The Soul Survivors’ Charlie Ingui and DJ Jerry Blavat Recall the Speed Bumps Along the Way
Photo byVampi Soul Records
In the 1960s, the movers and shakers of the Philadelphia music scene would gather one night a month at the home of Jerry Blavat, the top-rated disc jockey and host of TV’s The Discophonic Scene. Famous as “The Geator with the Heator” and “The Boss With the Hot Sauce,” Blavat hosted a group called the Mother’s Club. Music industry heavyweights like Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler and record promoters and songwriters shot pool, ate steak sandwiches from Geno’s and played blackjack at The Geator’s home.
Two members of the club were producer-songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Gamble and Huff would found Philadelphia International Records in 1971; with artists like the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the team would revolutionize soul music. The lush orchestral arrangements that defined TSOP — The Sound of Philadelphia — eventually eclipsed Motown in popularity.
But in 1967, Gamble and Huff were still without a Top 10 hit. Blavat had been alerted by manager Howie Michaels to a blue-eyed soul group from New York City called the Soul Survivors; Blavat says that during a Mother’s Club gathering, Michaels encouraged Gamble and Huff to catch the band live.
“If you did not see them and just heard their record, they were black. You though they were a black band,” says Blavat. “When they were on stage, they were outrageous. The Soul Survivors were moving and dancing and sweating and they got their audience really excited.”
The core of the Soul Survivors was its three singers, brothers Charlie and Richie Ingui and Kenny Jeremiah. Playing a mix of rock, R&B and Motown covers, the band developed a following and regularly packed Philadelphia-area clubs. Charlie recalls that the audience loved their antics.
“One night, one of the guys jumped off the stage and opened up the cash register and started throwing money all around the place.
“That made the papers. After that, a couple of the cash registers would be stacked with ones. We did that in that one club, then in another club we’d tear out the ceiling tiles.”
"Expressway to Your Heart" by the Soul Survivors
Gamble and Huff took Michaels’ advice and liked what they saw. Kenny Gamble soon wrote a song that was custom-made for the group, who would share lead vocals. Gamble told NPR that the inspiration for “Expressway to Your Heart” was a traffic jam on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Expressway.
“I was on my way over to see a friend of mine, a young lady, so the expressway was just backed up. That’s when they first started the expressway. This is ’67, so it was just beginning. I was sitting there for — it seemed like hours, you know what I mean? So I start beating on the dashboard, you know, talking about ‘expressway to your heart, trying to get to you.’”
The Soul Survivors signed with Crimson Records, a label Blavat owned with three partners. Without even recording a demo, Gamble and Huff brought the Soul Survivors into Cameo-Parkway studios in Philadelphia to cut “Expressway to Your Heart.” The band was joined by Huff on piano and bassist Winnie Wilford; Joe Tarsia was the engineer and Gamble and Huff produced the track, which featured Charlie’s lead with Richie singing the bridge. Charlie said the producers’ greatest skill was evident as they worked with the singers.
“Kenny has a great ear for vocals. He just knows the attitude he wants to put in a song. The most important contribution was not only writing the song, but getting the vocals to match the attitude of the song. That’s what they were really good at. Just listen to all the Teddy Pendergrass stuff and all the Eddie Levert [of the O’Jays] stuff, that’s them, straight on, this is what I want, and they’ll keep goin’ for it.”
"Summer in the City" by the Lovin' Spoonful
The track begins with a memorable element: a cacophony of car horns, which Leon Huff said was inspired by the horns used in the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City.” Engineer Joe Tarsia searched the studio for a sound effects record with just the right honks. The effect was overdubbed onto the master before its release.
“Those were the days, all you ever heard was, ‘You gotta have a hook, you gotta have a gimmick.’ Well, I guess you can’t get more gimmicky than that,” says Charlie. “I think it was brilliant.”
The Geator broke the record on The Discophonic Scene and it quickly became a hit. Crimson asked the group, which was still playing seven sets a night at clubs, to record an album. The result, When the Whistle Blows Anything Goes, didn’t receive the care given “Expressway.”
“There’s nothing original, nobody was writing songs at that time with us, so we just did the stuff we did in the bars and that’s about it,” says Charlie. ‘It didn’t take much help from Gamble and Huff to produce that stuff, because all we did was just put it down.”
The band also took a casual approach at the photo shoot for the album’s cover. Designer Richard Price posed the group around children’s school desks; one is wearing a mortar board, another holding a washboard. The original photo showed Kenny Jeremiah clutching a knife in his clenched fist; the weapon was later airbrushed out for the album cover.
“We went up to his studio and just grabbed props," Charlie explains. "We said, ‘Hey, take a picture.’” In those days, there was nothing really serious, we were just guys off the street having a good time. There were no career thoughts and stuff like that, it’s like, ‘Hey man, let’s have some fun. We got a band, we got a record, we’re getting girls, what’s better than this?’”
As the single’s popularity grew, Blavat says he received an offer from his friend Don Kirshner, the legendary producer who at the time managed the Monkees. Kirshner offered to distribute “Expressway” and produce the band’s follow-up. Blavat recognized that it was a great deal but his three partners turned Kirshner down flat. Their intransigence convinced Blavat to give up his interest in Crimson.
“Expressway to Your Heart” reached number four on the Billboard chart, Gamble and Huff’s first appearance in the Top 10. The song was the spark that ignited their career, as it was quickly followed by the Intruders’ “Cowboys to Girls.”
"Explosion in Your Soul" by the Soul Survivors
The Soul Survivors never achieved the success of “Expressway” with follow-up singles “Explosion in Your Soul,” “Impossible Mission,” and “City of Brotherly Love.” When the Soul Survivors failed to come up with a follow-up hit, their careers languished and the group disbanded in the 1970s. It would be decades before Blavat told Charlie of the missed opportunity with Kirshner.
“It took a long time for him to talk about it. I was pretty disappointed,” Charlie said. “When you think about Kirshner in those days, he could have just snapped his fingers and we would have had a follow-up.
“He wanted to sign the band for his label. There would have been a lot of money poured into it. And let’s face it, that would have been the difference.”
"Expressway to Your Heart" by Bruce Springsteen
“Expressway to Your Heart” has been on Bruce Springsteen’s concert setlist; Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes performed “Expressway” in the 1987 film Adventures in Babysitting. But Charlie says that despite their stay on the Top 10, the group has never received a full accounting of the number of copies of “Expressway” that were sold.
“The shame of it all is that we never even got a gold record out of it. Like thousands of other artists, we’re getting screwed every day. I’m sure we sold a million copies but it’s never been certified.”
Kenny Jeremiah died in 2020. When Richie Ingui passed away in 2017, Gamble and Huff released a statement that read, “We send our very sincere condolences to Charlie and Richie’s families. Not only did they bring our Philly Sound and Gamble & Huff to the national spotlight first with the hit song ‘Expressway to Your Heart,’ but they were truly like Brothers to us.
"Richie was a true soul singer who sang from the heart. We will truly miss him, and the unique and mellow voice he brought to of this amazing group, the Soul Survivors.”
Charlie Ingui continues to record and perform.
Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022.
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