Written by Bernard Lopez
Vincent Montana Jr. (Vince Montana) (1928-2013) who created the Salsoul Orchestra in an in depth DiscoMusic.com interview. From his days with Gamble and Huff in Philly to worldwide fame. Discover why even the Pet Shop Boys sought out this musical genius.
Much has been written about Vincent Montana Jr., the creator of the Salsoul Orchestra and one of the key figures behind the "Philly Sound," but who is Vince Montana really? What led him to create the works that would help shape Disco and dance in the 1970s and 80s and still allow him to be sought out by the likes of Masters at Work and The Pet Shop Boys as we enter a new millennium?
Vincent Montana, who is of Italian descent, was born on February 12th of 1928 and was raised in the working class neighborhood of South Philly. This section of Philadelphia had some elements straight out of a Godfather movie with many colorful characters and one could easily slip into this way of life at a young age. Vince Montana however chose music instead and never looked back.
Vincent Montana recalls that he started playing the drums from the age of six since his father did as well, but that a grade school teacher recommended he play the orchestra bells for a school play named "The Celebrated Waltz." Telling the teacher that he wasn't sure that he could do it, the teacher took the time to show Montana the basics and encouraged him to practice and keep at it. Vince said it took a little perseverance, but he was soon hooked and studied music intensively after that.
Montana strongly credits this experience with his ultimate desire to play vibes and believes that being exposed to the arts and music at an early age is something that no child should be denied.
Over time Vincent Montana mastered the drums, vibraharp, orchestra bells, chimes, marimba and the tympani. Playing the vibes is what he is best known for. For us lay people, the vibraharp (or simply vibes) consists of 36 aluminum bars of varying size that are struck with a mallet. Vince Montana plays with two or four mallets which he hand wraps with cotton yarn. The bars in turn sit atop pipes with motors that resonate and which can then be sustained via a foot pedal. The vibes are considered a percussive instrument and similar to the xylophone and marimba which have wooden keys. Watching and hearing Vincent Montana play the vibes up-close in his studio was a rare treat indeed.
As we continue to discuss Vincent Montana's musical beginnings he brings out a stack of ancient music books and promptly lays them out in front of me so I could get a good look at what they contain. He flips through the pages of charts and music theories and explains some of them. The next book he brings out is the one that really got me interested because it contains sheet music for many of the Salsoul Orchestra's Disco hits. Even though I can't read music Montana explains what some of the notes mean and I felt the thrill of seeing and hearing as he hummed what the musicians saw as they played their respective parts.
Soon after, the focus shifts to the orchestra and its many components such as the violin, viola and cello which Vincent Montana then goes about describing with words, hand gestures and finally drawing on paper the figure eight path that sound waves take through a violin. Also how playing more than one violin at a time (or just about any instrument) as in the context of an orchestra gives out many different harmonics that otherwise wouldn't be heard. "No two players play alike; no two instruments sound alike." He seems to revel in this notion and one knows damn well Vincent Montana has exploited this phenomenon to its fullest. This in essence explains what Vincent Montana is aiming at with his work, a large orchestra coming together as one with many overtones, or would it be undertones, producing sounds yet unheard. The resulting sounds will play with your mind and senses or as he describes "make the hairs on your back and arms stand up."
Playing with the Stars
Rewinding back to his teens Vincent Montana wanted to continue to learn music and get some real-world experience, So at the age of sixteen he began playing in bands at various Philly jazz clubs. Having the opportunity to play with the likes of Charlie "Bird" Parker, Sarah Vaughn and countless others, Vincent Montana was able to interact with true legends and hone his craft. One may wonder how he got to play with Charlie Parker? Simple, he asked if he could sit in with the band one night. That one moment of courage acted as a catalyst that saw him go on to play with other great Jazz musicians and groups of the era.
After making a name for himself in and around Philly, Vincent Montana decides to travel about the U.S. in the 1950s and early sixties with a brief stop-over in Las Vegas. He and the other musicians would travel around and play the popular dance songs of the day for whatever money they could get. Vince then returned to Philly to work as a session musician playing behind the likes of Chubby Checker and other Cameo-Parkway artists throughout the sixties.
In the early seventies Vincent Montana landed a spot on television as a band member with the Michael Douglas Show after being the last musician to audition for the part.
Montana and the Philly Sound
Unfortunately, being on the show didn't allow Vince to play as much or be as creative as he had wanted. After being with the Michael Douglas Show for about a year Vince went back to playing in and around Philly and soon became an integral part of the "Philly Sound." This was due in large part to his earlier works with Cameo/Parkway and friends like Thom Bell (Delfonics) as well as Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff who he would work with for about seven years.
Vince recalls a time when he was wheeling in his vibraharp into the studio and saw Leon Huff sitting patiently in the lobby. Leon was a songwriter and piano player and both were friends so Vince Montana asked what he was waiting for to which Leon replied "I've been waiting for four hours to show Bernie Lowe (then head of the studio) some music I've been working on." He then asked Vince that if he saw Bernie, to tell him that he has been waiting and could he please see him to which Vince replied "Don't worry, some day you'll own the building." Sure enough Leon teamed up with Kenny Gamble to form the legendary Philadelphia International record label and now owns the studio.
Huff's future partner Gamble would come into the studio and sing backup along with his future wife Dee Dee Sharp. Vincent Montana says the whole experience was almost like magic and they never stepped on anyone else's toes. Who could argue when such great talents as Norman Harris on guitar, Ron Baker on bass, Leon Huff on piano, Earl Young on drums and Vincent Montana on vibes were creating music? These were just a few of the many session musicians that made up the rhythm section of the "Philly Sound." Others included the late Larry Washington who played congas and who many of today's DJ/remixers unknowingly sample.
Montana describes Norman's sounds as very Wes Montgomery-like and very Jazz. The late bassist Ron Baker loved the style of the late James Jamerson from Motown, Bobby Eli was very electric with the wah wahs, T. J. Tindel with the rock feel... it was a great mix. Nonetheless, New York musicians called them (the Philly guys) Disco players, which Vincent Montana resented because he says they "were all great Jazz musicians," but playing Jazz at $25.00 a night just didn't pay the bills so they had to play what made money. We simply "imported Jazz into a funky dance music." Motown started the dance era and was funky and Vincent Montana says that they (Philly) elaborated on it and made it a little more sophisticated with the strings, french horns... He is proud to have been a part of what Motown and Philly did for music.
One of the first records Montana worked on, and one he still can't get enough of, was "Expressway To Your Heart" by The Soul Survivors. The work just snowballed and he continued in the capacity as a session musician, arranger and/or producer with many artists and groups. They included Blue Magic, Brenda and the Tabulations, The Delfonics, Loleatta Holloway, The Intruders, Grace Jones, Eddie Kendricks, Barbara Mason, Johnny Mathis, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, The O' Jays, Billy Paul, The Spinners, The Stylistics, The Tramps and Carol Williams.
Now making our way into his family room we see all the gold record awards Vincent Montana has garnered over the years for his work with the above groups. Montana takes us through the room and explains the significance of each award and photo. Seeing and hearing all this is when one suddenly realizes the unique position he has enjoyed during his career and also the scope and breathe of his work.
Even with all this under his belt this was not to be his crowning achievement. The future sound of the Salsoul Orchestra was still to come.
Salsoul is Born:
Less than a hundred miles away in New York City was the home of a small, but very popular Latin record label. The Cayre brothers (Joe, Stan and Ken) who were involved in the textile industry and ironically not even Hispanic ran this label under the umbrella name of Caytronics.
Originally, Vincent Montana went to Ken Cayre in 1974 not to pitch the Salsoul Orchestra concept, but a Puerto Rican musical group he had discovered and was working with. Ken said "Oh, no more Latin music" and turned the offer away. However while they were talking Joe Bataan, who was in the next office, overheard them and came out and coaxed Vincent Montana into telling Ken about his Disco orchestra concept.
Vincent Montana had met Joe Bataan a few times before at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound and had told Bataan of his long standing desire to put together a Disco orchestra and blend the Latin sounds of Salsa with Soul. Not only was it a blending of Salsa and Soul, but also Classical a little Big Band with a little Rock flavor thrown in for good measure. As a matter of fact the "rainbow" in the Salsoul logo was envisioned to show this harmonious blending of many different cultures and sounds.
Ken then brought Vincent Montana in to meet Joe Cayre, who was the president of the label. Well, the Cayre brothers loved the idea since they were looking for a Philly style sound of their own. They told Montana it was a go-ahead and wrote a check so he could begin work on three songs one of which was to become Salsoul's first hit, The Salsoul Hustle. Vincent Montana simply put the check in his pocket without even looking at it, but when he arrived home was shocked to discover that it was for $10,000! It was the most money he had seen at one time and he and his wife were speechless.
Vincent Montana and the Cayre brothers settled on the name Salsoul shortly after their first meeting as they were walking down the streets of New York on their way to have lunch. The name Salsoul had already been used as the title on one of Joe Bataan's songs and was chosen to show the roots of this new direction in music: the juxtaposition of Salsa and Soul. A new record label also named Salsoul Records was begun to promote the music that would soon change the face of Disco and dance.
Popularity of the Salsoul Orchestra:
Vincent Montana recalls that he wasn't sure how the Salsoul concept would fly. He worked on the three songs he was contracted to do which were titled Salsoul Hustle, Nice Vibes and Dance A Little Closer (the last would be used on the Salsoul album with Charo).
Soon after finishing work on the initial three songs Vince and his family went on vacation to his wife's native Scotland, but were immediately summoned back to New York. The reason was that one of the songs, Salsoul Hustle, was taking off and the Cayre brothers wanted him to come up with more material to meet the demand. Vince soon returned to continue working on new material to complete the Salsoul Orchestra's self titled first album (# SZS 5501, S8Z 5501).
Vocals on the Salsoul tracks were by the late Barbara Ingram, Evette Benton and Carla Benson. They were collectively better known as, "The Sweethearts of Sigma." Not only were they on the Salsoul tracks, but on many other Philly tracks as well.
The debut Salsoul Orchestra album would propel Vince Montana and his 37-member orchestra to international fame. Being that they were real musicians and not just over-dubs in the studio they routinely played to enthusiastic audiences at such places as Radio City Music Hall and Roseland in New York and elsewhere around the world. To further solidify their success the Salsoul Orchestra were the recipients of numerous awards the most notable being Billboard's Top Disco Orchestra of the Year for three years in a row (1975, 1976 and 1977). And the accolades continued with Record World's Vince Aletti saying that "This is the album of the moment and I suspect that nearly every track will be cropping up on top 10 lists for some time to come." Nothing could be further from the truth because even after more than twenty years my e-mail inbox at DiscoMusic.com is constantly filled with top ten lists from people around the world and it usually include at least one Salsoul Orchestra song.
Other songs and albums would follow for Montana and his Salsoul Orchestra such as the popular track Magic Bird Of Fire which was based on the works of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and utilized a thirty-six member string section. This song was also used by channel 17, a Philadelphia TV station, as the theme music to its 8 o'clock movies for many years.
Here is what Vince had to say about the making of the Salsoul Orchestra's Magic Bird of Fire:
When I was thirteen years-old, my father took me to The Academy of Music in Philadelphia to see Stravinsky conduct "The Firebird Suite." The performance stayed with me for many years and so when I was producing The Salsoul Orchestra, I decided to make my own interpretation of it. I studied the original score, condensed it and borrowed excerpts that I liked and found exciting. It took me a month to extract the parts I wanted from the original score and to notate it for my own recording Magic Bird of Fire. For the original Salsoul Orchestra session, I recorded the basic rhythm track one day, then booked the studio for 36 strings for the next day. Normally I use six violins, two violas and one cello; but for that particular production, I needed to quadruple the strings—twenty four (24) violins, eight violas, four celli! Then I doubled that! The next session was with brass: four French horns, three trumpets, three trombones, one baritone sax and one tuba. After that I had the harpist record. I finished the session off with tympani and some percussion instruments.
Nice N' Nasty And The Wizard of Oz
In 1976 the Nice 'N' Nasty album was released and yielded such wonderful tracks as "It's Good For The Soul," "Nice 'N' Nasty," "Don't Beat Around The Bush," and "Ritzy Mambo." "Ritzy Mambo" was inspired by all the music he heard one night at a Latin music awards show. In 1978 Vincent Montana and The Salsoul Orchestra tackled The Wizard Of Oz in their rendition called "Up The Yellow Brick Road," which featured the track "Ease On Down The Road" along with a West Side Story and Fiddler On The Roof medley.
Loleatta Holloway and Vince Montana
Another all-time classic Salsoul track is the much-sampled "Runaway" with vocals by the late Loleatta Holloway (she also did "Love Sensation" and "Hit And Run"): Vincent Montana says that Loleatta Holloway was an absolute joy to work with and someone of immense talent. (The two will reunite for a live performance in March, 2000 at the World Disco Classic Hustle Convention in Florida).
The song "Runaway" was to have originally been sung by Vincent Montana's daughter Denise Montana who also did the vocals on "#1 Dee Jay." She became ill and Loleatta Holloway was called in at the last moment to provide the vocals. Loleatta was brought to New York where Vincent Montana played her a tape of what the melody should sound like and she pretty much practiced it on the hour long drive down to Sigma Studios in Philly. "I still remember when she sang that song. She tore up the mic with the song and I just left it alone" recalls Vince.
Differences Between M.F.S.B. and the Salsoul Orchestra
Many large Disco orchestras became popular at around the same time including Philly's M.F.S.B. Some may say that there were many similarities between The Salsoul Orchestra and MFSB, which Vincent Montana also worked with. On the contrary, the Salsoul Orchestra was more of a strings based sound while M.F.S.B. was a bit more Big Band in nature with five saxophones, which to Montana never sounded quite right and which he omitted from Salsoul's lineup with the exception of the baritone sax.
The Salsoul Orchestra required tremendous amounts of production work in the studio. This is all at a time before the ubiquitous Apple Macintosh computer and automation came into the picture. Mixing twenty-four tracks was laborious, but needed to be done right especially with all those instruments. They always tried to capture the energy of the performance onto tape. Take a look at the 12" single for the track Salsoul 3001. At the bottom of the label is a notice that states "Warning: This song could blow your speakers." The engineers had a difficult time cutting that record since its dynamic content kept on damaging their cutting needles. It has been said that a system cranked to its "max" at an event in California cracked a cinder-block wall while playing this record.
Vincent Montana On: A Tom Moulton Mix?
According to Vincent Montana, Kenny Present and not Tom Moulton mixed most of his original Salsoul tracks. "Kenny had great ears . . . Tom Moulton never did any of my Salsoul Orchestra tracks. Tom used to use someone named Arthur Stoppe who was a great engineer" Arthur was the one who worked the controls and actually did the work. He was also the one who recorded Magic Bird Of Fire, which was essentially recorded live after almost seven hours of preparation.
A Salsoul Christmas Is Born:
Now that Vincent Montana and The Salsoul Orchestra had proven that their sound was commercially viable they embarked on making a Christmas album that was to become a classic.
Released in 1976 the original Salsoul Christmas album cover produced a flurry of controversy and outrage because of its risqu cover art which Vincent Montana had no control over. They utilized the same photo as on Salsoul's Nice and Nasty album, of the now famous "almost bare-assed" woman sporting a T-shirt saying: "Dance your ass off to Salsoul."
Since many were offended that such a cover was used on a Christmas album someone at Salsoul quickly took a piece of paper and clumsily placed it over the model's body to make it appear as if it were a Santa suit albeit green with white fur. The wording on the T-shirt was also changed to read "Dance to Salsoul." Take a careful look at the album cover and you'll see the cheesy cover-up. Only the first few thousand in the run contained the uncensored cover. The cover girl used was Ellen Michaels, a prominent New York model who appeared on countless album covers during the 1970s and a Playboy Playmate for March, 1972.
The Split With Salsoul
More songs and albums followed for Vince Montana and the Salsoul Orchestra including collaborations with vocalists such as the incomparable Loleatta Holloway (Runaway) and Latin star Charo (Dance A Little Bit Closer).
During the years Montana was with Salsoul he was responsible for so much of its success, but nonetheless all good things must come to end. Originally Vince Montana was to have become a business partner in this new venture, but relations between he and the Cayre brothers began to deteriorate over royalty payments. This ultimately led to legal proceedings and Vincent Montana leaving the Salsoul organization. Obviously Vince was not happy with the outcome, but nonetheless says that the Cayre brothers were the ones who gave him the opportunity to expose the world to his music and for that he will always be grateful.
Vincent Montana does say that "there's no longer Salsoul Orchestra, I am Salsoul Orchestra and always will be." Apparently many had tried to take the helm after his departure, but it just never worked.
What soon followed after his split from Salsoul was the birth of The Montana Orchestra and a contract with Atlantic Records in 1978. One of the early Montana releases for Atlantic was the LP "I Love Music" and a 12" single (DSKO 104) containing the funky jazz track Warp Factor II on the "A" side and on the flip side A Dance Fantasy (music inspired by Close Encounter of the Third Kind.
Other releases on Atlantic included the 12" single (DSKO 122) #1 Dee Jay by Goody Goody which featured vocals by his oldest daughter Denise. When asked how the name Goody Goody came about, he and his wife just started to sing "Goody Goody for you . . ." #1 Dee Jay is a classic and should be in every Disco aficionados record collection.
The Formation of Philly Sound Works
By the dawning of the 1980s Vincent Montana had formed his own record label called Philly Sound Works (PSW) to put out his own product.
Among the many releases on PSW was the track Heavy Vibes, which is still sought out by DJs today for it's awesome groove. This song actually began life as a quasi-rap song called No Football No More and was done to poke fun at the NFL strike back in 1982. Vincent Montana was surprised to find that radio stations began playing it. Club DJs also loved the instrumental riff of the song so much that a re-worked instrumental version called Heavy Vibes (Heavier Vibes) was promptly released. "Heavy" pertaining to the heavy 125 pound weight of the actual vibraharp.
Vince Montana In Today's Dance Music
It didn't end all there. Vincent Montana's unique writing and arranging qualities have been sought out by today's most well-known artists and producers. Vincent Montana has worked on many projects such as The Braxtons, Incognito, Masters At Work with Little Louie Vega/ & Kenny Dope arranging the album for Nuyorican Soul, which featured many great musicians like Tito Puente, George Benson, Roy Ayers and vocals by India on a cover of Runaway. Vincent Montana also had a hand on India's To Be In Love, which sold well over 500,000 copies. Most recently Montana worked with David Morales arranging and providing creative input on the retro sounding hit New York City Boy for the Pet Shop Boys. Vince would have loved to mix more for the "strings," but Morales won out and didn't give them as much prominence.
Although Vince Montana is firmly rooted in traditional instruments and ways, he has managed to embrace newer styles and to use technology to his advantage. In his studio he eagerly goes to work on his Apple Macintosh computer using a program called Encore to write music that at one time he would have had to laboriously write by hand. Make no mistake about it, back in the old days Vincent Montana says, "We had no automation whatsoever in the studio." He would have killed to have these toys back when he was creating the music for the Salsoul Orchestra. He feels that he could have produced even more. Recently he bought an Apple G3 PowerBook, which he takes on the road to write and compose music when the whim strikes him. He sometimes gets into a spurt and will work from eight in the morning till three the following morning.
There's More to Vincent Montana than Music
We somehow get on the topic of health to which Vincent Montana starts extolling the virtues of concentrated oregano and its many benefits. After we pop some oregano capsules our discussion turns to the "way of life" and the topic of drugs during those years. So many of Vince's peers succumbed to a life of excess most notably drugs. This all came with a high price: it cost many of them their lives.
Vincent Montana says that he never wanted anything to do with drugs even though it was all around him. He had a family and saw first hand how it could destroy great talent. Music is his drug and he has no problem producing plenty of it. Another thing is that Vincent Montana likes to keep to himself and has many hobbies to keep him occupied. With so much effort put into his music, one would think that Vince wouldn't have time for anything else, but nothing could be further from the truth.
While we are sitting at the kitchen table, Vincent Montana excuses himself and soon returns with several finely detailed model airplanes he has built. He's been doing it for as long as he can remember and his attention to detail is impeccable.
Of course just building tabletop models are no fun. He also makes actual flying models with huge wingspans of about six feet and takes them to the air with his son Vincent Montana III. These not so little guys are capable of going pretty fast and he also divulges that crash landings are not uncommon.
Besides his passion for model plane building, Vince enjoys painting with oils. He is influenced by and greatly admires the work of the Spanish painter Picasso and has reproductions of his work hanging on the walls of his home.
Vincent Montana contemplates using one of his paintings on the cover of his upcoming album and asks my opinion and of course I oblige. This new album is due out in the spring of 2000 and consists of very laid back instrumentation and soothing vibes. It's tentatively titled "This One's For You" and consists of fifteen songs. Visit Vincent Montana's website for more information or to order. The late Larry Washington made his final appearance on this album playing congas. Unfortunately, a rather young Larry passed away soon after. Vince attended the funeral and said that Bunny Sigler sang The Lord's Prayer in such a way that left everyone breathless. "Larry was a dear friend and is missed by all."
Sometime between March 31 and April 2 of 2000 the legendary vibes player, writer, producer, arranger and orchestra leader Vincent Montana Jr. will be presented with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" at the World Disco Classic 2000 Hustle Convention in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It is meant to acknowledge his contribution and dedication to music, which has influenced and profoundly affected many artists, listeners and dancers alike. Visit the World Disco web site for more information on this historic event.
It was an honor and a privilege to have been invited to Vince Montana's home and have a chance to speak in-depth with him and his family about his career and his personal life. I sincerely thank all of them for their gracious hospitality. His passion for music, art, family and his hobbies didn't fall on deaf ears and I hope everyone has a better understanding of this very talented, but often over-looked artist. Also thanks to Drew Axlerod and Marc Fisher of the World Disco Classic organization for their assistance. Go on, pick up your copy of any Salsoul Orchestra record and experience the magic all over again.
Written by Bernard F. Lopez (February 29, 2000)
Interview as featured on http://www.discomusic.com
Copyright © 2000 by Bernard F. Lopez
All rights reserved
It is with great sadness that we must report that Vince Montana passed away on April 13, 2013. According to a post on his Facebook page, he was surrounded by family and passed away quietly at the age of 85. A true musical genius who was a musician, writer, arranger, producer and extraordinary vibe player who played on almost all the tunes that came out of Philly is gone, but will never be forgotten. Condolences and words of sympathy go out to his family and friends.
Recommended Listening and Reading
Vincent Montana Jr.: Heavy Vibes
Temposphere CD and LP (2002) Finally, a fitting and complete tribute to Vince Montana Jr. and his post Salsoul Orchestra output on Philly Sound Works. This deluxe double CD set and triple vinyl release compilation brings together such grooves as Heavy Vibes, It Looks Like Love, Philly Bus Beats, Let Me Work On You and others. Vinyl includes 3 songs not on the CD. Listen to Vince jam with the likes of Earl Young, Larry Washington, Ronnie Baker, Ron Kersey, Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Evette Bentos. Includes liner notes with the interview you just read by DiscoMusic.com's Bernard Lopez. Now available