Tuesday, April 27, 2010


"Didn't I (Blow Your Mind?)" / The Delfonics

Yesterday's song, "Expressway to Your Heart," may have been an uptempo funkfest, but here's the flip side of Philly soul: The lushly produced, grindingly slow love ballad, paving the inevitable road to Barry White.

Having this song come on at a school dance was every girl's secret terror, at least if her date for the evening was a guy she wasn't really interested in. (Oh, yes, my children, that used to happen, back in the days before obligatory hook-ups took all the fun out of dating around.) You simply cannot dance to this song without some serious pelvis shifting, and it ALWAYS turns out to be slower than I remember. The thing that saves it is the sweet earnestness of Wilbert Hart's tenor. As he leads off the song (his brother William will soon take over with his urgent falsetto), he's laying it all on the line -- "I gave my heart and soul to you / Didn't I do it baby, didn't I do it baby?" It would be so easy to turn this into a put-out-or-shut-up demand, but the Delfonics keep it safely on the side of a lovestruck plea.

Naturally, it being 1970, the phrase "blow your mind" already had its drug connotations, though the Delfonics pretty much skirt that too, apart from a stoned shimmer of xylophones and harps and strings. My two favorite bits: the insistent dit-dit-dit of horns after the chorus, before his heart bursts into the repeated title phrase of the refrain; and the sadder-but-wiser anguish of the last verse, as he ruefully tells her, "Ten times or more, yes, I've walked out that door / Get this into your head, there'll be no more." Despite all that heavy breathing, it's definitely a break-up song, edged with bitterness. For a long time I thought he was blowing her mind with his marathon lovemaking (eeeuw, gross!); now I realize that what really shocks her is that he's found the strength to walk out on her. Doormat no more.

This song was enough of a crossover hit -- #3 on the R&B charts but also #10 on the pop charts -- that it got plenty of play on the AM radio stations I listened to in 1970. I clearly remember singing along to all those lagging "didn't I's?". Yet I don't think I could have told you who sang this song -- I could never tell the Delfonics apart from their soon-to-be-developed imitators, the Stylistics and the Spinners. (Developed, in fact, by the Delfonics' soon-to-be ex-producer Thom Bell, another giant of the Philly scene, who wrote this song with William Hart.) The Delfonics were the originals, however, and the prize horses in Bell's stable for a while, ever since their 1968 single "La-La (Means I Love You" had gone gold.

From the mid-70s on, the Delfonics were a revolving door of talent, with sometimes two competing line-ups performing simultaneously -- one starring William Hart and the other Wilbert Hart. (Brother bands -- need I say more?) The sound quality of the video below isn't great, but it gives you an idea of their stage act, with the two Hart brothers and their high school friend Randy Cain trading off vocal honors, then blending their voices together into a dazzle of harmony.

I hadn't heard this song in years; I was surprised how well it's held up. Oh, sure, it sounds dated -- for one thing, it's way too clean for modern radio. But the musicianship of this track is incredibly solid, and it's a benchmark of studio finesse. If the Beatles could hole up in the studio and turn out dense layered masterpieces, why couldn't the folks at Cameo Studios in gritty Philadelphia? After all, they already had the dance moves down.


Uncle E said...

This song was used, perfectly, in the Quentin Tarantino movie "Jackie Brown". Reminds me a bit of the Temptations; I can picture Eddie Kendricks singing this one.

Holly A Hughes said...

I don't remember this song from "Jackie Brown," but it's certainly the sort of song Tarantino would work up some movie-geek enthusiasm for.

I'm still puzzling over the Philly-Motown dichotomy, though -- I suspect the Temptations would have gone more for snap and sizzle and less for the heavy heart. But I could be proven wrong!

wwolfe said...

I love Thom Bell's work as a producer with the Delfonics, Stylistics (I actually prefer the latter, thanks to Russell Thompkins' mind-blower of a falsetto), the Spinners, and one-offs like Blue Magic's "Side Show" and new York City's "I'm Doing Fine Now." There's some combination of longing, humility, and elegance that's unique to Bell in the work he did for these groups, and it appeals to me very much.

Holly A Hughes said...

"There's some combination of longing, humility, and elegance that's unique to Bell in the work he did for these groups, and it appeals to me very much."

Yes, yes, yes, that COMPLETELY sums it up. THAT's the difference between the Philly sound and Motown. There's a dimension of sincerity here that simply doesn't happen for the Motown talent, not until Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder hold up the bank in the early 70s. And even then, they don't get elegance.

nat said...

These songs were all the rage in the early 70's, when I lived near Philly. We were all so proud that Philly artists were ridin' high (and we included Todd Rundgren in the bunch, too.) This stuff still sounds great.
But their costumes? Notsomuch. Love to laugh at those.

NickS said...

There's a dimension of sincerity here that simply doesn't happen for the Motown talent

Smokey Robinson? It's different (I'm really not sure what to make of a song like "Shop Around"), but I think of him as sincere (and elegant).

Holly A Hughes said...

Good point, Nick. Although even songs like "Tears of a Clown" and "Tracks of My Tears," while deeply felt, have a polished surface rather than raw emotion. Elegant, though? Yessiree.