Culture > Music

Sound of the past

Music | Love Train DVD suggests a future for a music that may not happen

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

Originally broadcast last November on PBS, Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (Philadelphia International/Legacy) comprises two hours' worth of highlights from a June 2008 concert staged in celebration of the music of the producers and songwriters Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell, and their stellar stable of soul-music legends.

Immaculate both visually and aurally (listeners can choose between stereo and 5.1 surround sound), the concert flows from hit to hit so smoothly it's easy to ignore that it was staged not in Philadelphia but in Atlantic City and that at least half the songs are not performed by the original singers. Except for G.C. Cameron-who, despite having been a member of the Spinners off and on through the years, turns in a rather shaky version of "The Rubberband Man"-the vocal recreations combine with the vibrant (if hastily assembled and rehearsed) Sound of Philadelphia Orchestra to bring to life one of pop music's most enduring catalogs.

What will give some viewers pause is the ravages wrought by time. "Never Give You Up" (mistitled "Never Gonna Give You Up" on the package) as performed by the 68-year-old Jerry Butler sounds rich enough to make the 41 years since it first appeared seem like an illusion, but the sight of Butler as a man who looks old enough to be Roland Burris' father provides a rather jarring reality check. (Coincidentally, Butler is also a Cook County politician these days.)

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Of course, Butler, whose nickname was "The Ice Man," always sounded like a grown-up. A greater audio-visual dissonance occurs in the case of the head Stylistic, Russell Thompkins Jr. Although he was an adult when he first sang "I'm Stone in Love with You," his falsetto suggested a teenage innocence now at stark odds with his grandfatherly demeanor.

Nothing, however, is more grandfatherly (or grandmotherly) than the demeanor of the racially mixed audience. If the presence of dancing teens still enhances the entertainment value of old American Bandstand and Soul Train clips, the presence of these erstwhile teens "getting down" in their 50s and 60s serves as a less-than-gentle reminder of why perpetual adolescence needs to be put out of its misery (and we out of its).

It is, in fact, the apparent absence in the audience of anyone under 45 that makes one inevitably question the durability of the music itself. Even if there will always be musicians and singers capable of fashioning reasonable facsimiles of the Delfonics' "La-La (Means I Love You)" and McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," one wonders how much their versions will matter if there's no one in the "forest" to hear the "trees" fall.

More likely to remain relevant is The Music Is the Message, an enlightening 40-minute documentary included among the DVD's "bonus material" that details not only the making of the Love Train concert but also, and more importantly, the history of Philadelphia International Records and the mutually rewarding relationship between AM radio and pop music in the wake of the Great Society.

But even here one detects a note of sadness. Although there's infectious joy in the anecdotes and information shared by Gamble, Huff, and their colleagues, there's also a sense that the special moment that they shaped, and that shaped them, may have irretrievably passed.

"We started out saying that we really wanted to make music to last forever," says Gamble at one point. "And we did."

The best parts of Love Train are good enough to make one hope, despite -cultural indicators to the contrary, that Gamble's premature self-assessment turns out to be right.


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