|Detroit has the Motown Museum. Mississippi has a blues trail. Memphis has Graceland, Sun Studio and the Stax Museum of American Soul.|
But in Philadelphia — birthplace of the lush acoustic style known as The Sound of Philadelphia and the hometown of “American Bandstand” and Chubby Checker’s “Twist” — there’s no major place of pilgrimage for music fans.
“Tourists come here expecting and hoping to experience our music legacy, and we leave them wanting,” said Patty Wilson Aden, president of The African American Museum.
Philadelphia doesn’t ignore music history entirely. A Walk of Fame, murals and historical markers honor musicians and the music industry. Opera stars Mario Lanza and Marian Anderson have mini-museums.
But there’s been no effort to paint a larger picture of a vibrant musical landscape that has included Patti LaBelle, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Hall & Oates, Boyz II Men, the Dead Milkmen, Jill Scott and The Roots and John Coltrane.
“It does hurt a little bit that we don’t have (a museum) when we are one of the strongest cities musically,” said Nate Morris, a founding member of Boyz II Men.
Part of the problem, says Temple University history professor Bryant Simon, “is the diversity of the sounds. They don’t lend themselves to coherence like Nashville or Motown. Which story would you tell?”
Philadelphia was one of three finalists for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but lost out to Cleveland. Music promoter Larry Magid, who brought the Live Aid concert to Philly in 1985 and booked shows at the storied Electric Factory venue, was involved in the failed effort to locate the Rock Hall here. Over the years he’s tried to rekindle the idea of a Philly music museum but funding has proven elusive.
“It’s not about a piano or a gold record or a piece of clothing,” he said. “It’s asking why did all these talented people come out of Philadelphia? How did it work?”
Many touchstones in the city’s musical landscape have been torn down, burned down or turned into apartments and businesses. Others are in distant or rough parts of the city that see little tourism or business.
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, home of musicians like Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls and the O’Jays, offered tours and a small gift shop before an arsonist nearly burned the place down in 2010. Before they bought the building in 1970, it was home to Cameo Parkway Records, where Chubby Checker recorded the “The Twist” and Dee Dee Sharp recorded “Mashed Potato Time.”
A hotel and residence is now planned for that site. But the vision of a museum honoring The Sound of Philadelphia — which Gamble, Huff and Thom Bell created — is still alive, according to Chuck Gamble, Kenny Gamble’s nephew. Most of the studio’s memorabilia was saved from the fire and could be displayed. “Philadelphia needs the same kind of attention that Memphis gets and Detroit gets,” he said.
He’s working with the R & B Hall of Fame — a virtual hall of fame that has inducted over 100 artists — to bring the hall’s annual induction ceremony to Philadelphia in 2018. The hope is to build interest and perhaps establish a joint museum one day, he said.
The Uptown Theater is one of Philly’s last remaining historic theaters, part of the “Chitlin Circuit” that featured black performers over much of the 20th century. “Everybody who was anybody played at the Uptown,” said Simon, whose courses at Temple included one about the Uptown. “Ray Charles, James Brown, Miles Davis, famous black comedians, all the Motown acts, all the Atlantic (Records) acts, all the Philly International acts.”
The stage remains dark in the moments before the final show. It’s the Allman Brothers’ annual New York City Beacon Theater run, in March 2011.
Across the twilight, the first clear notes of “Hot ‘Lanta” rise from Gregg Allman’s Hammond B3 keyboard. Stage lights come up as the organ’s tremolo fills the hall. Drums, percussion and bass join in, twin lead guitars launch over the top and an enormous driving rhythm floods the room, penetrating me to the bone.
For myself and so many others who followed the band over the years, going to an Allman Brothers concert was a full-throttle, life-affirming experience. The muscular, bluesy jam-anthems — “Midnight Rider,” “Statesboro Blues,” “Stormy Monday” — lit up packed houses in torrential, soulful sound.
The death of founding member Gregg Allman on Saturday at 69 brought back to me countless memories of dozens of their shows I attended over 25 years.
It’s a Sunday morning in late April, at the 1994 Jazz Fest in New Orleans. My Louisiana friends invited me down and skipped Mass so we could arrive early for the set.
We’re close enough to the stage to see that Gregg Allman and guitarist Dickey Betts are showing the wear of years of Rock-n-Roll — “The High Cost of Low Living,” as one of their songs is titled.
Nonetheless, the band loves The Big Easy, and when they launch into “Blue Sky,” they are as tight and hard-driving as ever and the big sound transports the crowd. I shout to my buddy over the musical onslaught, “you’re not missing anything — this is just like going to church!”
Gregg Allman, the band’s chief singer, songwriter and keyboard player, belted out staples like “Whippin’ Post” with his trademark growl. But his wide vocal range also gave a subtle, blues-flecked glow to his ballads like “Melissa” and “Please Call Home.”
His keyboards helped anchor it all.
“Just kinda puttin’ the gravy on the meat,” he would say. But there was more to his playing than that: His Hammond organ would rise up in soaring cathedral runs throughout their songs, matching the guitar attacks of brother Duane Allman and Dickey Betts in the early years, then Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks in the band’s later incarnations.
“I make my living/ Pouring out my pain.”
Those lines from an Allman song entitled “Desdemona” might sound corny if they did not ring true in Gregg’s life. His father was murdered by a hitchhiker when Gregg was a toddler. His mentor and guitar-wizard brother Duane died in a motorcycle wreck at age 24, just when the band was hitting stardom in 1971. Bassist Berry Oakley died a year later. (AP)
There were battles with drug and drink, tumult in the band, a rocky marriage with Cher, health issues.
The soap opera sideshows did not diminish the music, though. The band had broken ground coming out of Macon, Georgia, in 1969: Twin lead guitars, twin drum kits, bass, keyboards, harp and vocals combining in waves of complex melodies that mixed blues, jazz, country and rock into something new, electric and deeply felt that became known as Southern Rock. When they all found the same wavelength during a jam — Duane Allman called it “hittin’ the note” — their music took fans to places they’d never been.
The Allmans roared out of the Deep South in a kind of cavalry charge, but without wrath or score-settling in mind. The integrated band — the African-American drummer, Jaimoe, was there from the start — embodied a message of acceptance, of kinship, of a gathering of tribes — a counter to the social injustices of their day. Despite changes during 45 years of playing, the band worked to keep that sense of inclusion alive. (AP)
By Kristen De Groot