Vincent Montana Jr., the Italian Stallion on the vibes, is a true Philly heavyweight. The “Godfather of Disco” grew up on the South Side of Philadelphia, Eleventh and Wharton, listening to one of the local kids, Mario Lanza, sing at the top of his lungs on the street; he was just one of the many talented luminaries from around the way who were poised to make musical history. The neighborhood was a melting pot that would produce greats in the fields of jazz (Dizzy Gillespie and Red Garland), teen pop (Frankie Avalon and Fabian), and R&B (too many to count).
From an early age, Vincent showed an uncanny knack for rhythm and melody. At the age of eight, he was asked to play the orchestra bells (glockenspiel) in a school Christmas play. He picked it up quickly and added such finesse to it that he was asked how long he’d been playing. He confidently replied, “Oh, many years.” His father saw the innate talent there and set young Vincent up with a small xylophone, but there were no teachers for this specific instrument, so he studied under a pianist. He soon grew tired of the small sound of the xylophone and moved up to the warmer sound of the marimba. After meeting Xavier Cugat’s percussionist, Diablito, he began to work in Latin bands, which is how he started his lifelong love of jazz, dance music, and Latin grooves.
Montana introduced a calm into the eye of the disco storm. His ability to open up the space in a song was magical, and he gave that gift to some of the best producers on the scene. Gamble and Huff were the heart of the Philly sound, but Vincent was the soul. He was never one to push his way to the front of the line, and it kept him from gaining the kind of fame that some of his contemporaries grabbed. But “the truth will out,” and so it’s time to talk about time and times with Mr. Montana.
When you started, you said you played with Charlie Parker?
Yes, we jammed.
How did you meet him?
I’ll show you a write-up. It’s so old, it’s ready to deteriorate. A group of us musicians used to go around to [the jazz clubs] to listen to the latest talent. Charlie Parker was in town, so we went to catch his show. I always carried my vibes in the trunk of my car. We were listening to him play, and when he came off the stage, I said, “Charlie, can I buy you a drink?” He said, “Sure, man.” So I told him, “I’m a musician and would love to sit in with you.” He said, “What do you play?” I told him vibes. He said, “Well, can you play?” “Yeah, I can play.” He said, “If you can’t play…off [the stage] you go.” He was giving me one chance!
So I went out and got my vibes and wheeled them onto the stage. We started playing “Caravan,” [hums] and I got into it. He looks over and says, “Yeah, yeah! Look at that White boy! He’s all right!” [laughs]
You also played with Clifford Brown. Did you ever record with him?
No, we didn’t record together, but we used to work all the Black clubs. The name of the group was Chris Powell and the Five Blue Flames. What a great group! Later, I worked and recorded with Red Garland. I was eighteen or nineteen at the time (I’m eighty now). Those times were great. I played [with] all the best jazz musicians. Me and Red Garland used to have a group; we sounded just like George Shearing, because we had piano, vibes, guitar, bass, and drums. And [when] George Shearing came out with his sound, I said, “Son of a bitch! He stole our sound.” But anyway, he was incredible. I was getting twenty-five dollars a night; I said, “I can’t buy a house with that kind of income. It’s ridiculous!” Clifford went off with Miles Davis. So I got into the Jewish outside work, weekends, which was good-paying money—Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, all the best. I had a great time doing that, and that’s how I worked, like, $150 a job—[back] then, a lot of money. This would give me time to study arranging during the week.
Who were you studying with?
Romeo Cascarino, a classical arranger and conductor. He used to come with some musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra to a club called Venus that I played at. Romeo said, “Why don’t you write that stuff that you play?” And I said, “I can just about read music.” “What ? You can’t read music. How do you do that?” And I said, “I don’t know, I just play.” At that time, I was a master of chord changes. So I went to study with him. He pulled out these little books that were scores, and he said, “Debussy. Ravel. You know, the French writers.” I looked at the music and thought, “Is that all it is?” It was so simply written, I could follow it. I was so fascinated that I started to study. He suggested to get this book, do that, do this, do that. There were no vibe teachers at that time, so I studied with a piano teacher too: for notes and timing—“rhythmic articulation.” And that was the beginning of my “arranging education.”
The first record you ever made was with Frankie Avalon in 1959?
And was that just from knowing him around the neighborhood?
No, it was from his agent, Bob Marcucci [of Chancellor Records]. Remember him? He had Fabian and Frankie.
You played vibes on “Venus”? Or percussion?
Vibes…and orchestra bells, and sometimes they used me on timpani. I really played drums for a long while in school, and that’s why my dance music is so percussive, because I would slow these guys down on drums. Look, I don’t want this, and I don’t want that. All I want is T-I-M-E…time, and a fill here and a fill there. The rest of the orchestration is doing this, and you’re overstepping their shoes.
You put in the space. I think that is what separates your work from a lot of the other guys: there is always that space in there. That makes it breathe.
There are notes and there is space. The space is just as important as the notes.
It holds the notes.
You’re damned right! If I want to fill it up, it would be like lightning, but the rest of it is time. Just listen to my slow recordings…a lot of these jazz guys—I’m not putting anybody down—but they can’t play a slow tempo (like 50 BPM). You listen to my ballads, and it lowers your heart rate. What I play technically is more than what [most players] will ever play in a fast tempo. [claps out beat] They can play all the fast tempos they want. They can play any note, every note, just bang ’em! And they think it’s jazz, but that’s not so. You’ve got to play those scales, baby! Charlie Parker was the one that really worked my mind up. I had a sax player, John Bonnie—he passed away. He played just like Charlie Parker, and he always wanted to play tenor. I said, “No no no! You play alto. That’s what Charlie played, and you sound just like him.” “I don’t sound like Charlie. You kidding? I’d never sound like Charlie.” I said, “Look, just play.” What I would do when I got him into record most of the Salsoul Orchestra stuff, I’d say to the engineer, “Record him.” “Don’t you want to run him down?” I said, “Nooooo.” We took about four or five takes, and I’d always use the first one. What a feel he had! There are a lot of sax players in Philly who ask me, “How come you don’t use me?” I said, “You don’t play like Johnny.” He was incredible! Johnny, I was so unhappy when he passed away eight or nine years ago.
Anyway, the style of music was changing, and I had to go out and get work other than jazz. So, around 1968... [sings “La-La (Means I Love You)”]
Right! The Delfonics.
All the Gamble and Huff music. There’s almost ten years there.
You worked a lot.
Night and day, 24/7, and either I played—vibes, orchestra bells, marimba, timpani—or wrote arrangements.
How did you get involved with Gamble and Huff?
They heard me play vibes at Joe Tarsia’s studio, Sigma Sound. In fact, I used to go there to help Joe put the ceiling tiles up. Joe said, “I have to put a console in here. What should I do?” I said, “I’ll bring my radial saw tomorrow…Okay, Joe…Zzzzzz!” Right across the wall!
You helped build the studio.
Just to my knowledge, ’cause I used to do a lot of work on my own house, and I had a lot of experience in building. So I asked, “Joe, how are you going to pay me?” He said, “Well, I can give you twenty-four hours of mono or one hour of twenty-four-track.” [laughs] You get that?
So you got to know them from being around the studio?
I was there. I had my vibes there. “Vincent, you play vibes? Why don’t you work on my session? I’ll give you twenty-five dollars.” So that is how I started getting work. Tommy Bell wanted my sound…Gamble also, on some of his recordings. The first thing we did with Gamble was [Soul Survivors’] “Expressway to Your Heart.” [sings it] Yeah, one of my favorites!
You were talking about how you play slow and quiet; that “space” and sense of time seems so integral to the Philly sound. Is that a product of where you’re from and what you heard growing up? Or is it something that was inside you?
It comes from within. A group of great musicians, which were the rhythm section, came together as one. Each brought their soul and their style to each recording. They were the integral part of the Philly sound. My music is me, my music is who I am, it’s what I studied, and it’s what I’m made of. That was all I ever was, was music. And I can say the same about the musicians that I played with at that time, on all those hits.
How did MFSB come into being? How did that sound develop?
It really developed from our rhythm section. It wasn’t that Gamble and Huff brought music in and we read the music. We had a song to record, and we created “our part” on our instrument for them. I worked with Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker, Earl Young, et cetera. It was incredible! We were, first of all, good musicians, jazz musicians. We put our feel into the Philly sound. That’s the gold we had. That’s chemistry. We had the chemistry and we’d lock. I used to get a charge when we played. It would be so in-time and so beautiful, it was like a religious feeling.
I’ve got to tell you about [conga player] Larry Washington’s funeral. I spoke to Bunny Sigler, who had sung “The Lord’s Prayer” at a previous funeral. He sang it so beautifully. I had to follow him. There were about six to seven hundred people there in the church, and he got up in front of them and started singing so quietly you could hear a pin drop. Then he started to build; he got louder, and at the end he was screaming! People went nuts! [laughs] Then he said, “Here’s Vincent Montana.” I said, “It’s hard to follow a dog act, and Bunny Sigler. I’ll never do that again.” People laughed, and then I told them about all the work we did together. The night before the funeral, I put together a CD of all of the recordings of mine that Larry played conga on. As the people entered the funeral, they heard dum-bop dum-dum-bop! They were grooving. That’s what we were there for.
That was him in those grooves.
You know at my funeral they are going to play my stuff. I’ve told my children, “Don’t ever let them forget my music.” I’ve put a lot of time and my life into my music.
It is your life.
When you started Salsoul, were you still working for Gamble?
Whenever you call me, I’ll do the job for you. You know? I’m like a plumber. You call me, I’ll do the job for you. I also paper-hang. [laughs] That’s what you are; you’re a musician for hire.
Did you ever feel that you were kind of putting one over on people, in the sense that you were making dance music for the masses, but, at the same time, you were instilling it with a lot of jazz and a lot of musical knowledge?
That was my little smile. People would listen and say, “This is different music.” Yes, it is different. Because I brought my instrumentation—strings, horns, et cetera—my years of study, my Latin and jazz feel into the dance music. And that’s what I did.
If you listen to my first hit, “Salsoul Hustle,” I had Charles Collins on drums. You’re going to laugh at me when I say it—I think all music is relevant—he played a polka beat! The bass drum goes one two three, one two three, [beatboxes] mixed with the salsa groove. [sings] It’s a polka—same beat—no different. I’m telling you, that’s where I get my crazy ideas. They say, “Oh, Vince is crazy.” But my ideas work, and they sold millions of records.
How did you end up at Salsoul?
I had a Latin vocal group. I went to Mericana Records—the Latin Label before it became Salsoul—to meet Ken Cayre to see if I could sign them. I played the tape for him, and he wasn’t interested; he wanted something different. Joe Bataan came in and told Ken who I was and about my credentials. Ken Cayre says, “Oh, that’s great.” He says, “We want to do a thing on an orchestra. Could you write for a big orchestra like MFSB?” And I says, “MFSB, I’m part of that. That was basically my idea way back.” So he took me in to see his brother Joe, Joe Cayre, and Joe says, “You can do this? Well, here,” and he wrote me out a check. I folded it up and put into my pocket. I didn’t look at it. “In a couple of weeks, I want you to do three songs with a good orchestra.” I said okay. “But it has to have that Latin feel, that salsa feel.” I says, “Yeah, you got it!” From my roots. So anyway, I took the check, and on the bus home, I looked at it. It was ten thousand dollars! I never saw ten thousand dollars in my life at that time. That was a lot of money, ’cause Gamble used to pay us twenty-five dollars a song.
Even for arranging?
For arranging, he wanted to give us fifty to sixty dollars. When I went to Salsoul, Gamble called me and said, “You’re giving our sound away.” But I wasn’t giving it away. It was mine to give. I told him that anytime he wanted my expertise, I’d give it to him too.
You didn’t work on Joe Bataan’s Salsoul record?
No, I didn’t, but he got me started with that company. I always thank [Joe] for that. And what happened with Salsoul—one thing is, they did give me my break. Salsoul, with the three brothers, were very sharp business people. I never studied law, so I signed some bad contracts, and we had a problem with royalties. They never paid me my royalties. They made millions of dollars on me.
But even through their greed, they put my music out there. What can do? I am still alive, able to write. You know, like they say, “That’s the Salsoul sound.” I say that’s not the Salsoul sound, that’s the “Vince Montana sound.” Because Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could never put the Salsoul Orchestra together again.
Tom Moulton tried it, and everybody else in the world tried it. They couldn’t do it. It was too jumbled up and nervous, the way they produced it: “Bring the congas in here!” Once you get that, you think you stole the formula from me, [but] you don’t have it. Because it’s got to be placed right. We already talked about the “space” in the music. It all has to be put together, [or] it just doesn’t work. It’s no good.
It’s like paint by numbers. You can get a good facsimile, but it’s not the real deal.
Absolutely, you got the idea. And it never worked, and it never could work again. Because it’s me that came out [through that music]. It’s my inspiration. That’s the gift that God gave me, and I appreciate that. It’s the God-given talent that all the musicians that I worked with had.
You played on Cliff Nobles’s “The Horse.” That one song is such an anthem for Philly, but also it’s a dance craze.
They didn’t know what to call it. The vocal was the [A-side]. But the B-side was hotter. It was such a groove, and it took off!
It seems like the idea of a dance with a name and specific moves follows you through your career.
The first was “Salsoul Hustle.” We didn’t even know what to call it until some DJ from New York came down and said, “Why don’t you call it ‘The Hustle’? I’ll show you how to dance it.” The same way I got the idea for “Do the Bus Stop.” In Chicago, they used to wait for the bus and do fours [shows a box step] because it was so damn cold.
The thing about Salsoul is that it does have the smooth, sophisticated Philly sound in there, but it also has an injection of a New York kind of urgency that’s different from MFSB or even the European disco that was coming out around the same time.
All right. I’ll explain that to you. MFSB was with five saxophones. I don’t like saxophones that much. I like the bottom, which is the baritone sax, and I like the top, which is the alto sax. I combine them with my brass. French horn and flute gives it good tone and a classical touch.
Five saxophones sound out of tune to me. I could never get them to tune up. That’s why the Spanish don’t use saxophones. They use brass, and I got that influence from when I was with Diablito back in the day. I eliminated the saxes. I used strings, brass, and a Latino rhythm section. I’ll tell you a story about a percussion session with the congas, bongos, and timbales.
When I got into the studio, I had incredible Latino players from New York. They have that laid-back feel when they play, [beatboxes a Latin rhythm] where Larry Washington and the Black players play right on time. [beatboxes] I loved the combined feel. But to record them together, they wanted to kill each other—it was chaos. So I gave the Latino players twenty bucks and sent them to the Chinese restaurant. I started with the Black players; I put Larry Washington and his crew on first, and when the Latinos came back, they did their thing. I didn’t let either hear the other, but when I put the two together, it was incredible. That’s how I got that initial Salsoul feel…and for every other song that followed.
Did you start Philly Sound Works as a direct result of your parting ways with Salsoul?
No, I started my record label after 1982. After Salsoul, I went on to Atlantic Records and developed the Montana Orchestra and Goody Goody. I did three LPs: I Love Music, A Dance Fantasy, and Goody Goody.
How did “Heavy Vibes” come about?
I’ll tell you a story about that. There was a football strike at the time, so I put out a vocal recording called “No Football, No More” as a joke. The B-side was called “Heavy Vibes,” because vibes weigh 125 pounds and were heavy to carry all those years. Some DJs in New York flipped the record and started playing “Heavy Vibes.” Izzy Sanchez remixed it, and I released it on 12-inch. The stores were calling the distributors wanting the record. It really took off.
A big, big distributor called me [at home] and said, “I want ten thousand records.” I turned to my wife [makes a shocked face] and said, “Well, we’re pressing some, and I’ll let you know.” He calls back a couple of days later and asks where his records are. So I told him I don’t have ten to fifteen thousand dollars to press the records. So he offered to put the money up and press them himself, and the rest is history.
And that’s how you started PSW?
Well, I had a little money, and I wanted to start a label. And I wanted to show that I can go in all directions, you know, not only just the Philly sound—like, “Heavy Vibes” is a little jazzy. It has a jazzy touch to it, [but] I always liked dance music. My tempos are all to do with dance. It makes me happy to see people dance to my music. Whether it’s called jazz, disco, Philly sound, or house music—it’s just the dance music of the day. It’s true. When I worked in nightclubs, people used to dance by and ask, “You know this song?” “No, but I’ll have it next week.” So they would come in the following week, and I would play their request. I have a repertoire of songs close to five thousand.
For Philly Sound Works, I released more of a scaled-down, rhythmic club style of music, like “It Looks Like Love,” “Who Needs Enemies (With a Friend Like You),” “What Happened to the Music,” and “South Soul Party Mix.” “Heavy Vibes” was the start of it back in ’82, and it’s still being played today. My grooves and riffs are being sampled thirty years later. Even Mariah Carey: “Out of Control” [samples] “It’s Good for the Soul.” I’ve worked with some of today’s best artists and producers: Masters at Work, Nuyorican Soul, the Braxtons (“The Boss”), the Pet Shop Boys (“New York City Boy”), and, most recently, Dimitri from Paris—“The Way That You Love Me.” I love it! Every day, I am working with music, writing fully orchestrated arrangements on my Apple computer for concerts with my Philly Sound Orchestra. I hope someday you could see and hear my orchestra live—just like the good old days. It would be my greatest pleasure.