The death of a memorable and influential person is always a cause for us to be saddened. Often, we pause to reflect what was. Sometimes, it brings forth a regret. All of these are part of the sad passing of the music, disco, and (South) Philadelphia legend, Vincent Montana Jr.
My regret is that I wanted to do something to commemorate Vince while he was with us. Unfortunately, with his failing health, that never happened. The Salsoul Orchestra and Philly “sounds” stories have been very well chronicled so I’ll take a different path to illustrate how music was love for “VMJ”. It is a storied road that began with music in his life at age six and even at his death last week at 85, it does not – and will not – end!
Through conversations with his daughter (and one of his star vocalists) Denise, several other music luminaries and through Vince’s own words, I’ll attempt to evoke a smile, illustrate how his brilliance still shines today, and leave any regrets as simply beautiful “unreleased” morsels – just like Vince has left many unreleased songs (BIG tease here)!
As we’ve explored in this column, change in music is inevitable and diversity is at its foundation. Vince agreed – as he used to say, “I love everything from Bach to rock, jazz to country,” and that “a true musician never stops learning.” As his eight years of dialysis and incredible lifelong musical journey attested, VMJ lived by his quote, “Don’t be discouraged by difficulties, for it is perseverance alone that leads us to our goal.”
Experience in the business world has taught me that great leaders surround themselves with great people. Or in VMJ’s extrapolation: great conductors/arrangers surround themselves with great musicians! Vinnie (I’m going South Philly on you) had Earl Young pounding the drums, guitars strummed by Bobby Eli and Norman Harris, the bass licked by Ron Baker, Larry Gold tearin’ up the cello, the master Don Renaldo leading the violins (up to 18 of them, at times!), Larry Washington beating up the congas, and the vibraphonist extraordinaire himself – Vincent Montana Jr. – supplying the trademark Philly percussion!
Overall, the orchestra (and it truly was an orchestra) had up to fifty musicians on one song! With all due respect (which is never respectful), how does someone on a computer produce a sound even close to that today?!
Friend and legendary engineer, Gene Leone (Salsoul, Prelude – France Joli, etc.) shared, “Vinnie would double the strings and use the strings to enhance the vocals,” using “a high string line that would marry the high flute which provided the distinctive edge of the Philly sound”. On that “va-va-viberaharp”, as Gene fondly remembered them calling it, Vince would “play a different chord on top of the song’s structured chord – producing sheer magic!” VMJ also loved to have fun in the sessions. “If it didn’t have the groove, you’d hear Vince proclaim, ‘One more time!'” Gene chuckles. “He was never done.”
Philly producer and DJ Robbie Tronco (“Walk for Me”/”Fright Train”/”Drops”) reminisced about how he introduced Louie Vega and Kenny Dope to Vince at a memorial service for David Cole of C+C Music Factory. Louie and Kenny, despite their star status, appeared to be in awe. Soon after, magic began on songs like The Braxton’s “The Boss” and eventually on the Nuyorican Soul album. “Money was not a factor back then,” Robbie remembers. “Louie & Kenny paid $300 an hour for violins. Vince gave the guys the sheet music and they did it in one take!”
“Vinnie was arranging and conducting and playing vibes, with Ronnie James on guitar,” Gene remembers, “And in his last session before he passed away was the great Larry Washington on congas. That NYC-Philly collaboration was incredible.”
DJ Spinna was a self-proclaimed, “Disco kid” and enamored that he and Vincent shared the first name. Spinna told me that “Heavy Vibes” was one of his first purchases, but it’s another song that VMJ played on, “Love Is The Message” that “defines me”.
Another commonality among DJs and music heads is the allure and staying power of VMJ’s Goody Goody album. Vincent’s talented daughter Denise didn’t just get the vocal role due to nepotism: “I had to audition!” Few know that Denise originally did the demo on “Run Away” before Loleatta Holloway did her incredible version. Denise also confided that she didn’t grow up with her dad but that the music is in her genes. “My mom always told my dad that his best production was me! It was meant to be that I worked with my dad.”
Now for the ultimate bit of trivia for people like Spinna, Rich Medina, and me that love “It Looks Like Love” from that album. Although we wanted to imagine that the breathy, sexy, dubby vocals on that song was being sung to us by the beautiful Denise or the “cup-runneth-over” hottie on the LP cover, Denise deflated me by disclosing that she was actually improvising as she sang it to her husband (Tom) through the window of the vocal booth! In fact, if you listen closely, you’ll hear some faint male vocals. That’s Tom, who was encouraged to respond by the playful Vince who handed him a mic!
I hope this column, in part, has led to your ability to declare, “Now That’s!! The Philly Sound(R)” – which is Vince’s Philly Sound Works label tag line. I know that producers/DJs like Spinna have committed to remaining, as he put it, “a conduit for VMJ’s music to the world”. VMJ’s liner notes from the iconic ’76 Nice ‘N’ Nasty album with the cheeky Salsoul vixen on the cover included:
“To some of the finest musicians in the world who comprise The Salsoul Orchestra – my sincere gratitude.” – Vincent Montana Jr.
That’s who Vince was: always appreciative. So let’s fast forward to the present to flip the appreciation:
From the legions of music lovers, dancers, producers and DJs, to Vincent Montana Jr. – our sincere gratitude for giving us the beauty of music then, now, and forever.