1968 Philly Soul Progenitors

Jerry Butler: Hey, Western Union Man

The Delfonics: La-La (Means I Love You)

The Formations: At The Top of The Stairs

Let’s start with Western Union and the true founders of philly soul, The Five Americans, with their big hit “Western Union” – wait no sorry wrong Western Union hit song, also great, with its unforgettable simulated telegraph message via impeccably period keyboards. Produced by the wild Dale Hawkins. Wrong group! But that was 1967 when telegrams were still coming. A song could still be written about what it was like to read a telegram that bummed you out.

By 1968 you could only hope to send telegrams and that is why Jerry Butler’s great record, and now we are doing some first Gamble and Huff records proper, is called “Hey, Western Union Man” because it’s this exhortation to send this telegram. The paradox is that while technically telegrams arrive instantly, the message will also have to arrive at the speed of a bike “something like yesterday.” Butler sings like she can hear him already.

The Delfonics “La-La” is one of my most replayed tracks ever, it shimmers like a suspension bridge. There’s some appealing tweak in the taping of the strings I never tire of concentrating on. That goes perfectly with the unusual condition of the much seen video on youtube, a demo that includes early TV edit video typography in the foreground.

The most mysterious of these records is the one by The Formations. “At the top of the stairs there’s darkness, my life was not made for happiness.” What is it about. I don’t know all the lyrics to this one yet. One of the best instrumental breaks of the 60s between the traumatized vocals too.


He’s Been There Enough

Elton John – Daniel

Eyes are referenced throughout.  When I was a little boy I fell in love with the melody and puzzled over the words. I thought it was about a blind person.  “Your eyes have died, but you see more than I” meant that older brother Daniel had some inner wisdom that supplanted his blindness.

But Daniel’s eyes work just fine, mechanically.  Daniel literally sees more than the singer of the song because Daniel goes places.  The singer doesn’t.  It’s a song about being left behind, the saddest feeling in the world.  Daniel isn’t blind, he just doesn’t value life now, so his “eyes have died”.  Daniel can go to Spain. 

As if answering a question, the singer says “no I’ve never been” (to Spain). “Daniel says it’s the best place he’s ever seen.”  After the words “ever seen” have been drawn out lovingly over several syllables, a shift: “He should know. He’s been there enough.” This bitter aside makes the song. The singer immediately follows by repeating that he misses him so much.  He can’t resent him for long.

Bernie Taupin’s lyrics have never gotten a lot of respect but this is perfect.  The singer doesn’t get to go places, but his eyes haven’t died.  Can even see Daniel waving goodbye from a plane in the sky.


Variations of Tight Time

Booker T. & The MGs:  Tank’s Lament

Booker T. & The MGs:  Time Is Tight [Uptight soundtrack LP version]

Booker T. & The MGs:  Time Is Tight [45 rpm single version]

Time Is Tight is the national anthem.  There’s no words so nobody sings.  They should just play the 45 version before all sporting events.  When the final Al Jackson drum rolls break through, relief, PLAY BALL, everybody is hyped.  Time Is Tight is about your hectic life, it’s about getting there fast without crashing, it knows it is a preliminary to something else.  It is not the thing in itself, but it is on the way to the thing and might be better than the thing.

Booker T. & The MGs obviously knew they had something special with this one because they worked it over quite a bit, and the perfect version – the 45 – didn’t come out immediately.  Two versions of the melody appear on their criminally ignored soundtrack album to a movie called Uptight that appeared in 1968.  The movie, although it’s middlebrow in places, is underrated: it’s a well-acted tale of betrayal and revenge set in Cleveland, so up to date that footage of Martin Luther King’s funeral begins the film.  You can see the whole movie on youtube as of this writing, and I recommend it as a historical document at the very least and a pretty good late 60s movie by any criteria.  MLK’s assassination sets the scene for “Tank’s Lament,” which is quite a revelation musically if you only know Time Is Tight from the single.  Remarkably, the driving melody, slowed down, works as well as a song of mourning.  With a tearful, churchified organ playing the main melody, a sternly spaced 1-2-3-3-3 from deep left piano keys begin and end the track.

Time Is Tight emerges in name at the end of the soundtrack album.  Time is not quite tight enough yet in this version, but some interesting moves combine the slow approach of Tank’s Lament with climactic moves that were wisely left off the 45 version (without actually being bad).  This is the way they used to play it on stage.  As of this writing, there’s a film on youtube of the MGs playing a version close to this one in 1970 (not particularly tight mind you), with Creedence Clearwater Revival watching from the side, enraptured and smiling.

Permanently, time comes together tight on the single.  National Anthem.