VARIOUS ARTISTS: Cooler Than Ice, Arctic Records and the Rise of Philly Soul: 6 x CD, 6 x 7”

Jun 13, 2014

I’m consistently amazed at the amount of really good ‘60s and ‘70s soul music that has resurfaced in recent years. If you’ve been fortunate enough to get a hold of any of the Eccentric Soul comps from the Numero Group then, hopefully, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t been so fortunate, then bear with me. Like so many of the best movements in art and music, most soul music was organic and, thus, many artists, labels, and producers tended to their own insular styles that were tied to the geography; “scenes” if you will. Berry Gordy and The Funk Brothers developed the “Motown Sound” to astounding commercial success. The music that came out of Stax Records in Memphis owed much of its identity to the unique working studio arrangement and house band, Booker T and The M.G.’s. Across town at Hi Records, Willie Mitchell developed a unique and unmistakable production style that would be the hallmark of Al Green and O.V. Wright’s recordings. This brings us to the story of Jimmy Bishop and Arctic Records. Arctic Records was one of the earliest and most important soul labels in the City of Brotherly Love. Founded by Bishop, a DJ for WDAS in Philadelphia, Arctic released over fifty singles between 1964 and 1971 and this box set contains all of them. Only a handful of these songs met with any commercial success; “Yes, I’m Ready” by Barbara Mason probably being the most successful (and recognizable) song in the collection. The name Della Humphrey may also be familiar to some soul music aficionados and an early single by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, who would go on to great success in the seventies, is also included in this collection. But while hardly any of the names listed in this box set are recognizable to anyone except perhaps the most formidable of music nerds, some of these artists would later become noteworthy fixtures of popular music in the seventies, e.g. Kenny Gamble (who would become part of the famed songwriting and producing team of Gamble and Huff), The Volcanos (whose members would go on to play in The Trammps) and The Temptones (featuring a young singer named Daryl Hohl who would go on to considerable fame after changing the spelling of his last name to “Hall” and teaming up with a guitar player named John Oates). Despite all of these interesting tidbits, what really stands out in this collection is the music: six CDs and six 7” records full of great songwriting, heartfelt vocal performances, rock solid rhythm sections, well-placed horn and string arrangements, and gospel style call and response backups. This is late sixties soul at its finest. I find it hard to believe that some of these songs didn’t meet with more commercial success at the time. Singles featured by Kenny Hamber, Winfield Parker, Billy Floyd, and other artists I’ve already mentioned are easily as good as anything that was around at that time. Tragically, Arctic did not make much of a long-lasting impact outside of Philly and closed up shop. As a result, most of the music on this collection has been out-of-print for decades. The packaging for this release is extensive and includes almost fifty pages of liner notes with details on each of the recordings and the associated artists. It would’ve been nice if this collection was modular, rather than bound in the book-like format in which it was produced, but that’s just nitpicking isn’t it? While this collection is highly recommended for the ardent soul music fan, it may be a bit much for the casual listener. It would be nice if Jamie/Guyden were to consider another release that distills down the most noteworthy tracks to a single CD/LP compilation. A move like that may go a long way towards spreading the word on some great music that has been far too obscure for far too long. –Russ Van Cleave 

 –guest (Jamie/Guyden)