Vince Montana: Musician known as 'the Godfather of Disco'

'It was so in-time and so beautiful,' he said of his work with MFSB, 'that it was like a religious feeling'

Most of us have heard the American vibraphonist, percussionist, composer, arranger, conductor and producer Vince Montana, even if we don't know him by name. His mallet prowess with MFSB – Mother Father Sister Brother – the group of session musicians around the mighty production and songwriting team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios, was described as a “secret weapon” in the success of sophisticated “tuxedo soul” 1970s classics like “Could It Be I'm Falling In Love” by the Detroit Spinners, William DeVaughn's “Be Thankful For What You Got” and “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)”, for many years the theme tune to the US TV show Soul Train.

In the mid-1970s Montana founded the Salsoul Orchestra, whose string-laden blend of Philly soul, funk and Latin rhythms became a staple of the disco era with floor-fillers such as his arrangement of the big band favourite “Tangerine”, the title track of the Nice 'N' Naasty album and the oft-revived “Run Away” featuring the powerful vocals of Loleatta Holloway. These paved the way for house music and have been sampled extensively by rap, pop and dance acts.

The “Ooh, I Love It (Love Break)” dub of his 1975 composition “Chicago Bus Stop (Ooh, I Love It)” was recycled by Coldcut for their 1987 remix of Eric B and Rakim's “Paid In Full”, reappeared on Madonna's 1990 hit “Vogue” – which also used MFSB's “Love Is The Message”, another recording Montana had participated in – and popped up again on “Candy Shop” by 50 Cent featuring Olivia in 2005. “Love Is You”, the disco track he produced for Carol Williams in 1977, was sampled by the Italian DJ Spiller for the 2000 chart-topper “Groovejet (If This Ain't Love)”.

Born in 1928, he grew up in the same Italian-American neighbourhood of Philadelphia as Mario Lanza and took up drumming at six to emulate his father. After a schoolteacher suggested he learn the glockenspiel for a Christmas play, his father bought him a xylophone and he began exploring percussion instruments, including chimes, marimba, tympani and the vibraphone. In the early 1950s he played jazz clubs with the trumpeter Clifford Brown and the pianist Red Garland, whose block chord style influenced the way he played vibes. Playing weddings and Bar Mitzvahs at weekends he studied music theory during the week with the composer and conductor Romeo Cascarino. “That was the beginning of my arranging education,” he recalled. “The space is just as important as the notes.”

After a spell in Las Vegas hotels, he made his chart debut in 1959, playing vibes on the dreamy ballad “Venus”, the first US No 1 by Frankie Avalon. In 1967, after helping his friend Joe Tarsia build Sigma Sound, he started working with Gamble and Huff on records by the Soul Survivors and the Intruders. The following year, he helped producer and songwriter Thom Bell realise the symphonic soul of the Delfonics, and was part of the embryonic MFSB, with whom he played on myriad tracks by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O'Jays, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls and the Stylistics. “We were, first of all, good musicians, jazz musicians,” he said. “It would be so in-time and so beautiful, it was like a religious feeling.”

MFSB were integral to the Sound of Philadelphia but didn't share in the success of the company. “Gamble used to pay us $25 a song,” said Montana, who became the prime mover for the en masse defection to Salsoul, the New York label run by the Cayre brothers who wrote him a cheque for $10,000 and tasked him with recording three disco tracks “with a Latin, salsa feel and a good orchestra.”

Cut in 1975, “Salsoul Hustle” proved so popular in the clubs of New York and Philadelphia that Montana was asked to rush back from Scotland, where he was holidaying, to finish the first of the six Salsoul Orchestra albums he helmed over the next three years. The Orchestra used up to 36 string instruments on “Magic Bird Of Fire”, his masterful adaptation of Stravinsky's Firebird that had made such an indelible impression on him at 13 when he had attended a performance conducted by the composer at Philadelphia's Academy of Music.

Despite his “Godfather of disco” sobriquet he was no match for the Cayres and fell out with them. “The three brothers were very sharp business people,” he said. “I signed some bad contracts. They never paid me my royalties.” After three albums for Atlantic, Montana launched his Philly Sound Works label and scored a UK hit with “Heavy Vibes” in 1983. In recent years he arranged and conducted the strings that gave the Pet Shop Boys 1999 single “New York City Boy” its distinctive retro feel.

Vincent Montana Jr, musician, composer, arranger, conductor and producer: born Philadelphia 12 February 1928; married (one son, two daughters); died Cherry Hill, New Jersey 13 April 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Proust as Captain Laure Berthaud in 'Spiral'
tvReview: Gritty, engaging and well-acted - it’s a wonder France’s biggest TV export isn’t broadcast on a more mainstream channel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Carmichael in still from Madam Bovary trailer
film
News
i100
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing