A music tour for Black History Month: 25 places that landed Philly on the map

From Paul Robeson to the roots of Questlove’s family tree, the locations where some of the biggest stars made their mark.

The Royal Theater, in dire need of renovations, on South Street.

The Royal Theater, in dire need of renovations, on South Street.

Wikimedia Commons

Gathering a list of notable locations for musicians in Philadelphia is really a window into the history of American music in the last century.

And we can tell a nice swath of that history through one family: Questlove’s.

The Golden Age of gospel music from the ’30s to the ’50s achieved a level of popularity that augured the crossover success (not to mention vocal stylings) of black acts that would follow. The Dixie Hummingbirds, a Philadelphia-based group originally composed of migrants from South Carolina, were national royalty. Beechy Thompson, Questlove’s grandfather, sang baritone.

Questlove’s father, Lee Andrews, led one of the city’s most popular doowop groups, Lee Andrews and the Hearts. Doowop is slept on and suffers from diminished appreciation critically, I think due to a really pernicious syndrome that convinces old brodudes that ’60s and ’70s rock are the only things worth talking about.

But doowop changed American music. Before it, no black artist making “race music” had a crossover pop smash. Then, the Orioles broke the radio with a song called “It’s Too Soon to Know.” And for Philly acts, a breakthrough moment came when groups like the Tymes and the Orlons performed on American Bandstand. We needed vocal groups to get to the rest of R&B; acts like Lee Andrews and the Hearts allowed us to get to Philadelphia Soul.

So for this Black History Month, we decided to put together a map of significant places for black music in the city. Researching this has been an incredibly daunting pleasure. I know Frankie Beverly should be on it; his manager’s office didn’t confirm by press time. There could be dozens more people and venues on this list easily, but we didn’t want to overwhelm anyone; we wanted to provide merely a good start.

What more can I say about Philadelphia soul that hasn’t already been said? I mean, it was incredible and you can make your Friday instantly better by putting on this. Under-discussed, perhaps, is that Philadelphia soul majorly influenced disco and provided a lot of inspiration for hip hop. Questlove’s parents were in a funky soul group called Congress Alley actually, and not on Gamble and Huff’s Philly International label. Their sound had a very moralist, psychedelic vibe to it.

What’s on the map

For hip hop spots on the map, we have Questlove’s childhood home, Lefteye’s, Schooly D’s (PSK!), the headquarters to Word-Up records, and the label that first signed DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. There’s also Pop Art Records (good looking out, Tony Abraham), which signed acts like MC Shan, Marley Marl, Salt N Pepa, Roxanne Shante and Da Youngsta’s.

For neo soul, we’ve included the Five Spot, the now-closed bar that held the Black Lily. This series was a Philly music staple and a center of gravity for young women in soul around the country. (The Roots crew was all up in it, as affiliated duo the Jazzyfatnastees were the hosts.) We’ve also included CAPA, which aside from schooling Questlove and Black Thought, counts Amel Larrieux, Boyz II Men, Jazmine Sullivan and Christian McBride as alums. Settlement Music School is here too, which has many notable past students, like Chubby Checker.

Don’t get me started on how many iconic records were made at Sigma Sound at 12th and Race, and how upset I am that this jewel in our history might wind up a condo building. Don’t.

Philadelphia International’s HQ is on here, as is one of the WDAS’ past bases, where it broadcasted for much of the Civil Rights movement. Queen Patti Labelle’s childhood home and soul legend Solomon Burke’s birthplace are also included.

John Coltrane’s and Sun Ra’s houses are on here, as is one of Philly Joe Jones’ childhood homes. Jones was probably best known for work with Miles Davis; the impression that he made on the jazz world has been broad and lasting.

Charles Albert Tindley didn’t just lead a megachurch, he was a legendary hymn composer. “We Shall Overcome” is often called an adaptation of one his songs. The Metropolitan Opera House was a venue for gospel greats, like the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Clara Ward Singers, who featured one of the most unsung candidates for best female vocalist ever, Marion Williams. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (you might remember her killing it in Amelie as the lead star watches television) is arguably one of the founders of rock and roll.

Paramount Records was reportedly the largest black-owned record store in the city in the ’50s, and a homing beacon for black music aficionados. We’ve included iconic venues too: The Uptown, the Standard, the Royal, the Dunbar and the Dell. Paul Robeson House and the Marian Anderson Residence Museum close the list. Paul Robeson House is one of the many locations mapped that remains in dire need of restoration, something that we hope will change.

Again, there are more places to be marked, more stories to be told. I am not looking forward to the phone call I’m going to get from my grandfather when he sees that there aren’t 10 more jazz guys on this list. We hope it helps to stop, look and listen though. If you want to join my grandfather in grumbling at me, feel free to hit me on Twitter.

Update: My grandfather called. I’ve added the Blue Note so that I won’t have problems at the next family function.

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