Five wonderful, outta sight, and talented guys -back cover of Blue Magic LP release
Open your mind, you see the circus in the sky -Jay-Z, “Blue Magic”
Philadelphia is one of the 20th century Meccas of soul music. The super-producer group MFSB, which included master R&B architects like Thom Bell and Dexter Wansel, convened at 212 North 12th Street in the 70’s to record “The Sound of Philadelphia” (which became the Soul Train theme) and other classics by writing team Gamble & Huff (“Love Train”, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”). Punchy and orchestral, these soul innovators practically invented their own genre.
My interest in Philly Soul began in 2015 when I heard The Stylistics, which remains the subgenre’s high-water mark for me. A year later I found Blue Magic. For a long time I returned only to the mammoth side-A closer “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely”. But listening to the album today, it strikes me as remarkably solid, an album with no lowlights to speak of.
Compared to The Stylistics, Blue Magic is lesser known. They only nabbed one top 10 Billboard hit in their careers, with Blue Magic opener “Sideshow”, but this is a true gem of a song. Straight away, lead singer Ted Mills lends his delicate falsetto to the beautiful track, which is as heartbreaking as it is catchy. “Sideshow” (and “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely”) co-writer and session guitarist Bobby Eli had by this point played with the O’Jays, Stylistics, B.B. King and more, and his presence is important here (he would continue to work with Blue Magic on their next 3 albums). Norman Harris was, similarly, an MFSB guy, and his “Look Me Up” is an energetic contrast to the album opener.
But where Blue Magic succeed best is in their delicate, heavenly ballads. “What’s Come Over Me” sounds more like a daydream than anything else I’ve heard in the Philly Soul oeuvre. “Spell”, the band’s first single, is tender almost to a fault (inspiring a great Rateyourmusic user comment: “spell makes me shed dove tears bro”). “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely” is epic in scope, extending over 7 minutes with a full spoken-word breakdown. Everything is meticulously composed, scrupulously played and sang. Just incredible stuff.
I’ll be checking out the follow-ups to Blue Magic to see how they measure up. In the meantime, I recommend getting acquainted with this standout soul record.
Listen to Blue Magic here.