Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

May 20-26, 2004


Heard It in a Love Song

Remembering John Whitehead and growing up in the Philly Soul family.

"They smile in your face, all the time tryin' to take your place, the backstabbers." Sept. 9, 1972: Philadelphia International Records' first No. 1 R&B hit. The O'Jays, a semi-famous group from Detroit, performed "Back Stabbers." Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Philly International's two founders and proven hit-makers, produced the tune. But it was John Whitehead and Gene McFadden, two unknown young musicians from North Philly, who wrote the song later named by Rolling Stone as one of the "Top 100 singles of all-time." No one knew that seven years later, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," another McFadden and Whitehead composition -- and the duo's debut as performers -- would become Philly Soul's swan song, its last No. 1. John and Gene's work bracketed the greatest soul-music success story of the '70s.

I grew up in the Philly Soul family, with John Whitehead as a sort of funny uncle. My father, Larry Gold, played cello on all those sweet PIR songs, and he arranged strings on some of them. When, on Wednesday morning last week, my mother called to tell me of John's murder in a drive-by shooting, I didn't understand it until I heard on the radio an hour later "Bad Luck" (John's song with a young Teddy Pendergrass singing in front of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes). As Teddy howled the lyrics, "I'll tell you what's pullin' you down! Bad luck -- that's what'cha got," I realized all we had left of John now were his songs, and they aren't enough.

John was a big presence, especially when he enveloped me in a bonecrusher embrace that left the fragrance of sandalwoody musk mixed with something sweet (strawberry? black currant?) on me for the rest of the day. With his wide smile, booming laugh and chiseled, handsome features, he was almost too good at epitomizing an old-school soul man. A casual outfit: black suit, yellow rayon collarless shirt, gold chains, diamond rings, yellow leather trench coat. He inspired one of my family's cardinal rules: When sporting a cowboy hat and boots, the two must match in pelt and shade, i.e., jade rattlesnake, crimson gator.

This opulence was hard won. Born (in 1948) and raised in North Philly, John Whitehead always knew he was a musician. In their early teens, he and Gene McFadden started the Epsilons, a doo-wop group. One night they went to hear Otis Redding perform at the Uptown Theater on Broad Street. Finagling their way backstage, they sang for Redding, who liked them enough to hire them as backup singers. Sixteen-year-old John signed his mother's name to a release form and left. Redding died in a plane crash soon thereafter, and the two boys came home to Philly.

It was a tricky time. After years of pop gold -- Frankie Avalon, Little Anthony -- the British Invasion was rendering Philadelphia music obsolete. But the young Gamble and Huff were already formulating their soul-music recipe: Take a dormant star who sang his heart out -- Jerry Butler, Wilson Pickett -- add great songs and a greasy, funked-out rhythm section, mix with sweet strings and jazzy horns. The result? Hits. In 1970, the duo formed Philly International, and John Whitehead and Gene McFadden were there, writing songs that embodied their own lives.

When they wrote "Back Stabbers," they lived in the same project. "I asked Gene to come downstairs with his guitar," John told me in an interview several years ago. "Huff had told me one-word titles were the best, so I said, "Let me see " the "Back Stabbers.' This was something that was happening to me. A guy used to come to see me, but he was coming over to see my wife." After Gene "played him a groove," they came up with an Otis-style soul tune. The next day, they met at PIR's offices (John had a gig in the mailroom) and approached the famously gruff Huff as he went to get a soda. Upon hearing they had written a song, he just grunted, "Oh yeah? Is it strong?" John started to sing and Huff never made it back to his office, showing them how to rewrite the song so it didn't sound so country and old-fashioned. The rest is history. "Back Stabbers" not only kicked off Philly International's phenomenal string of smashes, it also embodied that early-'70s Watergate, Vietnam and assassination-fueled paranoia. Or, as Leon Huff told me, ""Back Stabbers' just led off the whole thing."

But John and Gene had been signed to Philly International as artists, and that is how they continued to think of themselves, even as they penned more hits for Harold Melvin, the O'Jays and the Intruders -- "Bad Luck," "Wake Up Everybody," "Where Are All My Friends," "I'll Always Love My Mama" -- and cut no record themselves. The money rolled in, but they were never quite satisfied. Constantly anticipating their own big break, they wrote their yearnings and disappointments into the tracks. As Bunny Sigler -- another Philly writer who longed for his own stardom -- titled one of his albums, I've Always Wanted to Sing " Not Just Write Songs.

It was a crazy time. John, Gene, Bunny, the guys in MFSB, the Philly Soul rhythm section -- they had themselves a wild decade. Since Philly is such a small city, and all these guys were from the same turf, being a soul star here meant everyone on the street knew who they were. Girls? They could snap their fingers. Drugs? Back then, folks thought cocaine wasn't addictive, so what was the harm in doing as much of it as possible? My dad recalls nights when he practically had to lie on the floor of Sigma Sound Studios. Everyone was so hyped up that he was afraid of losing an eye from some wild gesture. The songs got faster and faster too, as soul moved to disco, and disco became the biggest sound in the world. Of course, it couldn't last. By the time John and Gene finally released "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" -- the cover is a classic; they're both grinning in white suits and John is wearing a gold medallion that reads "Mighty Whitey" -- the Sound was almost over. It was the beginning of the end.

"We went to Otis Redding High School and Philadelphia International College," John said. "We got good marks as far as writing songs, and as far as having hit songs, but we flunked when we looked at money, and at the big picture." By the mid-'80s, Philly International was no longer producing hits, and John had been sent to jail for tax evasion, though he retained his characteristic bonhomie throughout. Who else, upon his release from prison, would title a comeback CD I Need Money Bad, and feature himself on the cover, gleaming in a white satin suit?

It was in those years -- after the Sound's decline, while all the Philly guys were regrouping -- that I got to know John best. He and my dad worked together on songs for a variety of acts, and my father produced a great album for John's two eldest sons, Kenny and Johnny, known as the Whitehead Bros. There were long dinners in my family's house at 30th and Poplar, lots of phone calls, and one memorable night when John brought over a Jackson. (I was taking a bath and heartbroken at missing him -- John reassured me later that it had just been "Tito or Randy or someone.")

One night I remember particularly well. They had been working on a demo for Teddy Pendergrass' new album, with John -- whose voice had always been a dead ringer for Pendergrass' -- singing the track. My dad came home late that night, but played the tape for my mom and me right away. I don't remember anything about the song (Teddy didn't end up using it anyway) but I can remember my dad's excitement. John's performance had been incredible.

"It was like he was channeling Teddy," he said to us. "I got chills." I get chills when I think of that moment; it's so pure. People always talk about how the music business is all about money, and it is. But less than most other fields -- the average stockbroker is way more obsessed with green than the average soul singer. And on that night, even though John and my dad were supposedly trying to get rich, they were more like two old friends doing what they had always done best, making fantastic soul music together.

John was a soul singer, so it is bizarre that he was murdered in a drive-by shooing, that hip-hop cliche. He had already survived so much: the craziness of the '60s; the lightning-quick success and ensuing siren-voiced temptations of the '70s; the disappointments, let-downs, and come-downs of the '80s and '90s. There is no way of making sense of John's death, but it is possible to do the right thing next, both in his memory and to honor the huge and heartbroken family -- both biological and musical -- he leaves behind: his wife, Elnor, 13 children, and many grandchildren, stepchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. And, of course, Gene McFadden, the man who was John's partner for four decades.

Within Philly's music community, John Whitehead was a living legend, but I wish that this city had truly honored him while he was alive. If anything good can come out of John's horrifying death, let it be that this city honors some of its less-obvious heroes, the soul men and women whose work has brought us pure pleasure. To quote "Wake Up Everybody," as John himself might have, "No more backward thinking, time for thinking ahead."

Elizabeth Isadora Gold is a freelance writer. She is currently working on Philly Soul, a memoir/history about The Sound of Philadelphia.

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