Editor’s Note: I wrote this 8 years ago with so much hope and vigor about the state of change that was to come. It was such an honor and fun exercise to incorporate political history into what’s essentially a review of an old record I loved. It’s a strange and sad sensation to read this again now given the current state of affairs. Is it 2020 yet?
Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto
(Philadelphia International Records) 1977
The planets were aligned for change in 1977. The Vietnam debacle had ended and President Carter begun issuing pardons for nearly ten thousand draft evaders. In the postwar glow, America’s War on Poverty surfaced with renewed boldness. Politicians were reinvigorated and, more importantly, listening.
A wail came from Philly by way of Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto, a Philadelphia International Records comp featuring elites of “The Sound of Philadelphia,” a style that had long dominated R&B charts. Kenneth Gamble (owner of Philadelphia International Records) combined his biggest acts — The Three Degrees, Billy Paul, the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Lou Rawls, and others — to raise concern about Philly’s growing ghettos. Gamble is quoted on the back as saying: “Anything physical has to first start as a thought…there’s a message in the music.”
Bobby Martin’s arrangement of “Ooh Child”, performed by Dee Dee Sharp Gamble, is pessimistic, dark, and nowhere as sunny as previous recorded versions. The Intruders’ resounding “Save the Children,” paired perfectly with Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Old People,” showed the generational effects of diminished opportunity. And Billy Paul’s buoyant “New Day, New World Comin’” wove some hope into the record’s ten-songs.
Yet the title track is the project’s real centerpiece. Written by Gamble & Huff and Carey Gilbert, “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” is a posse cut of epic proportions. The Philadelphia International All-Stars consisted of Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, Archie Bell, the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, and Dee Dee Sharp Gamble. Rawls pleads for “cleanliness” and “safety” on the opening dialogue sequence, followed by each artist echoing the sentiment, each in their own distinct fashion.
Aesthetically, hefty bass and washes of harmony usher the song along for eight-minutes. And while it’s hard to measure the effect of a single recording, it certainly voiced concerns of a voiceless minority, as all the profits from the record went towards local community development as promised.
Kenneth Gamble went on to redevelop South Philadelphia for decades, and Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto marked the start of his community-minded efforts. The project is a timely battle cry given that education, affordable housing, and job creation remain dominant hurdles in many communities of today. With Obama now at the helm, let’s hope populist issues will no longer be approached with elitist policies. – David Ma
(Originally ran in Waxpoetics issue #33, The Philly Issue)
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