Another installment of 45 Fridays: “The Horse” by Cliff Nobles and Co.
This right here is a bboy classic. I used to listen and dance to this song all the time in Philly and I was ecstatic when I bumped into it shortly after I started collecting records. “The Horse” is the bass-driven instrumental B-side of “Love Is Alright” which features Cliff Nobles singing. I remember being at the record shop, hearing the A-side and thinking, “this song sounds familiar.. but something is off about it”. But once I played the flip I instantly recognized it and had to get it.
I thought that would be the end of it but the song popped up again while I was reading “A House On Fire“, a book about the history of Philadelphia Soul. It turns out that the record was produced in Philly (you can see that from the label — “Phil L.A. of Soul”) and that it has a strange story behind it.
Local Philly producer Jesse James and arranger Bobby Martin took singer Cliff Nobles into Virtue studios to record “Love is Alright”; all they had with them were the lyrics that James wrote and an expectation that the in-house musicians would figure out the rest. These musicians (guitarists Bobby Eli and Norman Ray Harris, bassist Ronnie Baker, vibraphonist Vince Montana, and drummer Earl Young) worked with Martin to figure out the melody for the song and soon they were able to get a recording together. And that was it for James. He was so confident that the song was a hit that, when asked about the flip side, he said: “I don’t give a shit, man. Use the backing track”.
And then he left, alongside Nobles, who sang his part and had little else to do that day at the studio. So Bobby Martin, with Frank Virtue and the key musicians, tweaked the backing track and ended up with “The Horse”, which was also credited to Cliff Nobles and Co. And it turned out that James was not as clairvoyant as he thought he was. The record began slowly dying out when it was first released. But then a DJ in Tampa, Florida played the B-side and the song sold ten-thousand copies in a week in Tampa alone. And Nobles, who wasn’t even in the studio when the song was recorded, soon had a hit that sold two-million nationwide. Unfortunately, the musicians who created the song got little more than their session fee. And Martin couldn’t get much more for them when he bugged James about it.
“The Horse” was a lucky turn of events for James and Nobles, who made it big with minimal effort, and it’s unfortunate that the musicians on deck didn’t get more compensation for their work. The good thing that came out of it was that all of a sudden, the guys who put together “The Horse” became locally famous and were highly sought after by Philly producers and labels owners. So karma took care of them, and of James too whom the band refused to work with again.
I didn’t choose this record because it’s a rare find, but because it’s an example of how much my appreciation for music has increased since I started collecting and researching records. I used to listen and dance to this song all the time in college, but I didn’t even know its name! Let alone that it was produced in Philly or that it had a strange story behind.
Also, make sure to check out the upcoming gigs I got lined up.
*Pretty much, all of the info about “The Horse” I found in “A House on Fire”, which is a phenomenal book about how Kenneth Gamble, Thom Bell, and Leon Huff shaped the sound of Philadelphia Soul. I highly recommend it.