You can’t really discuss the soul music of the ‘70s without referencing Philadelphia International Records, and you can’t know Philly International if you aren’t familiar with MFSB. The music of Philadelphia International Records is part of the fabric of American music, and the heart of that sound was the label’s famed house band.
Short for “Mother, Father, Sister, Brother,” the group of seasoned studio musicians gave artists like Billy Paul and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes that sterling, sweeping backdrop — elevating the scope of soul music arrangements while also providing the life blood for disco.
MFSB was a cadre of more than thirty musicians who would record hits for Philadelphia International Records. They came together at Sigma Sounds in Philadelphia, recruited by P.I.R’s songwriting/production moguls Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff — who launched Philadelphia International Records in 1971 — and Thom Bell.
The core of the group began as the backing band for Cliff Nobles & Co.; Norman Harris, Bobby Eli, Ronnie Baker and Earl Young backed Nobles on his single “Love Is All Right” and scored an uncredited dance hit with “The Horse” in 1968. “The Horse” became a Philadelphia dance craze that summer, and the musicians found themselves in demand, backing singers like The Fantastic Johnny C and briefly christening themselves “The James Boys” as the backing group for Jesse James.
Over time, MFSB would coalesce around the talents of drummer Young, bassist Baker, guitarist Harris, and percussionist Vincent Montana, Jr. with Karl Chambers and Norman Fearrington also joining as drummers; T.J. Tindell, Roland Chambers and Eli on guitar, and Winnie Wilford contributing on bass. Soon, percussionist Larry Washington, saxophonist Zach Zachary, organist/keyboardist Lenny Pakula, and drummers Miguel Fuentes and Quinton Joseph joined the fold.
Labels like Motown in Detroit and Stax Records in Memphis had legendary session musicians in The Funk Brothers and Booker T. and the M.G.’s, respectively. As compared to their predecessors, MFSB stood out due to the size of the collective and the lush smoothness of their sound. At Motown, the Funk Brothers mostly toiled in anonymity, never releasing an album under their own name. Booker T. and the M.G.’s didn’t have that problem at Stax, but they were a set quartet of neighborhood friends, not the massive collective of musicians MFSB would assemble.