Saturday, February 22, 2014

John Whitehead: "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now"

Ok, so I just read something recently that kind of stunned me. One of the biggest hit songs of 1972 was “Backstabbers,” by the O’Jays. I remember it vividly, being played in heavy rotation with other songs at that time such as Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” and the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice.” What I just learned was that “Backstabbers” was written by the Philly songwriting team of John Whitehead and Gene McFadden - Whitehead is buried in Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery.

John Whitehead's grave marker in Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery
John Cavadus Whitehead was “one of the key members of the Philadelphia International record label, and was one-half of the successful team of McFadden & Whitehead with Gene McFadden.” (ref.)The duo had a big hit (in 1979) with the disco song "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." "The song became an unofficial anthem for the Phillies as they charged to a World Series championship in 1980 and the Eagles as they reached the Super Bowl in 1981." (ref.) ("Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" could also be the theme song for the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., which has been the driving force in keeping the formerly-abandoned cemetery safe and maintained since 2011.)

John Whitehead, a three-time Grammy Award nominee became affiliated around 1971 with the production team of Gamble and Huff and "The Sound of Philadelphia" (or TSOP, on the Philadelphia International record label). The team of McFadden and Whitehead wrote their first hit, "Backstabbers" for the O'Jays, which became a gold record. It would be the first of many (37) Gold and Platinum hit records for the team of McFadden and Whitehead and Philadelphia International Records. They wrote songs for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, The Jacksons, Archie Bell and The Drells, Lou Rawls, Freddie Jackson, and Melba Moore. "We had been helping other people rocket to the moon," recalled Whitehead. "Gamble and Huff thought we were happy as writers and producers. Finally, they agreed to let us go into the studio to record one song. The first thing that came into our minds was: ain't no stopping us now!"(ref.)

Miniature golf tunnel in Philadelphia's Franklin Square Park

Whitehead began his performing career at age sixteen (in 1964) and was managed by none other than Otis Redding. His career (and his life) unfortunately ended in 2004 when he was he was shot while fixing a car outside his West Oak Lane home (in north Philadelphia). Whitehead was 55 years old. He and nephew Ohmed Johnson were shot (Johnson lived) in an apparent case of mistaken identity. The crime has never been solved. Obviously Whitehead never made a fortune in the music business, as he was killed while changing someone’s car radiator hose behind his home.

The gunmen fired more than 10 shots from handguns and then fled, and police believe the shooting was not random.(ref.) In an interview with Whitehead’s widow in September, 2004 (four months after his death), Elnor Whitehead called the notion that her husband was a target nonsense. "I keep hearing all these crazy things … they keep saying he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was home."

Whitehead, along with Gene McFadden, was instrumental in defining the sound of Philadelphia soul in the 1970s. Both were singers, songwriters, and music producers with national acclaim. Strong evidence of this can be seen in Philadelphia’s Franklin Square Park (near the Ben Franklin Bridge) on these record arches on the miniature golf course (that’s my daughter Olivia putting around them). “I Got the Love” was another hit off the same “McFadden & Whitehead” album that featured "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now."

Nearby the miniature golf green is an odd piece of granite with a Gamble and Huff inscription. It looks oddly like a grave marker. John Whitehead’s actual grave marker is prominently placed directly in front of the old brownstone gatehouse at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia, just inside the fence off Kingsessing Avenue. (Many people strive to keep their name immortal, but end up having a headstone as the only tangible evidence of their existence. John Whitehead and Gene McFadden achieved much more, as their names live on through their music. (McFadden died in 2006 of liver and lung cancer.)

In case you're wondering about the words above John and Elnor's (not deceased) names, they are both Muslim. John converted to Islam in 1996. “Yahya” is a common Arabic male name; due to "Yahya (John the Baptist) being a prophet of Islam, it is a common name in the Muslim world." (ref.) The word "'Iman,' in Islamic theology denotes a believer's faith in the metaphysical aspects of Islam." (ref.) Mount Moriah Cemetery is one of the few cemeteries in Philadelphia that allowed (when it was active) Muslim burials.

References and Further Reading (and Listening!)
Listen to: "Ain't No Stopping Us Now"
Listen to: "I Got the Love”
Listen to: “Backstabbers,” by the O’Jays
John Whitehead biography
Spectropop Remembers John Whitehead Gene McFadden
McFadden & Whitehead on Wikipedia
Probe into musician's killing at standstill John Whitehead was killed four months ago, and no new leads have surfaced. Detectives turned over the case to a special task force.
Read more about Islamic burial rites here