Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Jack McCarthy

South Street (Song)

“South Street,” a hit song for the Philadelphia vocal group the Orlons in 1963, celebrates an iconic Philadelphia thoroughfare and is among a select group of songs that came to define the city in popular culture in the late twentieth century. The song’s catchy opening line—“Where do all the hippies meet? South Street, South Street”—became a well-known refrain for generations of Philadelphians.

[caption id="attachment_26676" align="alignright" width="300"]Album Cover for the Album South Street by The Orlons. “South Street” featured a snappy mid-tempo dance beat and with a short but rocking saxophone solo in the middle. (Photograph provided by Charles J. Cizek)[/caption]

“South Street” reached number three on the pop music charts in April 1963 and brought national attention to a street whose history as a lively Philadelphia entertainment and commercial corridor dates to the mid-eighteenth century. South Street formed the southern boundary of the city of Philadelphia until 1854. Beginning in the 1750s theaters were established on the southern side of South Street, immediately outside the city limits and beyond the legal reach of conservative city officials and Quaker leaders who viewed theater as an immoral activity.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, African Americans began to concentrate in the area around Sixth and South Streets, creating Philadelphia’s largest predominantly black neighborhood. Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, established in 1794 one block to the north at Sixth and Lombard, drew many of Philadelphia’s free blacks to settle in the area. As the city’s African American population grew in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fueled in large part by the Great Migration of southern blacks to cities of the North, the African American community extended westward beyond Broad Street to the Schuylkill River. All along South Street east and west of Broad were black restaurants, theaters, clubs, and businesses. At the same time, the eastern section of South Street became home to other ethnic groups, including Irish, Italians, Poles, and Jews, many of whom arrived as poor unskilled immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and found employment and cheap housing in the area.

The South Street that the Orlons sang about in 1963 as “the hippest street in town” represented another phase in the street’s long and colorful history. The emergence of South Street as a countercultural center in the 1960s was an indirect result of government plans announced in the 1950s to build a crosstown expressway along the South Street corridor that would link the I-95 and Schuylkill expressways. With the demolition of much of South Street imminent in the late 1950s and early 1960s, property values declined significantly and the area became a low-rent haven for bohemians and artists. A lively counterculture took shape along South Street, while a group of local residents and business owners actively fought the expressway plans. Their efforts were ultimately successful, and South Street survived as a funky urban thoroughfare populated by artists, musicians, hipsters, and the businesses and arts organizations that served them. It was the early stages of this culture that the Orlons celebrated in their 1963 song. The word “hippie” featured so prominently in the song was then just beginning to come into common usage. “South Street” may in fact be the first song in which the word was ever used. At the time, “hippie” referred not to the long-haired free spirits of the late 1960s, but to their precursors, the beatniks and hipsters of the 1950s and early 1960s.

[caption id="attachment_26674" align="alignright" width="300"]Street View of Overbrook High School in 1926. The Orlons were not the only famous alumni from Overbrook High School—others included Wilt Chamberlin, inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, and actor/musician Will Smith. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

The Orlons were an African American vocal group that formed at Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia in the 1950s. The group went through various personnel changes over the years but during its early 1960s heyday it was a quartet consisting of singers Stephen Caldwell (b. 1942), Shirley Brickley (1944–77), Marlena Davis (1944–93), and Rosetta Hightower (1944–2014). The group took its name from the fabric of one of Stephen Caldwell’s sweaters—the Dupont product, Orlon. The idea of using a fabric for the group name came from another West Philadelphia vocal group with which the Orlons sometimes traded gigs, the Cashmeres. The Cashmeres later became the Dovells and had several hits with the Philadelphia record label Cameo Parkway Records beginning in 1961.

At the suggestion of Dovells lead singer Len Barry (real name Leonard Borisoff, b. 1943), the Orlons auditioned for Cameo Parkway and eventually got a record deal with the company. After two unsuccessful releases, the Orlons hit big with “Wah-Watusi” and “Don’t Hang Up,” which in 1962 reached numbers two and four, respectively, on the Billboard Top 100 charts. “South Street,” released in early 1963, entered the charts in February and remained there for thirteen weeks, peaking at number three for two weeks in April. Two other Orlons songs—“Not Me” and “Crossfire”— reached the Top 20 in 1963, but that was the end of the group’s recording success. Personal issues and changing musical tastes in the mid-1960s led to the Orlons’ decline. The group disbanded in the late 1960s (although some members reunited and began performing as the Orlons again in the 1980s).

“South Street” was written by songwriter Kal Mann (real name Kalman Cohen, 1917–2001) and guitarist, arranger, and producer Dave Appell (1922–2014), two of the main architects of the very successful Cameo Parkway sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Along with company founder, pianist and record producer Bernie Lowe (real name Bernard Lowenthal, 1917–93), they were responsible for a long string of hits in this period. Cameo Parkway’s success was helped in no small part by Lowe’s close friendship with Dick Clark (1929–2012), host of the enormously popular Philadelphia teen music and dance TV show American Bandstand, which broadcast nationally from Philadelphia from 1957 to 1964. Clark regularly showcased Cameo Parkway artists such as the Orlons on his program.

“South Street” featured a snappy mid-tempo dance beat and a rather simple small combo musical arrangement, with a short but rocking saxophone solo in the middle. It is the vocals that make the song: the tight female harmonies, set off by Hightower’s soaring lead vocal, Caldwell’s “frog voice” deep bass interjections, and occasional shout-outs from Brickley and Davis. A lively, engaging tune, “South Street” was a longtime favorite at area dances and took its place as a key song in the Philadelphia pop music canon.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he recently directed a major project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical repositories. Jack serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mann Music Center and worked on the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio. He gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 2016 Philadelphia music series, “Memories & Melodies.”

Twist (The)

“The Twist,” an early 1960s dance hit by Philadelphia singer Chubby Checker (real name Ernest Evans, b. 1941), ushered in a new way of dancing and solidified Philadelphia’s role as a major trendsetter in popular music in this period. Released in the summer of 1960 by Philadelphia-based Cameo Parkway Records, “The Twist” reached number one on the pop music charts on two separate occasions, in 1960 and 1962, the only non-holiday song ever to do so.

[caption id="attachment_26705" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of Chubby Checker dancing the twist in 2010 Chubby Checker does the twist on July 9, 2010, outside Philadelphia City Hall, where the singer helped celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the dance. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Checker’s recording of “The Twist” was a cover of the original by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Ballard (real name John Henry Kendricks, 1927–2003) had enjoyed success on the rhythm and blues charts in the 1950s, particularly with songs with risqué lyrics. His version of “The Twist,” recorded in late 1959, was gaining popularity in 1960, but Dick Clark (1929–2012), host of the popular and influential teen music and dance TV show American Bandstand, broadcast nationally from Philadelphia, considered it too suggestive for mainstream audiences. At Clark’s urging, Cameo Parkway recorded its own version of “The Twist” with nineteen-year-old Chubby Checker on vocals. While both Ballard and Checker were African American, the tastemakers at American Bandstand and Cameo Parkway considered Checker—young, cheerful, and wholesome looking—more palatable for a broader audience than Ballard.

Dance tunes with the word “twist” in the title or whose lyrics described a twisting dance motion (often as a sexual double entendre) began to appear in early twentieth-century African American popular music and blues and were fairly common by midcentury. It was standard practice in black music of this period for bits of melodies and lyrics with origins in the African American vernacular tradition to circulate among performers and to find their way into different songs. With no known creator, record companies often gave writing credit to the artist who that first put these musical elements on record.

Such was the case with “The Twist.” While Hank Ballard is credited as the songwriter, the song’s origins are in gospel and rhythm and blues. Gospel singer and guitarist Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace (b. 1926) had the original idea for a song with the lyrics “Come on baby, let’s do the twist” based on a dance he remembered his sister doing as a child in his native North Carolina. Wallace was a member of the Sensational Nightingales, one of several popular gospel groups based in Philadelphia in the mid-twentieth century whose members had migrated from the South. Wallace and another member of the group, Bill Woodruff (Willie George Woodruff, c. 1929–95), developed the song, but they did not consider it appropriate for their gospel group, and in the mid-1950s they began shopping it to rhythm and blues artists. One was Philadelphia singer Little Joe Cook (1922–2014) of Little Joe & The Thrillers. Cook made a demo recording of “The Twist,” but his record company opted not to record it. Sometime around 1957, the Sensational Nightingales offered the song to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters while both groups were staying at the same hotel in Tampa, Florida. Ballard and guitarist Cal Green (1937–2004) rearranged the song into a twelve-bar blues and the group recorded it in November 1959 for their record label, King Records, based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

[caption id="attachment_26706" align="alignright" width="239"]a black and white photograph of a small group of teenagers surrounding Dick Clark. Clark holds a microphone. Behind them is the set for American Bandstand. Chubby Checker’s recording of “The Twist” was popularized by Dick Clark, who promoted the song on his popular television shows, American Bandstand and The Dick Clark Show. It was Clark who suggested that Cameo Parkway record a new version of the song, which led to Checker’s hit version. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Accounts vary as to how “The Twist” first came to the attention of Dick Clark, but sometime in early 1960 he told his friend, Cameo Parkway owner Bernie Lowe (real name Bernard Lowenthal, 1917–93), that Ballard’s record was catching on and he needed a less suggestive version to play on TV. Cameo Parkway chose to do a cover by Ernest Evans, an aspiring South Philadelphia singer known for his talent for impersonating other vocalists. Previously, in late 1958, when Clark had asked Cameo Parkway to make a singing Christmas card that he could send out as a holiday greeting, the company had Evans record impersonations of popular artists singing “Jingle Bells.” It was during rehearsals for this Christmas record that Ernest Evans became “Chubby Checker.” Dick Clark’s wife, Barbara (b. 1930), heard Evans, who was a bit pudgy at the time, mimicking singer and pianist Antoine “Fats” Domino (b. 1928) and, in a play on “Fats Domino,” she christened him “Chubby Checker.” Cameo Parkway followed up Checker’s 1958 singing Christmas greeting by having him record “The Class,” a novelty record in which he mimicked various rock and roll artists singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” “The Class” was a minor hit in 1959 and paved the way for Checker’s cover of “The Twist.”

Chubby Checker’s version of “The Twist,” recorded in June or July 1960, was almost an exact copy musically of Hank Ballard’s, but with heavy promotion by Cameo Parkway and Dick Clark, both hit-making machines in this period, it became a smash hit. Dick Clark had two national TV shows at this time: American Bandstand, his daily weekday show from Philadelphia, and The Dick Clark Show, a Saturday night program broadcast from New York City. Clark began playing Checker’s version of “The Twist” on American Bandstand in the summer of 1960 and then had Checker appear in person on The Dick Clark Show on August 6, 1960, to lip-synch and dance to it. The record went to number one on the pop charts that September and spawned a craze that forever changed the way people danced.

[caption id="attachment_26704" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of two men doing the twist while each holding one end of a large fish. In the background, a band plays. “The Twist” was a dance craze that transcended age and class lines. This 1962 photograph shows fish mongers dancing the Twist to entertain customers at the Fulton Fish Market in New York City. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Prior to “The Twist,” most dancing was done by couples who executed their steps while holding one another as partners. “The Twist” fundamentally changed this, ushering in a new “open” type of dancing in which people danced apart, not touching. “The Twist” became a huge dance craze in the early 1960s, cutting across generational and class lines, practiced by teenagers and adults, from the working class to the social elite. Other record companies cashed in by putting out their own twist records, and Chubby Checker had follow-up top ten hits for Cameo Parkway with “Let’s Twist Again” in 1961 and “Slow Twistin’” in 1962, the latter a duet with singer Dee Dee Sharp (real name Dione LaRue, b. 1945). In between these hits, his original 1960 recording of “The Twist” shot back up to number one in January 1962. “The Twist” also launched Cameo Parkway’s period as a national trendsetter in teen dance music, with dance hits such as “Mashed Potato Time,” “The “Watsui,” “The Bristol Stomp,” and many others in the early 1960s. By this time “The Twist” had entered the mainstream, becoming part of American popular culture and a longtime staple at dances, weddings, and parties.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he recently directed a major project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical repositories. Jack serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mann Music Center and worked on the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio. He gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 2016 Philadelphia music series, “Memories & Melodies.”

Oh, Dem Golden Slippers

“Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” the unofficial theme song of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade, is both an enduringly popular song and a revealing example of the complex, multilayered interplay between black and white music in America. Written by African American songwriter James Bland (1854–1911) as a parody of a Negro spiritual, “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” published in 1879, enjoyed great popularity as a blackface minstrel song. It later became a staple of two very different, predominantly white, American musical traditions: bluegrass and the Philadelphia Mummers.

The story of “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” begins with the Negro spiritual “Golden Slippers.” Negro spirituals were African American religious songs created in the pre-Civil War era by southern slaves. Part of an oral folk tradition originally practiced exclusively by and for blacks, spirituals were brought to broader public attention in the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a Fisk University African American choral group that toured and concertized extensively in this period. The group presented Negro spirituals in more polished form, transformed from rough-hewn, improvisatory slave songs into formally arranged choral pieces. One of the spirituals they popularized in this fashion was “Golden Slippers,” a joyful song that described what the singers hoped to wear when they entered heaven: a long white robe, a starry crown, and golden slippers.

[caption id="attachment_26321" align="alignright" width="231"]Yellowed song book with a cartoon drawing of an african american woman and an african american man standing outside near a field, arguing This sheet music, published in London in the 1880s, is illustrated with racial stereotypes of African Americans that were common at the time. Such imagery could be found in the published music of James Bland and most other minstrel songwriters of the era. (Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Meanwhile, another type of vernacular music with African American roots was enjoying great popularity: blackface minstrelsy. Minstrelsy grew out of white entertainers imitating blacks with derogatory depictions of African American life and mannerisms. White entertainers would “black up” their faces with burnt cork and perform exaggerated songs and dances supposedly based on black music and speech patterns. Such performances were common in the early nineteenth century, and by midcentury the minstrel show had evolved into a standardized, enormously popular form of theatrical entertainment. Philadelphia was an important center in the early development of minstrelsy and minstrel shows remained a popular form of entertainment in the city into the early twentieth century. Minstrel songs became part of the broader body of American popular song in the nineteenth century as well.

African Americans had occasionally performed as minstrels since the mid-nineteenth century, but in the years following the Civil War they began to enter minstrelsy in large numbers. With limited career opportunities otherwise in show business, many African American entertainers became minstrels, blacking up their own faces and performing the stereotypical portrayals of black life their white counterparts had popularized. Thus evolved the ironic situation in late nineteenth-century American popular culture of blacks imitating whites imitating blacks. Some African American minstrels became famous in this period, especially James Bland, dubbed the “World’s Greatest Minstrel Man.”

Inspired by a Street Musician

James Bland was born in Flushing, New York, to a free, fairly well-to-do African American family. The family lived in Philadelphia for a while when James was young and it was here that he purportedly first fell in love with the banjo after hearing an elderly black street musician playing one. After the Civil War the family moved to Washington, D.C., where James attended Howard University for a time before pursuing a career as an entertainer. In addition to enjoying great success as a minstrel performer, Bland was a prolific songwriter. Of the hundreds of songs he is reported to have written, only a few dozen have survived, including several that he wrote in a short creative burst in the late 1870s and early 1880s that were hit songs at the time and later became standards in American folk and popular music. These include “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” “In the Morning by the Bright Light,” and “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.”

One of the hallmarks of minstrelsy was parody, satirizing the mannerisms and pretentions of others through song and dance. It was in this vein that Bland wrote “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” a parody of the spiritual “Golden Slippers.” “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” was a lively dance tune with a stomping rhythm and a simple verse-chorus form. Lyrically, it used the same clothing imagery as the original spiritual, although with a less religious theme, and was squarely in the minstrel tradition, with comedic words in fractured “Negro dialect,” a defining feature of minstrelsy.

Tradition holds that local minstrel man Charles Dumont (1884–1959) introduced “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” to the Philadelphia Mummers around 1905. Charles Dumont was the nephew of Frank Dumont (1848–1919), a well-known minstrel performer who operated minstrel theaters in Philadelphia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” was a hit song in the 1880s and it may have been during this earlier period that it entered the repertoire of the Mummers, whose music was heavily influenced by minstrelsy and whose performances were largely based on parody.

The Mummers grew out of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in Philadelphia dating back to colonial times in which various nationality groups observed the holidays by masquerading and reveling in the streets. These celebrations evolved over time into parades and other festivities with very elaborate costumes and unique styles of music and dancing. By the late nineteenth century, mummer celebrations had become quite large and raucous, particularly in South Philadelphia, the heart of the mummer tradition. In 1901 the City of Philadelphia established the annual New Year’s Day Mummers Parade, an organized parade up Broad Street featuring performances by various mummer clubs.

Golden Slippers on Their Feet

[caption id="attachment_26320" align="alignright" width="300"]close up photograph of mummer's feet, from the shin down. Pieces of colorful costumes flow over work boots that have been spray painted gold In the twenty-first century, many Philadelphia mummers carried on the tradition of wearing golden “slippers” during their performances. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

How and when “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” became the unofficial theme song of the Mummers Parade is difficult to determine. (No song was ever officially designated as the Mummers theme.) By the early twentieth century it was a mainstay of the music of the New Year’s Parade and over time emerged as the song most closely identified with the Mummers, who even began a tradition of painting their shoes gold as part of their costumes.

Although its theme song was written by an African American, the Mummers Parade was largely an all-white event. A few black clubs participated in the early twentieth century, but by the late 1920s they had dropped out due to the racially offensive nature of the performances, which continued to feature minstrel elements and often included provocative parodies of different ethnic groups. Blackface performers remained part of the parade until the 1960s. Efforts to make the parade more racially sensitive and diverse began in the late twentieth century and continued into the early twenty-first.

James Bland may have heard “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” performed by Mummers towards the end of his life, when he lived in Philadelphia in the early 1900s. Bland had toured England in the early 1880s with Haverly’s Colored Minstrels, a prominent black minstrel troupe. He remained there when the troupe returned home and enjoyed a very successful career as a celebrated minstrel performer in Europe. He moved back and forth between Europe and America in the 1890s before returning to the United States permanently in 1901. By this time Bland’s star had faded, as minstrelsy lost popularity to new forms of entertainment such as vaudeville and musical comedy. Philadelphia was among the major cities where minstrelsy remained fairly popular into the early twentieth century and Bland settled there hoping to find work. His career continued to decline, however, and he died forgotten and destitute in Philadelphia in 1911.

Several of Bland’s songs lived on long after his death. “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” became a standard both in bluegrass, the rural string-based folk music of the Appalachian region, and in Philadelphia, where its role as the unofficial theme song of the Mummers Parade made it one of the most widely known songs in the city’s history.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he recently directed a major project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical repositories. Jack serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mann Music Center and worked on the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio. He gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 2016 Philadelphia music series, “Memories & Melodies.”

My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free

[caption id="attachment_25958" align="alignright" width="300"]An original manuscript of My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free. This original manuscript of “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” probably dating from 1759, remains intact and legible at the Library of Congress. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

“My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” written in Philadelphia in 1759 by Francis Hopkinson (1737–91), is generally considered the first secular song written by a native-born American. Hopkinson, then a young graduate of the College of Philadelphia, later became a leading figure in Philadelphia music as well as a prominent patriot, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and federal judge. He has been called “America’s first poet-composer.”

“My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” is a delicate air in the genteel style of the period. The lyrics, by Anglo-Irish poet Thomas Parnell (1669–1718), speak of an innocent, pastoral joy, while Hopkinson’s music is light and simple. The song was not published in Hopkinson’s lifetime, nor is there any evidence it was performed publicly. It may have been, but more likely it was played in the drawing rooms of the elite circle of Philadelphians to which Hopkinson belonged.

[caption id="attachment_25956" align="alignright" width="251"]A portrait of Francis Hopkinson with a quill in his hand. Francis Hopkinson was not only a musician and composer, but also an esteemed statesman, author, and painter. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Francis Hopkinson was born into a well-to-do Philadelphia family and in 1757 was a member of the first graduating class of the College of Philadelphia, later the University of Pennsylvania. He participated in musical activities at the college and elsewhere in Philadelphia, which was then just beginning to see the emergence of a public musical life. (The first documented public concert in Philadelphia was in January 1757.) The nature of Hopkinson’s musical training is unknown, but he likely studied with James Bremner (d. 1780), an immigrant English musician who settled in Philadelphia in 1763.

Like his friends Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Francis Hopkinson was a renaissance man with a wide range of interests, including politics, law, science, literature, the arts, and music. He designed the Great Seal of the United States and probably designed the nation’s first flag. While working professionally in law and government, he wrote poems and songs and took an active role in the music at Christ Church, for which he published a collection of psalm tunes, hymns, and anthems in 1763 and where he taught psalmody and served as organist in the 1760s and 1770s. He was also a key member of a group of Philadelphia musicians of the period that included both gentlemen amateurs such as himself and Governor John Penn (1729-95, grandson of William Penn, [1644-1718]), and European immigrant professional musicians who were active in the city. Gathering to perform music both privately in their homes and in public concerts, these men shaped the art music culture of the colonial city.

A staunch patriot during the Revolutionary War, Hopkinson wrote two songs that became popular rallying cries: “Battle of the Kegs,” a satirical song that mocked British soldiers’ firing on kegs of gunpowder Americans had sent down the Delaware River to harass British ships, and “The Toast,” a song in praise of his friend George Washington (1732–99) and the American cause. After the war, Hopkinson served as a federal judge and member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, while also continuing his musical activities.

Hopkinson’s Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano was published in Philadelphia in 1788. He dedicated the work to George Washington, who wrote Hopkinson a long letter expressing his thanks and admiration for Hopkinson’s musical talent. Thomas Jefferson also wrote to Hopkinson after receiving his copy of Seven Songs, relating how his youngest daughter, upon hearing her sister playing one of the songs, cried because “the tune was so mournful.”

In his preface to Seven Songs, Hopkinson stated that “I cannot, I believe, be refused the credit of being the first native of the United States who has produced a musical composition.” He probably referred to “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” which did not appear in Seven Songs but existed in manuscript form in a 1759-60 music book (now held at the Library of Congress) in which Hopkinson copied popular and classical pieces of the day and also recorded some compositions of his own. 

While never a “popular” song in the sense of being widely known or performed, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” is nevertheless an important work in the history of American popular music, the first documented secular song written by a native-born American.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he recently directed a major project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical repositories. Jack serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mann Music Center and worked on the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio. He gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 2016 Philadelphia music series “Memories & Melodies.”

Listen to the Mocking Bird

Written in 1855 by a Philadelphia songwriter who was inspired by the whistling of a street musician, “Listen to the Mocking Bird” was one of the most popular songs of the nineteenth century. It sold millions of copies of sheet music and was sung (and whistled) throughout the United States and parts of Europe.

[caption id="attachment_25822" align="alignright" width="232"]The cover of "Listen to the Mockingbird" sheet music Sheet music for “Listen to the Mocking Bird” from 1855 credits street musician Richard Milburn for the melody of the song and Septimus Winner, under the alias “Alice Hawthorne,” for the writing and arranging. “Listen to the Mocking Bird” grew to be one of the most popular songs during the nineteenth century. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Philadelphia songwriter and music businessman Septimus Winner (1827–1902) wrote the song using a tune he heard an African American street musician whistle. Richard Milburn, known as “Whistling Dick,” played guitar and whistled on Philadelphia streets for money in the mid-nineteenth century. One of his entertainments was to imitate a mockingbird by whistling a particular melody. Winner took this melody and wrote lyrics to it. With its catchy “listen to the mockingbird” refrain, the song became hugely popular.

Septimus Winner was a well-known songwriter, music teacher, music publisher, and proprietor of a music store in mid to late nineteenth-century Philadelphia.  He wrote many successful popular songs and was a poet as well. Like many writers of his era, Winner wrote under an assumed name, “Alice Hawthorne.” Hawthorne was the maiden name of Winner’s mother, who was a relative of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64). Winner first published “Listen to the Mocking Bird” in 1855 through his own publishing company, Winner & Shuster, and listed the songwriting credits as “Melody by Richard Milburn . . .  Written and arranged by Alice Hawthorne.” He later sold the copyright to the song to another Philadelphia publisher, Lee & Walker, whose subsequent editions omitted Milburn and gave the writing credit solely to Hawthorne.  

[caption id="attachment_25820" align="alignright" width="200"]A portrait of "Listen to the Mockingbird" creator, Septimus Winner Septimus Winner arranged the music and wrote the lyrics for “Listen to the Mocking Bird” in 1855. The Philadelphia songwriter wrote many popular songs over his lifetime, including a few about the American Civil War. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Winner did not reap significant financial rewards from “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” as he sold the copyright for five dollars soon after the song’s original publication. A Philadelphia newspaper in the early twentieth century estimated that the song‘s sheet music sales had totaled over twenty million copies in America and Europe in the fifty years since its publication. It is doubtful that Richard Milburn profited much from the song either. Winner employed him for a time running errands at his music store. Milburn also may have worked as a barber.

Although the melody to “Listen to the Mocking Bird” was upbeat, Winner’s lyrics were in the tradition of the mid-nineteenth-century American sentimental ballad. Songs with sad, often maudlin lyrics of mourning the loss of a loved one, longing for home, or cherishing memories of happier times were very popular in this period. In “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” the singer is mourning the loss of his beloved Hally, visiting her gravesite and listening to a mockingbird sing, as they often did together when she was alive.

Curiously, some of the sheet music versions of “Listen to the Mocking Bird” listed it as an “Ethiopian” ballad. “Ethiopian” was a designation for a minstrel song, another very popular type of song at that time that featured stereotypical, derogatory depictions of African Americans, lampooning them with “Negro dialect” lyrics and music. While labeled on some sheet music covers as a “sentimental Ethiopian ballad,” neither the words nor the music to “Listen to the Mocking Bird” exhibited any characteristics of a minstrel song.

 “Listen to the Mocking Bird” became a beloved song in the United States and Europe. Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) described it as “a real song . . . as sincere and sweet as the laughter of a little girl at play,” and later in his life King Edward VII of England (1841–1910) recalled whistling it as a little boy. Into the early twenty-first century “Listen to the Mocking Bird” remained one of the most familiar songs in American history.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he recently directed a major project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical repositories. Jack serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mann Music Center and worked on the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio. He gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 2016 Philadelphia music series “Memories & Melodies.”

TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)

In spring 1974, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” became a hit song for Philadelphia International Records, the local record label renowned for its “Philly Soul” sound of the 1970s. Written by Philadelphia International’s owners and chief songwriter/producers, Kenny Gamble (b. 1943) and Leon Huff (b. 1942), and recorded in late 1973 by MFSB with the Three Degrees, “TSOP” came to be regarded as a quintessential example of the label’s style. MFSB, short for “Mother-Father-Sister-Brother,” was the collective name for the thirty or so studio musicians that constituted Philadelphia International’s house band. The Three Degrees, a female vocal trio that also recorded for the label, had brief singing parts on “TSOP.”

[caption id="attachment_24774" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of Mayor Ed Rendell shaking hands with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff "TSOP" was written by Philadelphia International Records' Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, shown here in 1997 with Mayor Ed Rendell. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Gamble and Huff originally wrote “TSOP” as the theme song for the African American TV dance show Soul Train, which debuted as a local program in Chicago in 1970 and was syndicated nationally the following year. As Soul Train grew increasingly popular in the early 1970s, its creator and host Don Cornelius (1936—2002) sought a new theme song for the program. In 1973 he came to Philadelphia to work with Gamble and Huff. With input from Cornelius, Gamble and Huff developed the song’s basic melody and rhythm. MFSB members helped shape it with their ideas and Bobby Martin (1930—2013), one of Philadelphia International’s top arrangers, added string and horn parts. Recorded in 1973 and released as a single in early 1974, “TSOP” rose to number one on the Billboard Top 100 chart that spring, the first television theme song ever to reach that mark. The song also topped the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts.

Gamble and Huff intended to call the song “Soul Train” after the TV show for which it was written, but Cornelius would not allow use of his program’s name on the record so they entitled it “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” instead. Cornelius later came to regret his decision, calling it one of the biggest mistakes of his career. “TSOP” served as the Soul Train theme until 1975, when the show adopted a new song. Soul Train had a number of different theme songs over the years, including several remakes of the original “TSOP,” before going off the air in 2006.

[caption id="attachment_24770" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the former Philadelphia International Records building on broad street "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" was recorded by Huff & Gamble's Philadelphia International Records' studio band, MSFB, who also provided backing tracks for the O'Jays' number-one hit "Love Train" and briefly featured vocal tracks by label mates The Three Degrees. (Hidden City Philadelphia)[/caption]

Its brief vocal parts notwithstanding, “TSOP” is essentially an instrumental piece. It has many of the defining characteristics of the Philadelphia International sound: a lively, danceable beat with a pulsating rhythm, a highly polished arrangement with lush strings and crisp, punctuating horns, all wrapped in a sophisticated multilayered production. Philadelphia International ruled the pop and R&B charts with this formula through most of the 1970s. Indeed, the phrase “TSOP” came to refer to the unique Philadelphia International sound as much as the specific recording.

While songwriting credits at Philadelphia International often went to Gamble and Huff or other staff writers at the label, the MFSB team actively participated in developing the songs and creating their signature instrumental parts. Like the Funk Brothers in Detroit and Booker T. & the M.G.’s in Memphis, the house bands for Motown and Stax Records, respectively, MFSB played a major part in shaping a highly successful style of American soul music. With the song “TSOP,” they had the opportunity to step out from their usual accompanying role into the limelight as featured artists. In so doing, they created a number one hit record and helped to define the Philadelphia International sound.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he recently directed a major project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical repositories. Jack serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mann Music Center and worked on the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio. He gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 2016 Philadelphia music series “Memories & Melodies.”

Hail, Columbia

[caption id="attachment_24747" align="aligncenter" width="560"]An late eighteenth century page of sheet music for "Hail, Columbia." Unlike other early patriotic songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” both the melody and lyrics of “Hail, Columbia” were composed in the United States. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

“Hail, Columbia,” written in Philadelphia in the closing years of the eighteenth century, became a popular patriotic song in early America and served for many years as the unofficial national anthem. Bands began to play it in honor of the vice president of the United States in the 1830s, and later it became the official song of that office.

Philadelphia lawyer Joseph Hopkinson (1770–1842) created “Hail, Columbia” in the spring of 1798 when he put lyrics to the tune of the “President’s March,” a patriotic instrumental piece written in 1789 by Philip Phile (1734?–93), a German immigrant musician active in Philadelphia in the 1780s and 1790s.

In his later years, Hopkinson related the story behind the song: In April 1798 a young singer-actor named Gilbert Fox (1776–1807?) asked Hopkinson to write a song for Fox to perform at an upcoming benefit concert in Philadelphia. Fox needed a rousing song for the concert and asked if Hopkinson could write lyrics to Phile’s “President’s March.” Hopkinson obliged and came up with lyrics that opened with the stirring proclamation “Hail Columbia, happy land! Hail, ye heroes, heav'n born band.” With Philadelphia then serving as the nation’s capital and the United States on the verge of war with France, Hopkinson envisioned the song as a patriotic rallying cry.

The public first heard the song when Fox performed it at the Chestnut Street Theatre on April 25, 1798. The audience loved it and demanded multiple encores. A Philadelphia music publisher issued a sheet music version a few days later and the song quickly became very popular in both Philadelphia and New York.

[caption id="attachment_24746" align="alignright" width="226"]An engraving of Benjamin Carr, completed sometime in the nineteenth century. Benjamin Carr, depicted in this engraving by John Sartain, was a composer, organist, music publisher, and one of the most prominent musicians in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Philadelphia. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Unlike other early American patriotic songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America (My Country Tis of Thee),” which featured new lyrics set to traditional English melodies, both the words and music to “Hail, Columbia” were written in the United States. Philip Phile, who wrote the tune, first appears in the mid-1780s as a performer, composer, and music teacher in Philadelphia and New York. In 1785 he led the orchestra at Philadelphia’s Southwark Theatre. He wrote the “President’s March” in 1789, reportedly in honor of the presidential inauguration of George Washington (1732–99). Philadelphia music publisher Benjamin Carr (1768–1831) first published the piece in 1793. Phile died later that year in Philadelphia, perhaps a victim of the city’s infamous yellow fever epidemic.

Joseph Hopkinson, son of well-known Philadelphia patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence Francis Hopkinson (1735–91), was a prominent lawyer who later served as a U.S. congressman and federal judge. Joseph followed in his father’s footsteps in mixing law, statesmanship, and the arts. Francis Hopkinson, in addition to being a lawyer and judge, also became well known as a poet and musician.  Considered America’s first “Poet-Composer,” Francis Hopkinson was the first native-born American to write a popular song, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” composed in 1759.

“Hail, Columbia” remained popular through the centuries and was one of several songs that served as an unofficial American national anthem until Congress officially gave that designation to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1931.  Written in the new nation’s first capital during a formative period in American history, “Hail, Columbia” was one of the first pieces of music to define the young United States in song.  Later, as the official song of the vice president, it continued to play a role in America’s musical identity.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he is currently directing a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region's many small historical repositories. Jack has served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio and is giving several presentations and helping produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's 2016 Philadelphia music series, “Memories & Melodies.”

Rhythm and Blues

With its large and diverse African American population and long tradition of black popular and religious music, Philadelphia became a hotbed of the new rhythm and blues style that emerged from jazz, blues, and gospel music in the 1940s and 1950s. The term “rhythm and blues” came into general use in the late 1940s to describe two types of black music: the rollicking dance tunes of small combos known as “jump” bands and the urban harmony of small vocal groups, later called “doo wop.” Record companies originally categorized these styles as “race” music and marketed them specifically to African American audiences. By the mid-1950s, rhythm and blues had gained considerable popularity with young white audiences, leading directly to the birth of rock and roll.

Although influenced by several types of music, rhythm and blues grew out of two distinct streams of African American music in the post–World War II period. Jump bands evolved from jazz big bands while urban harmony came out of gospel and popular vocal groups. By the mid-1940s, the swing big bands that had long dominated jazz had begun to fall out of favor, giving way to smaller instrumental ensembles. One new direction these ensembles took was bebop, a complex type of small group jazz that featured advanced harmonies and angular melodies, often played at fast tempos. Another direction was jump blues, a much simpler style with basic blues-based harmonies, singable melodies, and lively dance rhythms. Jump blues was good-time music, meant for dancing and partying.

[caption id="attachment_23948" align="alignright" width="224"]By William P. Gottlieb - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Music Division under the digital ID gottlieb.04731.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | español | فارسی | suomi | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | polski | português | русский | slovenčina | slovenščina | Türkçe | українська | 中文 | 中文(简体)‎ | 中文(繁體)‎ | +/−, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11128073 Saxophonist and bandleader Louis Jordan, dubbed the "Father of Rhythm and Blues," spent some of his formative years in Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The most successful jump blues musician of the era was saxophonist and bandleader Louis Jordan (1908–75), often called the “Father of Rhythm and Blues.” Born and raised in Arkansas, Jordan spent part of his formative years in Philadelphia playing with bandleader Charlie Gaines (1900–86) in the mid-1930s. Later, in New York, he formed Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five, a group that had numerous hits on the rhythm and blues charts in the 1940s and came to define the jump blues style.

Among the best-known jump bands in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s were Jimmy Preston (1913–84) and His Prestonians, Chris Powell (1921–70) and His Blue Flames, and various groups led by Doc Bagby (d. 1970). They played the local dance halls and clubs and sometimes toured and recorded. Musicians often moved between the closely related worlds of jazz and rhythm and blues. Jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown (1930–56) played with Chris Powell early in his career, while saxophonist Benny Golson (b. 1929) played with Jimmy Preston. Benjamin “Bull Moose” Jackson (1919–89), a rhythm and blues bandleader out of Cleveland, employed local jazz musicians such as Golson, saxophonist John Coltrane (1926–67), and drummer Philly Joe Jones (1923–85) during his engagements in Philadelphia.

The other African American musical style that shaped rhythm and blues, was classic urban harmony, or “doo wop,” which grew out of gospel music and the vocal stylings of popular black singing groups of the 1930s and 1940s such as the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots. Famous gospel groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds and Clara Ward (1924–73) and the Ward Sisters made their homes in Philadelphia, as did artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–73) and Solomon Burke (1940–2010) who worked in both gospel and rhythm and blues. Philadelphia boasted a rich tradition of African American vocal music in this period, from big-time gospel shows at the Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad Street to the spirited singing in the city's many black churches to street-corner harmonizing by young a capella groups. Coming out of this tradition were such urban harmony groups as the Castelles, Turbans, Silhouettes, Ivy Tones, and Lee Andrews (1936–2016) and the Hearts. While most of these groups were one- or two-hit wonders on the rhythm and blues charts, collectively they made the city a major center for this type of music.

By the early 1960s, the rhythm and blues era was over. Many African American musicians continued playing the style, but most had either moved into rock and roll or begun to develop new styles, such as soul and funk. The recording industry eventually grouped these and other types of black music into a broad new category called “R&B,” a designation that, while derived from the words “rhythm and blues,” came to encompass many types of African American popular music, from urban contemporary popular music to hip-hop and rap. Philadelphia continued to be a leading city in these various styles, all of which had their roots in the rhythm and blues of the 1940s and 1950s.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he directs a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical repositories. He has served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio and gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 2016 Philadelphia music series “Memories & Melodies.”

Jazz

Jazz began to emerge as a distinct musical style around the turn of the twentieth century, a merging of two vernacular African American musical styles—ragtime and blues—with elements of popular music. New Orleans, the “cradle of jazz,” was the most important city in this process, with Chicago and New York playing particularly significant roles in the 1920s and 1930s. By the mid-twentieth century Philadelphia had become an important jazz center and a key training ground for influential jazz musicians. During its jazz heyday of the 1940s–1960s, Philadelphia produced an extraordinary number of leading jazzmen, several of whom became transformative figures in jazz history.

[caption id="attachment_23810" align="alignright" width="240"]Black and gray illustration of a man seated with a brass horn in his right hand and his left arm resting on a table with sheet music and a quill pen. Frank Johnson, born in Philadelphia in 1792, was an African American musician who became the favored music director for the ballroom celebrations of Philadelphia's social elite. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Jazz was created primarily by black musicians in its early years, but white musicians adopted the style early on and made contributions to its development. It was, in fact, a white New Orleans group, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, that made the first jazz recordings in 1917.

As jazz gained national popularity in the late 1910s, many of its early practitioners began to leave New Orleans for the cities of the North. Chicago and New York were primary destinations, but Philadelphia also welcomed some of these jazzmen. Trumpeter Freddie Keppard (1889–1933), a key early figure, had a successful extended gig in Philadelphia in 1917. His former New Orleans bandmate, clarinetist George Baquet (1881–1949), moved to Philadelphia in 1923 and remained active in the city’s music scene for the rest of his life.

Frank Johnson, Bandleader and Composer

These musicians came to a city with a long tradition of African American popular music. Frank Johnson (1792–1844) was a well-known African American bandleader and composer in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia who led bands for several of the city’s military units and was the favored music director for the balls of the city’s social elite. Johnson was the first African American to have his music published (in 1818) and the first American, black or white, to lead a musical ensemble on a tour of Europe (in 1837). Johnson sometimes enlivened popular dance tunes with varied rhythms and melodies, an early example of fusing African-derived rhythmic and melodic elements with European-based harmonic and formal structures that would later give birth to jazz.

[caption id="attachment_23811" align="alignright" width="260"]Black and white photograph of five men playing musical instruments. Charlie Gaines, playing trumpet in this 1940 photograph, got his start in 1918 playing for Philadelphia violinist and bandleader Charlie Taylor. (Photograph by John W. Mosley, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

A century later, in the 1920s and 1930s, black Philadelphia bandleaders Charlie Gaines (1900–87), Frankie Fairfax (1899–1972), and others led dance bands in the swing style of jazz then gaining popularity. Philadelphia saw a huge increase in its African American population in this period as a result of the Great Migration, the mass movement of blacks out of the rural South to the cities of the North. These newcomers brought their southern musical traditions with them, joining urban black musicians whose families had been living in the city for generations. The result was a particularly vibrant African American musical culture, one that would nurture the careers of numerous important jazz musicians. In 1935 some of these musicians established Local #274 of the American Federation of Musicians, the Philadelphia black musicians’ union that would serve as a focal point of the city’s jazz community until its dissolution in 1971.

Dizzy Gillespie, Bebop Pioneer

Among the noted jazz musicians who came to Philadelphia from the South in the 1930s were bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie (1917–93) and rhythm and blues star Louis Jordan (1908–75), both of whom settled in Philadelphia early in their careers and honed their skills for a few years before moving on to New York City, the great jazz mecca. Others spent longer periods in Philadelphia. Saxophonist John Coltrane (1926–67), one of the most influential figures in jazz history, moved to Philadelphia from North Carolina in 1943 at the age of seventeen, joining native-born Philadelphians such as saxophonists Jimmy Heath (b. 1926) and Benny Golson (b. 1929), pianist McCoy Tyner (b. 1938), trumpeter Lee Morgan (1938–72), and others in the city’s especially fertile midcentury jazz scene. They developed their craft through informal jam sessions, gigging in local clubs and dance halls, and occasionally touring with traveling groups. Other musical luminaries nurtured in the rich Philadelphia jazz tradition of this era include Clifford Brown (1930–56), Percy (1923–2005) and Albert “Tootie” Heath (b. 1935), Bobby Timmons (1935–74), “Philly” Joe Jones (1923–85), Jimmy Smith (1928–2005), Jimmy Garrison (1934–76), Reggie Workman (b. 1937), Kenny Barron (b. 1943), and Archie Shepp (b. 1937).

[caption id="attachment_23812" align="alignright" width="250"]Black and white photograph of fourteen young African American women in ball gowns. Trudy Pitts, pictured here in 1950 (standing second from the left), helped popularize the Hammond B3 organ, which became a favorite among R&B, reggae, and progressive rock musicians in the 1960s and 1970s. (Photograph by John W. Mosley, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Although jazz has traditionally been a male-dominated music, women were part of the Philly jazz scene as well. Organists Trudy Pitts (1932–2010) and Shirley Scott (1934–2002) were among those who contributed to the city’s significant jazz organ tradition. Philadelphia has also been home to a long line of important female jazz and blues vocalists, including Ethel Waters (1896–1977), who was born in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania, and began singing in Philadelphia in the 1910s; Bessie Smith (1894–1937), who moved to Philadelphia in 1923 at the beginning of her very successful recording career; and Billie Holiday (1915–59), who, although raised in Baltimore, was born in Philadelphia and performed in the city often throughout her career.

Philadelphia was also home to a thriving white jazz community. While black and white musicians might play together informally, integrated bands were uncommon prior to the mid-twentieth century. Violinist Giuseppe “Joe” Venuti (1903–78) and guitarist Eddie Lang (real name Salvatore Massaro, 1902–33) were childhood South Philadelphia friends who played with some of the nation’s top white bands and made a series of influential duo recordings in the 1920s and 1930s. Charlie Ventura (1916–72), Buddy DeFranco (1923–2014), Red Rodney (1927–94), and Gerry Mulligan (1927–96) are some of the famous white jazz musicians who came out of the mid-twentieth-century Philly jazz scene.

"Quaker City Jazz"

Jan Savitt (real name Jacob Savetnick, 1907–48) played a more polished style of jazz. A Russian immigrant violin virtuoso, Savitt gave up a promising career with the Philadelphia Orchestra to lead a nationally popular swing band. Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters served for a time as the staff orchestra for KYW Radio, where one of their theme songs was “Quaker City Jazz.” Savitt was one of the first major white bandleaders to hire an African American singer when he began featuring local singer George “Bon Bon” Tunnel (1912–75) in 1937. Another Philadelphia big band leader of Russian Jewish heritage was Howard Lanin (1897–1993), the “King of Society Music,” who led popular ensembles for over seventy years, specializing in dance music and “sweet jazz” for Philadelphia high society.

[caption id="attachment_23813" align="alignright" width="250"]Black and white photograph of Billy Eckstine with his left arm around Billie Holliday. Bandleader Billy Eckstine poses with legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday inside the Earle Theater in this 1946 photograph by John Mosley. (Photograph by John W. Mosley, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

During the heyday of Philadelphia jazz in the 1940s through 1960s, the city was alive with jazz clubs and home to many of the music’s leading figures. There were jazz clubs and dance halls in many areas of the city, with particularly important concentrations in the area surrounding South Broad Street in South Philadelphia and along Columbia (later Cecile B. Moore) Avenue in North Philadelphia (the latter came to be known as "the Golden Strip"). Better-known touring bands played the theaters, either black theaters such as the Royal, Lincoln, or Pearl, or, in the case of the biggest name bands, both black and white, the Earle Theater, the ornate showplace at Eleventh and Market Streets. Many Philadelphia jazzmen who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s saw Duke Ellington (1899–1974), Benny Goodman (1909–86), and their other musical idols at the Earle Theater.

By the late 1960s, changes in public taste and the music business signaled an end to the golden age of jazz in Philadelphia. The city remained an important jazz hub in the early twenty-first century—still home to a number of jazz clubs and still producing significant jazz musicians—but was no longer the preeminent jazz center it had been. The local audience became smaller and more specialized and much of the work of presenting jazz was carried out by nonprofit organizations such as the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, Jazz Bridge, Philadelphia Jazz Project, Lifeline Music Coalition, and Ars Nova Workshop. These groups, together with local clubs and the city’s many jazz musicians and fans, continued the rich tradition of jazz in Philadelphia.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he is currently directing a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region's many small historical repositories. He has served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio and gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's 2016 Philadelphia music series “Memories & Melodies.”

Doo Wop

[caption id="attachment_23207" align="alignright" width="240"]Black and white photograph of four young African American men dressing dark suit jackets, ties, and light pants. Three men are standing while one kneels in front, all are looking off to their left, at least two appear to be singing. The Silhouettes’ 1957 record “Get a Job” reached number one on the pop and R & B charts. (Publicity Photo)[/caption]

Philadelphia was one of several key cities where, in the 1950s and early 1960s, singers created the small-group vocal harmony style of rhythm and blues known as doo wop. Doo wop was an urban style, sung on city street corners and in school hallways. Its name, derived from a type of sound singers made in their vocalizations, has been disparaged by many historians of the music, who prefer to call it “classic urban harmony” or “street-corner harmony.” Although primarily African American in origin, white groups adopted the doo wop style early on and achieved popularity with it as well.

Several streams of African American music fed into the creation of doo wop, which began to emerge as a distinct style in urban neighborhoods of the United States in the late 1940s: the smooth singing style of popular black vocal groups of the 1930s and 1940s such as the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots, a cappella gospel groups and barbershop quartets, and jazz and blues vocalists. Borrowing elements from these various types of music, young black singers in Philadelphia and other cities (they were almost exclusively male; there were very few female doo wop groups) fused them into a distinctive vocal style that began to achieve popularity in the early 1950s with both white and black audiences. Doo wop was a sub-genre of rhythm and blues, the broader body of African American popular music that grew out of jazz, blues, and gospel music in this period.

There were two major types of doo wop songs: ballads and up-tempo tunes. The former were slow romantic songs, usually featuring a high tenor singing lead, backed by close harmony vocal accompaniment and a bass singer interjecting spoken words and vocalizations. The latter were livelier dance tunes, generally with blues-inflected harmonies and melodies. Some groups specialized in a particular type, but many became adept at both. While doo wop groups often performed a cappella, the recorded versions of their songs frequently featured instrumental accompaniment.

Philadelphia Hits

In Philadelphia, early doo wop groups included the Castelles, Capris, Silhouettes, Turbans, and Lee Andrews (real name Arthur Lee Andrew Thompson, 1936–2016) and the Hearts. They recorded for various small independent rhythm and blues record labels based in Philadelphia in the 1950s or, in some cases, for larger New York–based labels. Most of these groups were one- or two-hit wonders, enjoying some success but unable to sustain it over the long term. Their personnel changed frequently and they often bounced from label to label in search of the next big hit. In several notable cases they achieved it: the Silhouettes’ 1957 record “Get a Job” reached number one on the pop and R&B charts, while Lee Andrews and the Hearts had big hits in 1957 and 1958 with "Teardrops," "Long Lonely Nights," and "Try the Impossible."

[caption id="attachment_23221" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph of four young men in white dress shirts, ties, and dark pants with suit jackets draped over their left shoulders. In 1958 Danny and the Juniors had a number-one hit with “At the Hop” and a top twenty hit with “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay.” (Publicity Photo)[/caption]

A number of white Philadelphia doo wop groups also found success. In 1958 Danny & the Juniors had a number-one hit with “At the Hop” and a top twenty hit with “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay.” The Dovells reached number two in 1961 with “The Bristol Stomp” (inspired by a dance teenagers were doing in nearby Bristol, Bucks County) and had hits with a series of follow-up dance tunes in 1962. As these groups incorporated doo wop vocal arrangements into early rock and roll, they joined the many successful local artists who made Philadelphia a national leader in youth pop music in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

By the early 1960s doo wop had begun to fall out of favor as a new and different African American vocal style, soul, gained in popularity. Then in early 1964 the British Invasion, the wave of English rock groups initiated by the Beatles’ February 9, 1964, appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, took the United States by storm and knocked doo wop groups off the charts.

While its heyday was over by the early 1960s, doo wop retained a small but devoted fan base and enjoyed several revivals. One was spurred by the appearance of the group Sha Na Na at Woodstock in 1969, where, among other songs, they performed two enduring Philadelphia doo wop hits, “Get a Job” and “At the Hop.” During another revival in the 1980s, Lee Andrews revived his group Lee Andrews and the Hearts with his wife and children as band members. On drums was his son Ahmir (b. 1971), later known as Questlove, leader of the well-known Philadelphia band The Roots. In the early twenty-first century, doo wop continued to be played on oldies radio programs—indeed, it was the first popular music to be designated “oldies”—and heard in movies and TV shows to evoke the 1950s. Philadelphia played an important role in developing and popularizing this uniquely American musical style.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he directs a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical repositories. He has served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio and gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 2016 Philadelphia music series “Memories & Melodies.”

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