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For our The Story of Vanguard Anthology, VMP tried something new. We invited purchasers to write into our Anthology Mailbag to submit any questions they have about the set, or VMP Anthology in general. At the end of this experience, a few lucky participants were chosen to receive test pressings from the Vanguard Anthology. The Vanguard Anthology community came through with some fantastic questions, so we decided to open up our Anthology Mailbag again to purchasers of our Philadelphia International Records Anthology — and you all did not disappoint!
Congratulations to our The Story of Philadelphia International Records Anthology Mailbag winners, David J., Charlie and Felix.
And now, here are the responses to a selection of your PIR Anthology Mailbag submissions. Thanks to everyone who submitted a question!
Did you use a panel of music lovers to select the albums in the set, or were they picked by an individual at VMP?
Anthology curation is usually led by a well-researched small group or individual, but we use a “panel of music lovers” approach overall. We have our music team, who is largely responsible for curating the subscription Tracks at VMP, as well as what you see in the store, but they also lead curation for Anthology box sets. The wider team often gives input depending on the subject matter, and we also work with the artist and label wherever possible to make sure we’re telling a story that everyone is excited by.
In PIR’s case, our Classics & Country Director, Andrew Winistorfer and our Senior Director, Business Development & Partnerships, Courtney Catagnus (who just so happens to be from Philly!) and our Head of Editorial Amileah Sutliff all had input on the record selection, and we worked with Sony and PIR to refine the list to tell this version of PIR’s story.
Where are the master tapes from PIR located and are they and additional session tapes still accessible today?
The master tapes for this set are located and stored in Sony’s vault, but VMP isn’t privy to any additional accessible session tapes.
I thought it was cool that VMP leveraged a Philly based audio production company for The Story of Philadelphia International Records anthology podcast. Does VMP try to utilize vendors connected to the subject matter of the Anthology as much as possible?
Yes, wherever possible! A big part of our editorial philosophy at VMP is our belief in the power of who is telling a story. When you find people to build a narrative and they’re close to it in ways beyond the music alone — in their geography or their identity or personal experiences — it often makes for a richer story. Philadelphia International Records was an unlikely musical heart and soul of the city for so long, and a huge part of the city’s history, so it was important to VMP to find vendors and storytellers who were connected to Philly in some way.
We were excited to work with members of the Philadelphia creative community to support us in building the narrative. You’ll notice that Niela Orr, the talented writer who wrote the Listening Notes booklet in the box set also has deep ties to Philly. For the podcast, we worked with the incredible Rowhome Productions’ Alex Lewis and John Myers. We found their work when we were researching the project and came across an audio documentary co-produced by Lewis called Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio. It was clear they were subject matter experts and remarkable audio producers, so I was thrilled when they were interested in working with us. I highly recommend listening to that project as a follow-up to our Anthology mini-series.
Is this the only volume or is this the first of a couple or a few volumes with this theme?
As of now, this is the only volume of VMP Anthology: The Story of Philadelphia International Records. But it’s a sizable, stellar catalog, so we can dream, right?
What influences from Motown Records did you uncover while building out this set for Philly International Records?
In a 2020 piece on PIR’s website, music journalist A. Scott Galloway writes “If Stax Records in Memphis represented the annals of Black Music at its roots core and Motown Records in Detroit represented what long-striving Black folks aspired to become, Philadelphia International Records staked its flag in Black people’s transcendental arrival.”
There’s the obvious sonic influence between Motown and PIR, with both labels putting out soul music with commercial pop appeal around the same time. But additionally, in a lot of ways, Motown paved the way for PIR. Motown and Berry Gordy achieved widespread commercial success through the ’60s, even against massive white record labels, which created space for the rise of PIR in the ’70s.
Combined, how many copies of the records within PIR have been sold worldwide?
It’s tough to know how many total records among the titles in this box set have been sold worldwide. Based on the RIAA certifications for the records in this box, we know that they sold at least over 3.5 million copies. This estimate doesn’t include sales outside the U.S., sales beyond the minimum required to meet an RIAA certification, nor does it include Dexter Wansel’s Life on Mars, The Philadelphia International All-Stars’ Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto or Leon Huff’s Here to Create Music, none of which received an RIAA certification. It’s also worth noting that the sales data on records put out by Black labels like Stax, Motown and PIR is historically underreported. So, in reality, the total number worldwide is much, much greater than that.
How did I sleep on Dexter Wansel for SO LONG!?! Life on Mars is such a banger!
All I can say is that we agree, and welcome to the fan club. Doesn’t matter how long it took you to get here, in our opinion — so long as you’re here now!
What role did Philadelphia have in shaping Philly International and how does the label and sound reflect the city?
This is a fantastic question, and not one we have the space to answer completely in this Q&A. It’s no coincidence that PIR’s tagline became “The Sound of Philadelphia,” because it was just that: a sound that was synonymous with the city itself. To dive deeper into this topic, we very highly recommend the book A House On Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul by John A. Jackson. In the book’s introduction, Jackson defines “Philadelphia Soul” as “a multilayered, bottom-heavy sophistication and glossy urban rhythm and blues, characterized by crisp, melodious harmonies backed by lush, string-laden orchestrations and a hard-driving rhythm section.” By this definition, PIR constructed the sound of Philly from the ground up, but not without the existing talent that existed in or flocked to the city. PIR provided a platform and a runway for the city’s talent to congregate and rise. The book goes on to quote producer Morris Bailey saying that Kenny Gamble, Thom Bell and Leon Huff “just put Philly back on the map … The rest of us might not have been any less talented, but [they] took it to the top.”
Why were these records chosen for the box over albums more historically important, harder to find, or more acclaimed?
I think VMP gets this question commonly with Anthology, and in general, there’s a couple important points to remember. First, “historically important” is a subjective idea that changes over time and from person to person. When we looked at telling the story of this label, founder Leon Huff’s one solo record felt just as essential to a well-rounded story of PIR as a commercially successful blockbuster O’Jays record. The socially conscious work of supergroup The Philadelphia International All-Stars may not have charted the same way as solo work from their marquee artists, but we still deemed them an important record to highlight.
Anthology provides an opportunity to tell an immersive story. This means that we can go beyond a simple “best of” approach to the curation and shine light on aspects of an artist or label that may be an undersung chapter in their story or just deserve more attention, sales or acclaim than they’ve historically gotten.
How did Sigma Sound Studios influence the cuts in this collection?
The majority of the material contained in this box set was recorded at Sigma Sound Studios, and every single record featured contains music recorded there, so the studio’s impact on these records is substantial. If you’re interested in an extended trip into how Sigma influenced PIR’s music, there’s an interesting article by Toby Seay published in the Journal on the Art of Record Production called Capturing That Philadelphia Sound: A Technical Exploration Of Sigma Sound Studios. In it, Seay breaks down Sigma’s methodology, technical influence, workflow and acoustic environment. Stand-out factors include the studios’ distinctive echo chamber and warm recording space, a workflow that was poised to take advantage of instrument spills, as well as founder and owner of Sigma Sound Studios Joe Tarsia’s drive to equip the space with state-of-the-art technology.
Seay quotes Tarsia: “The room gave you something. In other words, with all the technology today, you win some things and you lose some things. We won the fact that we can make great sounding records anywhere, but what we lost was the personality those records had, because the room gave a personality. The same thing with Sigma, the same thing with Motown, the same thing with the studios in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, those rooms gave a sound and a personality that you don’t have anymore. You know, the Memphis horns and the Motown rhythm section … the ambiance of those rooms is what gave those records a personality.”