Philadelphia soul legend Teddy Pendergrass comes in for a mention in this week’s chapter, as Ellen, a devoted “Soul Train” fan, throws a party with a 70s theme. According to Wikipedia, by the late 1970s, Pendergrass’s huge concert audiences consisted almost exclusively of “women of all races.” At the height of his popularity in 1982, he was involved in a car accident which paralyzed him from the chest down and changed the trajectory of his career.
“The Sound of Philadelphia” was written as the theme for the TV series “Soul Train,” which presented African-American performers to a national audience from the 1970s until 2006. Over the years, “Soul Train” saw some truly mind-blowing performances by Pendergrass, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, The Jackson Five, and many another R&B legend. My favorite may be this amazing clip of Marvin Gaye singing “Let’s Get It On” while mingling with an appreciative female audience.
15. The Sound of Philadelphia
It was Ellen’s turn to choose a place to meet up, so at their next lunch, she asked Emily for advice.
“I think the men should be allowed to host, or at least choose the meeting places, but Kim says we need to maintain control of the venues,” said Emily. “If you don’t feel comfortable having us over, just pick a nice bar, or even a restaurant that can give us a big table and let us hang around.”
“Actually, I’m thinking of having it at my place,” said Ellen. “When Derek and I sold our house, I decided I wanted to live in town, even though it’s a half-hour drive out to Parnell, and longer in the winter. I found a condo in the Graduate Hospital area.”
“That’s great,” said Emily. “What’s it like?”
Ellen explained that it was a two-bedroom loft, renovated from an old warehouse. “Not as stylish as Kim’s place,” she said, “but it has high ceilings and it’s spacious. There’s a long hallway where you enter, with the bath and two bedrooms on the right, one for me and one for Amber when she spends the night. It opens out to the kitchen/dining/living area, with lots of windows.”
“Nice! You should have it there,” said Emily enthusiastically. “Though there’s a risk that someone might use one of the bedrooms to make out. Kim says it’s bad form and they should get their own room, but it’s happened before.” Ellen was curious as to the identity of the offenders, but replied, “I don’t think I’d mind, as long as they leave by a reasonable hour.”
“Usually things wrap up around one, if not earlier. We’re too old to party all night.”
“What’s expected in the way of drinks?”
“Oh, I know you already have the basics for martinis,” laughed Emily. “If you get some vodka, some bourbon or tequila, a few lemons and limes, and tonic and soda, we’ll be fine. Ice, of course. Then wine and beer, whatever you like, since you’ll be drinking it if we don’t.”
Ellen nodded. She didn’t have any liquor on hand except Tanqueray gin, white vermouth and a bottle of cognac, but the list was simple enough. “Okay. The food is easy, just snacks, cheese trays, that kind of thing. And then there’s the music. Do you think they’d mind if I indulge my secret passion for “Soul Train”?
Emily laughed. “I don’t know about the rest of them, but I’d love it. My parents adored that show, and they claim I was conceived during one of the episodes with Teddy Pendergrass. But you’re not that much older than I am, Ellen. How’d you get hooked on it?”
“I watched it as a little kid, and yes, I had a major crush on Teddy Pendergrass,” replied Ellen. “I always did like the big, gentle types.”
On Thursday, Ellen texted everyone: The Sound of Philadelphia, Friday at eight, my place, with her address. It felt odd giving only one day’s notice, but Emily assured her that the invitations always had to seem spontaneous. Ellen privately thought that a great deal of preparation was put into these “spontaneous” gatherings, but she didn’t mind. She was excited, and anxious about whether anyone would come.
In keeping with the musical theme, she wore a pair of patchwork wide-leg jeans she’d found in a vintage store, which fit like a glove where it counted. She added a rainbow-striped T-shirt and a pair of chunky platform heels. After experimenting with her hair for a half-hour, she finally decided to pile it on top of her head, allowing a few curling strands to escape here and there. Her collection of “Soul Train” videos was on the TV, and she’d warned the neighbors that there might be more noise and activity than usual.
Word had gotten out about the theme. Kim wore pink hot pants with boots and a newsie cap. Emily wore a denim minidress with horizontally striped socks and wedge heels. Tina arrived in a multicolored wrap skirt and a white sleeveless top that tied in front, leaving a section of her midriff bare and emphasizing her full bust.
The men didn’t opt for Seventies clothes, except for Charlie, who showed up in black trousers with a disco-style, high-voltage purple shirt. Hector greeted her warmly, surprising her with a kiss on the lips. He looked good this evening, in a slim-fit navy suit that flattered his tall, elegant figure. Owen wore his usual evening ensemble: belted slacks, a dress shirt without a tie, and a sport jacket. “I’m the only one of you who’s old enough to remember how ugly those clothes were,” he said. “Why bring them back? Though I confess to a weakness for hot pants,” he told a smiling Kim, “especially when the occupant fills them out the way you do.”
Hugh arrived with a companion named Lily, an attractive brunette decked out in a Thirties-style fitted suit, complete with a matching bow-topped hat that clung to the side of her head. Lily, it appeared, shared Hugh’s interest in period clothing.
“Welcome,” said Ellen, avoiding Hugh’s gaze, and shaking hands with Lily. She led them to the drinks table, her heart sinking. Lily’s chic outfit made her feel foolish in her garish rainbow shirt and bell bottoms. Was this Hugh’s girlfriend? It would explain a lot. But in that case, why did he keep attending the meetups? “Can I get you a drink?”
“Oh, I think we can fend for ourselves,” said Lily, giving Ellen what seemed to be a genuine smile. “You’ll have other guests to greet.” She was wearing a lot of makeup, with lipstick in a bright red color, and she had a small space between her front teeth, like Lauren Hutton.
Martinis in hand, Hugh and Lily went to sit on the couch, while Ellen answered the door and fetched drinks. At least her party was well attended. Everyone she’d met so far was here, even Gerry the Drummer, who showed up in jeans and a T-shirt with a circular logo that read “Lucky Stroke.” Although he was, at thirty-five, the youngest and best-looking of the men, Gerry did not stand very high in Emily’s estimation. “He’s what Jane Austen would have called a fortune hunter,” she had confided over lunch. “He wants to get married, but it has to be a sugar momma so he can keep drumming instead of getting a day job. The way he tells it, he’s a soldier in the war on poverty—his own.”
“Ha! He’s quoting Billy Preston,” laughed Ellen. “But if that’s his goal, why’s he hanging out with us?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he likes us. But Val’s the only one of us who has real money, and it’s actually her mother’s money, not hers. I wonder if he realizes that?”
Ellen was reminded of Emily’s revelation when Gerry arrived at the door. “Hey, nice crib, Ellen. I bet the rent costs you a bundle?” He ended the sentence on an inquiring note.
“At this point in my career, I can manage it,” she told him. “My daughter gets free tuition at Parnell, so I was spared that expense.”
“Very cool,” he said, eyeing her Wolf range and the granite countertops in the kitchen, which she had spent a substantial chunk of her savings to renovate. Ellen wondered wryly what he would say when he noticed her other splurge, a large jacuzzi bathtub. Perhaps he would propose on the spot. Gerry removed the caps from two Flying Fish Extra Pales and handed her one. Then he put his arm around her and said, “Let’s go hang in front of the tube, pretty lady. Do you like Parliament-Funkadelic?”
Pleasantly conscious of his masculine gorgeousness, and his firm hand at her waist, Ellen allowed him to escort her to the living room, where they stood close enough to Lily and Hugh for her to hear snatches of their conversation. It seemed to have something to do with plans for later that evening. Hugh looked awkward, perching on the edge of the sofa instead of relaxing in his accustomed armchair. In the open space behind the sofa, Tina was already dancing with Hector, and Kim with Owen, to the strains of Earth Wind and Fire’s “Mighty Mighty.” Angus was chatting with Emily in the kitchen, and Jaime and Charlie were competing for Val’s attention as she proudly displayed her still-bandaged hand.
“Yeah, I like George Clinton,” she told Gerry. “But that’s almost too funky for me. My favorite songs are things like “Love Train” by the O’Jays, the “Soul Train” theme, and anything by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
Gerry, who possessed extensive musical knowledge, was well aware that Teddy Pendergrass had been the lead singer for the Blue Notes, and they had a good conversation about the urban soul music of the 1970s that laid the groundwork for disco on the one hand, and smooth jazz on the other.
“The Philadelphia sound is really a studio product,” Lily suddenly put in. “It was created by people like Gamble and Huff, all professional songwriters and producers.”
“What’s wrong with that?” asked Ellen. “I like them because they’re locals, Philadelphia people. Yes, it’s commercial, but what American popular music isn’t commercial?”
“The blues, when they got started,” said Lily. “All the grassroots genres. Even rap started out on the street corners.” Hugh’s eyes flicked from her face to Lily’s as each of them spoke.
“It’s funny,” said Ellen, “but I hated rap the minute I heard it. I thought it was a passing fad that would die out in a couple of years, like disco. I still can’t bear to listen to it.” Her gaze focused on Hugh. “Do you think that means I’m a little bit racist?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I can ask my friends, the Julius Bros. They’re in my band. But they would probably agree with you about hip hop music. And so would I. If given a choice, none of us listens to anything after 1949.”
“Why that date?”
“That’s when the LP took over from the 78 rpm record,” he said. Ellen asked about the band, and he explained that they favored Thirties and Forties jazz. “We play most Tuesday nights at the Triton. It’s not a busy night, so they let us do our thing. You should come and see us,” he added. “Sometimes Lily sings.”
“I’ll definitely come,” said Ellen, giving them a smile. Beyond Lily, she caught sight of Tina, who was already making a third trip to the drinks table, only an hour into the party.
A few minutes later, Lily finished her drink and got up to thank Ellen. She had to leave to sing at her regular gig at the Zanzibar Club. Hugh accompanied Lily outside, and Ellen watched through a window as they emerged from the building and stood talking on the sidewalk. In less than a minute, a taxi pulled up. Hugh kissed Lily —on the cheek, it seemed to Ellen, though she couldn’t be certain— and handed her into the taxi. Then he drew a pack of cigarettes from his suit jacket and lighted up.
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: A comment on the Youtube clip of “The Sound of Philadelphia” just about sums it up. “I’m an old man now, but I’m so thankful I was around for this.” This is a chapter about different kinds of music and what they mean in people’s lives. In the end, as Charles Mingus insisted, there are no categories. All music is… music. It is the universal language.