decline set in caused by -- no surprise here -- too much ego.

The author, Jackson, puts it all together in this fantastic read.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Solidly researched, starring Thom Bell 2 Dec. 2005
By J-Rock - Published on
As a musician, I've researched black music pretty heavily over the years. I dig jazz biographies and I've moved into understanding some of the major black music "machines" like Motown and Stax. Philadelphia International has been slow to grow on me because I wrongly associated it with later disco developments. I've been heavy into the O'Jays as of late, though, and this book seemed like a good way to get deeper into the innerworkings of the men and the company that fueled the growth of Philly's unique sound.

I wasn't disappointed. This book is skillfully researched and is filled with the recollections of many who participated in the sessions. The author has one of the more balanced viewpoints on the nature of running a big label. Yes, the founders Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble eventually exploited those they employed to some degree. But the author realizes that this was common practice to some extent. He tries to show understanding for all of the people involved and criticizes when power begins to hurt the effectiveness of the organization.

This book emphasizes the musicians as well. Perhaps projects like "Standing In the Shadows of Motown" have focused more emphasis on understanding the musicians' role in producing stellar music. He profiles all of the core musicians and the key studio singers. He strives to show how tracks like "For the Love of Money" were really grooved into compositions by musicians.

There were a lot of key revelations to me in this book that will inform my practice as a musician. Chief among them was the skill and business savvy of Thom Bell. Thom Bell seems to be a rare kind of cat, an amazing musican arranger in the pop music field who is able to preserve his artistic integrity and stay independent. Thom Bell did not sign any exclusive contracts and that gave him the freedom to have a great deal of control over groups like the Delfonics and eventually the Spinners. As a big fan of the Spinners, I was surprised to see just how big a role Thom Bell played in their development and how he was instrumental in rescuing them from the Motown scrap heap. While I realize that Thom Bell may have been so favorably portrayed because he was open [unlike Kenny Gamble] and alive [unlike Leon Huff, I think] to being interviewed at length, I do take him at his word that he was really in it for the music and that he was true enough to himself to abandon groups once he could no longer "hear" their next projects.

You probably have an interest in black music if you've wandered into this review. "House of Fire" is one of the best written and best researched pop music histories I've read, and I recommend it without qualification.

5 stars

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cold Fire 2 May 2005
By Kevin Killian - Published on
John A. Jackson's book is thoroughly researched and a story compellingly told. It is a book with no heroes, so it's hard to develop an abiding interest in it. Gamble and Huff on the one hand, and Thom Bell on the other, all exhibit--in John Jackson's retelling of this mythic story--delusions of grandeur that come to destroy their empire. It may be that all three are "really" sterling human beings, but Jackson makes out each man out to be a megalomaniac whose success first went to his head, then turned around and bit him in the ass. Nevertheless the records produced and written by these three guys will stand the test of time as well as any pop music made in the 20th Century. The Stylistics, The Spinners, the Delfonics, The Three Degrees, Jackson has spoken to them all. A curious deficiency of the book is that none of the individual musicians or singers really comes to life, they all become a blur, their personalities rubbed out in the service of keeping the narrative movements.

As you read further it becomes apparent that a case could clearly be made out that this hit factory was the dominant music force of its time and place. And the tragedy is that human error caused its collapse. The book's later chapters are studies in the pathetic that have rarely been equalled. It is not really an inspiring book; but it is one that will get your pulses moving and your toe tapping, as all the magic tunes come back to life, one by one.

And what happened to Linda Creed? Far as I'm concerned, she had just as much talent as the big three. Jackson seems unwilling or unable to take a stand on this issue. Was she just a jumped-up backup singer? Or was she Philly's answer to Carole King or Lucinda Williams?
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars WOW!!!!!! 30 Aug. 2005
By Marcus Pitts - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This has to be one of the very best music industry books that I have ever read. I have read over 20 books on Motown alone and I have waited for years for someone to write a book on one of my all time favorite record companies which is of course Philadelphia International Records. John Jackson as a writer captured this very important story and I am so thankful for it. Both Motown and Philly International to me are 2 of the most important record companies that have contributed to the black music market and just music in general. I love the fact that John Jackson really stuck to the facts and the story of the company and didn't get into a lot of tabloid trash. After understanding what Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell all went through over the years with that company I have an even greater love for the Philly company. Whoever is a music fan and in particular the 70's soul music, you must read this book!!!!! John Jackson you nailed it with this one. Great Job!!!!
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