Monday, April 26, 2010


"Expressway to Your Heart" / Soul Survivors

Why Philly Soul Week? Why not? I've had this particular song stuck in my head for several days, and when I went to the iTunes store to download it, I got sidetracked by all these other artists I had completely forgotten about. A full week's worth of cool tracks!

But let's begin with "Expressway" -- one of those records I remember hearing on the AM radio back in 1967, dancing to, singing to, without ever fully appreciating. Funkier than Motown, edged with urban grit, it would have been a hard sell for me in 1967, still in my British invasion haze and trending more and more toward psychedelia and California sunshine pop. I was way too young, and too suburban, to enjoy the raw energy of a song like this. But that the beauty part of music -- you come to the older stuff when you come to it, no questions asked.

Oddly enough, the core of this band was white -- the Ingui brothers, Richie and Charlie. (Go here for a video of Richie and Charlie Ingui reminiscing about their part in the Philly soul scene.) You sure couldn't tell that by listening to them, though. I always had the impression that the Philly scene was more integrated than Detroit, maybe because of an interview way back when with white boys Daryl Hall and John Oates, who grew up in its shadow. At any rate, it was the genius of songwriters/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff -- both black -- that moulded the Ingui brothers and their band into a tight soul unit. This was Gamble and Huff's first really big hit, paving the way for a decade at the top of the charts -- not a bad place to start.

I love how the sections alternate -- that funky bass-propelled verse ("I been trying to get to you . . . " pivots on the beat of a drum into a sweet exhalation of organ and tambourine, as Richie's urgent chant melts into Charlie's velvet bass croon ("I was wrong, mmm, I took too long . . ."). How Righteous Brothers is that? And I love how the bridge -- again, practically a capella -- repeats the back-up singers' "too crowdeds" until they sound like car horns themselves.

Gamble and Huff knew how to work a metaphor, and this one is sheer brilliance. The idea is that our hero couldn't get to his girl's house in time, and another guy showed up instead and stole his girl's heart. (That rhyme of "I got caught in the rush hour" with "A fellow started to shower / You with love and affection" is so bad it's good.) Meanwhile our hero is stuck in traffic, getting steamed -- "I thought I could find a clear road / But I found stoplights instead." I've been stuck in traffic in Philly myself, crawling along on those snaking expressways that promise to funnel you out of the grimy inner city. It's torture.

So what kind of girl betrays her boyfriend just because he's late? The answer is, no kind of girl. Of course this isn't real, it's just a metaphor for how hard it is to get through to a popular girl. Maybe he realizes too late that he didn't try hard enough -- he didn't deliver all the "love and affection" he might have. (Some men never do understand the simple power of, oh say, flowers and chocolate, or at least plenty of sweet talk.) He got distracted by outside forces, and now she won't give him the time of day.

But that gear-shifting bass, the hiss of percussion, those honking "too crowdeds" all underscore the traffic metaphor to a T. Forget GPS, Sirius Radio, power windows, and climate control; this is the Traffic Jam from Hell. I can't think of another song except "Summer in the City" that so perfectly evokes asphalt and trash and un-airconditioned swelter. Listening to this song, I almost break into a sweat; I suspect if I wiped my brow, flecks of burnt rubber and black exhaust would come off.

The Soul Survivors weren't entirely one-hit wonders -- they're still performing, with a different line-up, and had some modest chart success with a couple of later songs. Still, they never topped this debut single, and it's been covered by just about everybody. On youTube, I even found a clip of Bruce Springsteen singing this, which IMHO is just wrong. (Funk does not come naturally to The Boss.) All the covers lack something, somehow. The genius wasn't all Gamble and Huff -- the Inguis & Co. simply blistered out this song. Now that I live in a city -- or more importantly, now that I drive in a city -- I know exactly where they're coming from.


wwolfe said...

My band used to play this one. I can honestly say it's the toughest thing I ever had to play. It's one bass drum hit, followed by one snare drum, and the six (!!) bass drum hits right in a row, very fast. Very tricky, and by the end the muscle on the front of my right ankle would be cramping up. Love the song, but I wasn't unhappy when we finally dropped it from our regular song rotation. On the other hand, wehnever I'm visiting my sister in Philly and I find myself on the Schuylkill Expressway, it gives me a little thrill to know I'm on the road that inspired this boss platter.

Holly A Hughes said...

Great description, wwolfe. I will never hear this song again without feeling that cramp in my right ankle!

NickS said...

I finally listened to this song yesterday, and the vocals are great -- not "pretty" but with such a great mix of energy, frustration, and the sound of somebody who's shouting themselves slightly horse trying to be heard above the background noise of traffic.