Wednesday, July 9, 2014
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RIP, Bobby Martin, Sound of Philadelphia arranger

The man behind "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)."

RIP, Bobby Martin, Sound of Philadelphia arranger

Bobby Martin, whose work as an arranger shaped defining hits for Philadelphia International Records, has died at age 83.
Bobby Martin, whose work as an arranger shaped defining hits for Philadelphia International Records, has died at age 83.

Bobby Martin, whose work as an arranger shaped such defining hits for Philadelphia International Records in the 1970s as The O'Jays "Love Train," Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" and MFSB's "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," which became the theme song for the TV show Soul Train, has died. He was 83.

Martin, who won a Grammy award in 1978 for his work on the Bee Gees' soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever,  died on Friday in San Diego, where he had lived for the last decade, from an "unexpected illness" according to his publicist, Belinda Foster. 

He grew up in Lockland, Ohio and was inspired early on by jazz man Lionel Hampton and Frank Foster, a high school class mate and saxophone player  who would go on to lead the Count Basie Orchestra. Hampton "was my biggest infleunce when I first heard him in 1946," Martin said in a 2011 interview. Working as a vibraphone and marimba player, he toured with sax player Ilinois Jacquet. In 1951, he moved to Philadelphia, and gigged regularly up and down the east coast, once sitting in with Charlie Parker in Boston.

In 1959, he started working with a vocal group called the Bluebelles and suggested that their singer, Patricia Holt, change her name to Patti LaBelle. He met Kenny Gamble in 1956, and began working with him and his partner Leon Huff a decade later.

"It wound up into a long career of hit records," Martin, who also played paino, would later recall. He's not as well known as his colleague Thom Bell, but during the heyday of Philadelphia International in the early 1970s, he was the busiest of the many arrangers who helped orchestrated the chart domination of the silky TSOP sound. He also arranged and produced hits for The Dreamlovers, Nancy Wilson, Whitney Houston, and many others.

The list of enduring Philly soul songs Martin worked on is staggering: Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "Bad Luck," The O'Jay's "For The Love Of Money," The Intruders' "I'll Always Love My Mama," and many more. "We were like bread bakers," Martin said in 1997. "Always writing, recording in the studio, writing some more, then recording again." Joe Tarsia, the owner of Sigma Sound Studios, once said: "Bobby Martin was the greatest horn arranger to ever come through Philadelphia. Many times, hearing his horn voicings made the hair on my arms stand up."

Gamble and Huff issued a joint statement, praising Martin: "He was the greatest arranger. We were able to work together with him to come up with a fantastic sound. He was part of a group of arrangers with us that included Thom Bell, Norman Harris and Roland Chambers, and a vital part of the MFSB team who made major contributions. Bobby was tireless. He used to work all night on arrangements for us. Remembering his work ethic, and what it was like to just be around him, reminds us what a great time it was to be in the music business..."

At the time of his death, Martin was working on a compilation of unreleased recordings from his '70s heyday in Philadelphia, according to his publicist. He is survived by his wife Bessie and their grandson Miguel. Funeral arrangments have not been announced.

The Soul Train theme, "Love Train" and "Me & Mrs. Jones" are below.

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- Dan DeLuca

Dan DeLuca Inquirer Music Critic
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Dan DeLuca Inquirer Music Critic
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