In 1971, Sigma Sound Studios was the epicenter of soul music in Philadelphia.
The Stylistics recorded their self-titled debut album there. Laura Nyro and LaBelle cut the collaborative album I will perform a miracle. Todd Rundgren performed a live radio show.
And that year another, lesser-known band also made music at Sigma that has stood the test of time.
West Philly teenage band The Ultimates recorded a sweet and heartfelt song called “Why I Love You” which garnered little attention when it was released.
But now the song has been rediscovered as a lost soul music classic. And it gives the trio of Monica Thornton, Debra Herbin and Shirley Carter – now in their 60s – a new audience, half a century later.
“It’s brilliant and surprising,” says Herbin. “It was a good race, and it continues to be a good race.”
The surprises were many. An original “Why I Love You” 45 rpm vinyl record, which features the protest song “Gotta Get Out” on the reverse, has sold for up to $4,000 on eBay.
Max Ochester, owner of the Brewerytown Beats record store in Philadelphia, reissued the single on the BB label.
He originally bought a copy of the record for $5 from a local collector in 2018 without ever having heard the song, which was written by Philly tunesmith and Smokey Robinson sidekick Kenny Fuller.
Soon after, Ochester learned why “Why I Love You” is so coveted. It was originally released on Valentine Records – named after Thornton’s aunt, Evetta Valentine – in a batch of no more than 500 records. Fewer than 25 still exist.
But the recent request for “Why I Love You” comes from a startling source that demonstrates an innocent love song’s ability to transcend time and space.
Over the past decade, “Why I Love You” has become a staple of lowrider music playlists that value rare, vintage soul and R&B, a soundtrack to Chicano custom car culture “low and slow ” in Southern California.
The song has garnered over half a million hits on various lowrider playlists on YouTube. “Oh my God,” says DJ Anthony Santana, host of the internet radio show Santana Soul, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. He raves about “Why I Love You”, which he first heard 10 years ago.
“Just the harmonies. And the lyrics, which will cut your heart. Many women love this song. You play this song here, and all the women will get up and dance.
Santana plans to bring The Ultimates out west this summer, for an as-yet-unnamed lowrider music and car festival in an outdoor setting on July 30.
Along with their bandleader, Mitchell Hunter, The Ultimates have performed regularly in recent years, particularly in the Delaware County Media Region, where Hunter lives.
In November, Thornton and Herbin sang at a daytime food truck festival at Linvilla Orchards, each wearing a black cap emblazoned with the word “QUEEN”.
And with July’s trip to California, there are more high-profile gigs on the horizon. A February 12 show at City Winery Philadelphia in which they were to open and be supported by York Street Hustle has been postponed. But on February 12, the band will join Low Cut Connie’s Adam Weiner on the band. hard cookies direct.
“I’m super thrilled,” Weiner said. “These ladies are beautiful and fantastic, and I can’t wait for people to see them do their thing. ‘Why I Love You’ is such an incredible piece of soul music. It’s mysterious, nebulous and familiar all at the same time.
The Ultimates’ half-century sojourn began when Thornton, Herbin (then Debra Gunn), and Carter (then Shirley Graves) were best friends and classmates at Shoemaker Junior High in West Philly.
They started performing at block parties when they were 10 years old, first lip-syncing to Supremes songs like “Stop! In the Name of Love,” showing dance moves they had practiced in front of a mirror.
Then Evetta Valentine had a revelation.
“Somehow my aunt realized we could actually sing,” says Thornton, sitting on a couch one Sunday afternoon at her home in the Carroll Park neighborhood of West Philly.
Her fellow Ultimates were on either side of her in the townhouse that once belonged to Valentine and served as a rehearsal room in the same block where they grew up. In a display case is a photo of Thornton’s aunt and her husband, Melvin, who served as driver and MC. “We called him the amazing Melvin!” Carter remembers with a laugh.
“She got us together and made us do lunches and teas, and church stuff,” Thornton says of Valentine. “She had the insight to see something in us that we didn’t see in ourselves.”
Valentine also had the ambition to go in search of original songs for the girls to sing. Fuller was 18 and five years older than the Ultimates when Aunt Evetta brought him home.
“When he saw we were kids, he was like, ‘Oh no, no!’ Carter recalled, “But when we opened our mouths and started singing, he changed his mind.”
In the two hours the Ultimates spent at Sigma — all Aunt Evetta could afford, they suppose — they worked on knocking down the languid “Why I Love You” groove.
“If only love could be spoken, without hearts being broken,” Thornton sings dreamily, before his bandmates’ harmonies kick in. Then within 20 minutes, they knocked out “Gotta Get Out,” which pushes against claustrophobia in a more robust arrangement. “I just gotta see,” Thornton sings, “What the world is trying to do to me.”
The Ultimates planned to do it big. “We were going to win Grammys, we were going to be stars,” Thornton said. The single had limited radio airplay and earned them audiences with Philly radio legends Georgie Woods and Joe “Butterball” Tamburro, as well as an audition with Kenny Gamble at the Broad Street office of Philadelphia International Records. No big break came from that, or the shift from Fuller’s “Why I Love You” to Smokey Robinson in hopes of bringing it to Motown’s Berry Gordy.
The Ultimates won talent contests on Showtime at New York’s Apollo and another at what is now Cheyney University. “The trophy was bigger than us!” said Herbin.
But the big moment never came, even though Evetta Valentine booked the group from Florida to Nova Scotia, and even sent the girls to charm school to prepare for stardom. “How she did it, I don’t know,” says Thornton, marveling at the tenacity of her aunt, who worked for Blue Cross & Blue Shield.
The three women and Hunter have stories to tell of trips down South that turned into week-long residencies in Sheffield, Alabama, and Roanoke, Va., sometimes due to car trouble that left them stuck there. And a memorable visit to Muhammad Ali’s home in Cherry Hill, with Valentine somehow gaining a private audience, singing for the champion. “It had shag carpeting on the walls,” Herbin said.
The trio amicably parted ways in the late 1970s. Herbin worked in food service and the City of Philadelphia revenue department, a job from which she recently retired. Carter served as a librarian for the Philadelphia Public Schools.
Thornton worked “a lot of odd jobs”, while singing in alternate versions of the Ultimates and other bands. All three women raised families and are now grandmothers. And even though Herbin and Carter weren’t singing professionally, they made music a part of their lives. “I sang everywhere I was,” says Herbin. “The pleasure of music. It’s a stress reliever.
Hunter had lost contact with the group but found the three women, all of whom still live in the neighborhood where they grew up about a decade ago. They began performing at venues around Delaware County like the Dog House Saloon and Pinocchio’s, mixing covers of Marvin Gaye and A Taste of Honey.
READ MORE: ‘Philadelphia is the city that sleeps on itself’: How a Brewerytown record store owner sheds light on our neglected musical past
They knew “Why I Love You” was on YouTube, but had no idea the extent of their new audience until they connected with Ochester, who has become an important musical archaeologist in jazz and jazz. Philadelphia’s underrated soul music.
“We have another chance to do what we love to do,” says Thornton. “That’s the best part about it for me, and I’m sure it’s the same for Debra, and Shirley and Mitch. Because singing is so much a part of me. The ways of the Lord are inscrutable.”