PLAYLIST: 15 Songs That Capture the Spirit of Philadelphia
Turn on the radio for a day or run through your entire music playlist, and chances are you’ll hear at least one or two songs that hearken to Philadelphia. The city has inspired a lot of great music over the years, and it’s not hard to see why. Philly has a soul, culture, history, and vibe like no other place in the U.S.A. So, with the Grammy Awards coming up, now seems like a good time to celebrate music—especially songs that shine the spotlight on Philadelphia.
Here’s a rundown of songs that are unmistakably Philly flavored, in no particular order. I’ve also put together a playlist you can listen to and follow on Spotify, here.
Elton John and his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote this song about tennis star Billie Jean King and her professional tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms. But the song also pays homage to Philly Soul and celebrates the city’s important place in history. Making things even better, it happened to be released in 1975, when America was flying high on the Bicentennial spirit. The song’s lyrics timelessly speak right to the hearts of Philadelphians: “’cause I live and breathe this Philadelphia freedom, from the day I that I was born I’ve waved the flag […] Oh, Philadelphia freedom shine on me, I love you.”
“Gonna Fly Now”
For decades, the image of Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa jogging up the famous steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has run through our heads when we hear the triumphant strains of “Gonna Fly Now.” Featured in the 1976 movie Rocky, which stars Sylvester Stallone as the underdog prizefighter, “Gonna Fly Now” has become an anthem of hope and inspiration, and it’s a song that will forever be woven into the spirit of our city.
“Fall in Philadelphia”
Daryl Hall and John Oates are two of Philadelphia’s favorite sons. While Hall and Oates have become well known for 1980s classics like “Kiss on My List,” “Private Eyes,” “Out of Touch,” and “Maneater,” one of their earliest tracks honors the duo’s native city. “Fall in Philadelphia,” a 1972 song released on their debut album, Whole Oats, paints a picture of Quaker City (couldn’t resist the “Oat” pun) during a transitional period in the city’s history. Perhaps we can look at the lyrics today as a reminder of how far this city has come since the 1970s.
“TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”
This hit 1974 recording by MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother) exudes classic Philadelphia soul at its finest. In fact, many would even say it was the first traditional disco song to break into the Billboard Hot 100 charts. While this song, richly laden with strings and horns, is an instrumental piece that was written for the 1970s musical revue show Soul Train, it lives on as a funky hat tip to the City of Brotherly Love. You’ll even get to hear “TSOP” at Citizens Bank Park before every Phillies home game.
“Streets of Philadelphia”
Bruce Springsteen may be a native Jersey boy, but “The Boss” is big in Philly. It was in 1976 at the Spectrum where he performed his first arena concert. (He’d play there 41 more times before the lights dimmed forever at the beloved landmark.) So, it’s no surprise that Springsteen was tapped to record “Streets of Philadelphia,” from the 1993 movie Philadelphia, a moving saga about the plight of a lawyer dying from HIV. The song would go on to win an Oscar.
Another song from the movie Philadelphia, this piece was recorded by rock guitarist Neil Young and casts a gripping tone toward the sad end of the film with the haunting words, “City of Brotherly Love, place I call home, don’t turn your back on me. I don’t want to be alone. Love lasts forever.” Nominated for an Academy Award, this deeply emotional song lost to Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”
R&B group Boyz II Men broke out “Motownphilly” with their debut album, Cooleyhighharmony, and quickly rose to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts with this catchy hit. The group, which originated in Philadelphia, grew to become a U.S. sensation during the mid-1990s with tunes like “End of the Road,” “I’ll Make Love to You,” “On Bended Knee,” and “So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
“Kids from Philly”
While George Thorogood was actually born just down the street in Wilmington and originally fielded an act called the Delaware Destroyers, he would rename his band simply The Destroyers and release “Kids from Philly” in 1980. You may also know the rock group for their more widely popular 1982 song “Bad to the Bone.”
Hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince scored a Billboard Hot 100 hit with “Summertime.” The artists from West Philadelphia were in the spotlight when this 1991 song hit the airwaves, mainly because rapper Will Smith was already starring in NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the show about a teenager from West Philadelphia who moved in with his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air, California. “Summertime” basks in Philly imagery, and the line “a place called the Plateau is where everybody goes” refers to Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park, at 2000 Belmont Mansion Drive. By the way, this is a great place to literally see “fall in Philadelphia” during September and October.
Did you know John Philip Sousa, who wrote the patriotic march “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in 1896, lived in Philadelphia for a time and even became a violinist in a Philadelphia performance hall called the Chestnut Street Theater? Though the Chestnut Street Theater was demolished a century ago, Sousa’s local legacy can still be enjoyed thanks to the “Philadelphia Boogie” – just one of a few of the composer and conductor’s songs referencing the Cradle of Liberty. Others include “Phillie Rag” and “Philadelphia March.”
And the Rest…
Of course, this list just scratches the surface when it comes to songs about Philadelphia. Other honorable mentions include “I’m In a Philly Mood” by Daryl Hall, “Philly Night” from Berry Jones, Herbie Mann’s “The Philly Dog,” “East River Drive” by Grover Washington, Jr., and James Taylor’s “Sailing to Philadelphia.” Whatever jams hit home with you, it’s always good to know that the love for Philly runs deep and wide in the music world.