It is with great sadness that we note the murder on Tuesday of John Whitehead, a key figure in the "Philly Sound." Whitehead was best known for his hit "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" which he recorded with his longtime collaborator Gene McFadden and which hit #13 on the pop charts in 1979. That song became an unofficial anthem for the Phillies during their World Series championship in 1980 and the Eagles during their run to the Super Bowl in 1981.
Whitehead was a truly amazing talent. He co-wrote the song "Back Stabbers," which the O'Jays took all the way to #3 in 1972. It was the first hit for Philadelphia International Records, which went on to record dozens of soul classics during the 1970's. In 1973, Whitehead wrote "I'll Always Love My Mama", which the Intruders turned into a major hit. He followed that up with two huge hits for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes -- "Bad Luck", which hit #15 in 1975, and "Wake Up Everybody," which hit #12 later that year. Both of these songs were sung by Teddy Pendergrass, whose gravelly soul voice resembled Whitehead's. Whitehead and McFadden produced countless other soul artists.
What always struck me about Whitehead's songs was the way that he could embody an important message within a hook-laden arrangement. Take his signature hit "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." You hear it at graduation ceremonies and at sports events. Most people respond to it as a statement of personal empowerment or the realization of a dream, as Leo Sacks notes in the article cited above. But I have always thought there was a deeper meaning hidden beneath the feel good surface. It seemed to me that the song was about the civil rights movement. Consider the lyrics in that light and ask yourself if you can imagine Martin Luther King giving an emotional speech using these very words:There have been so many things that held us down.
But now it looks like things are finally comin' around.
I know we've got, a long long way to go,
and where we'll end up, I don't know.
But we won't let nothing hold us back,
we're putting ourselves together,
we're polishing up our act!
If you've ever been held down before,
I know you'll refuse to be held down anymore!
Don't you let nothing, nothing,
Stand in your way!
I want ya'll to listen, listen,
to every word I say, every word I say!
Whitehead's songs have a timeless quality. Over 30 years after the fact, "Back Stabbers" is still a powerful song. Each Mother's Day, you hear "I'll Always Love My Mama" on the radio and it makes you smile. In closing, let me note that the following lines from "Wake Up Everybody" seem to apply to the present just as well as they did in 1975.Wake up everybody, no more sleeping in bed
No more backward thinking, time for thinking ahead
The world has changed so very much
From what it used to be
there is so much hatred, war, and poverty
Friday, May 14, 2004
DON'T YOU LET NOTHING, NOTHING STAND IN YOUR WAY: Good friend and frequent comments contributor Bob Elwood had the following to say about the murder of John Whitehead, which I reprint here with his permission:
Posted by Adam at 1:20 PM