309 South Broad Street: Endangered House Of Hits

 

The house of hits, at Broad & Spruce | Photo: Bradley Maule

The house of hits, at Broad & Spruce | Photo: Bradley Maule

With reports of a possible demolition at 309 South Broad Street to make way for a high-rise hotel-condo, those involved in the city’s music industry just a generation ago no doubt felt a twinge of sadness. While the building itself–a three-story 1920s era structure–is not all that remarkable, one can’t deny its rightful place in popular music history as the home of both Philadelphia International Records (and the endless series of hits Gamble & Huff produced there) and Cameo-Parkway Records’ dance hits.

The city has long been an important musical center, but two periods in the twentieth century saw Philadelphia as an undisputed leader in popular music: the late 1950s/early 1960s and again in the 1970s. That unremarkable building at 309 South Broad figured prominently in both periods, serving as the headquarters for two different record companies that produced distinctive bodies of music representing the epitome of the “Philadelphia Sound” of their time: the ’50s-’60s pop and rock & roll of Cameo-Parkway Records and the ’70s rhythm & blues and soul of Philadelphia International Records. In their respective heydays, the two companies were pop music powerhouses.

"You Can't Sit Down" 45 | Parkway Records

The Dovells’ “You Can’t Sit Down” on 45 | Parkway Records

Cameo-Parkway was founded in 1956 by musician Bernie Lowe (née Bernard Lowenthal), who with lyricist Kal Mann (Kalman Cohen) and guitarist/arranger Dave Appel built the company into a well-oiled pop music machine, churning out hit after hit with local artists Charlie Gracie, Bobby Rydell, the Dovells, the Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp, the Tymes, and Chubby Checker. Working first out of Lowe’s basement and later out of studios at 1405 Locust Street, the company eventually became successful enough to purchase its own building at 309 South Broad, where the hits continued for several more years.

After about a ten-year run, Cameo-Parkway began to lose steam, and by the latter part of the 1960s had become a subsidiary of MGM and basically stopped producing new music. It wouldn’t be long, however, before Philadelphia would again be at the center of the pop music business.

As Cameo-Parkway was winding down in the mid 1960s, two songwriters and producers with dreams of owning their own record company were already on an upward trajectory. Having collaborated as performers and producers at Atlantic Records with artists like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff scored their first Top 5 hit with the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart” in 1967. In 1971, the pair founded Philadelphia International Records where, along with producer/songwriter Thom Bell, they would hone the world-renowned rhythm & blues/soul style known as the “Sound of Philadelphia.” Gamble and Huff first had offices in the Schubert Building across Broad Street but, like Cameo-Parkway a decade earlier, grew to such success that in 1973 they and Bell purchased 309 South Broad for the company’s headquarters.

Gamble & Huff, circa 1970s | Philadelphia International Records press photo

Gamble & Huff, circa 1970s | Philadelphia International Records press photo

Philadelphia International Records’ string of hits lasted throughout the 1970s. Recording artists produced by the Gamble/Huff/Bell triumvirate–including the Intruders, Stylistics, Delfonics, O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler, Billy Paul, and others–were hugely popular and defined soul in the 1970s, bridging the gap from early R&B and disco. But as the decade drew to a close so did the company’s impressive run of turning out hit records on a consistent basis. When Philadelphia International Records wound down recording new music in the 1980s, 309 South Broad Street again retreated from the spotlight.

Unlike the museums preserving the legacies of Motown, Stax, and Sun Records (in Detroit, Memphis, and Memphis, respectively), Philadelphia has no building devoted to so successful a genre. If plans to demolish 309 South Broad Street are realized, the best place for hosting one will be lost.

About the author

Jack McCarthy is a certified archivist and longtime Philadelphia area archival/historical consultant. He is currently directing a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical institutions. He recently concluded work as consulting archivist and researcher for Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio, an audio documentary on the history of Philadelphia Black radio, and served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2012-2013 Leopold Stokowski centennial celebration. Jack has a master’s degree in music history from West Chester University and is particularly interested in the history of Philadelphia music. He is also involved in Northeast Philadelphia history. He is co-founder of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network, founding director of the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame, and president of Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History.

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9 Comments


  1. This music IS Philadelphia. How do museums come to be? Who has to take charge and make one?

  2. Too bad the City can’t give Gamble and Huff the same tax breaks that dranoff et al will receive to demolish and build on the site. Gamble and co. pay fully 2/3 of the entire tax revenue for Broad St. between Spruce and Pine. Nothing will replace that revenue for 10 years, and we will lose a business that created the philadelphia sound. A tax abated hotel/condo for the uber-rich is not a good replacement for the sound of philadelphia.

    • Yes, Kenny Gamble never gets any money from the city. [Falls dead from laughter.] And I’m open to take a wager on whether the revenue in the 11th year of any Dranoff will be more or less than the full 10 years worth of revenue the city would have gotten from the PIR building.

      And comparing PIR and the Sound of Philadelphia to the legacy of Motown, Stax, and Sun? You’ve got to be kidding me.

      • You’ve got to be kidding me if you think the Sound of Philadelphia isn’t comparable. And they pay their taxes. If our glorious political masters would eliminate the BPT, NPT and drastically reduce or eliminate the wage tax, buildings like Gamble’s would contain active businesses. Huge giveaways to well connected developers (tax abatement and investment credits – recently $30 million for the RITZ expansion) will not cure what ails Philadelphia’s economic fundamentals. Density is achieve by sound economic policies, not isolated giveaways from our political class to their cronies.

  3. 311 is worth saving and perhaps reusing as a separate entrance for condo owners but 306 & 309 aren’t worth saving . I could see a restaurant using the recording studios history as it’s theme . A museum/ restaurant ?
    The building however is just not worth saving , sorry music fans .

  4. Of course, this building is a contributing resource in the National Register of Historic Places’ Broad Street Historic District, but doesnt appear to be protected by the City of Philadelphia, not that that would stop them from demolishing the building.

  5. Tear it down, tear it all down. It’s an unremarkable building. The history of Philadelphia International Records is remarkable not the building. It’s over move on and make way for the new. Please folks let’s not get caught up in the past. The past is the past, in with the new. I guarantee you we won’t miss it or Cypress Street.

    • “please folks let’s not get caught up in the past”. I think you came to the wrong website, Keith. A lot of people who both read and support Hidden City are extremely concerned with this city’s architectural and cultural past. As far as “making way for the new,” tearing down low rise brick buildings to make way for 15-20 story hotels, which are completely inefficient in terms of energy expenditure and space usage, sounds rather mid 20th century by now. If you want to check out a city that really “made way for the new” why don’t you check out Orlando, Tampa or Las Vegas-lots of high-rise hotels but very little street life. They certainly aren’t too “caught up in the past.” They also lack any discernible history or community.

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