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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.