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Philly 'unsung' musical hero Bobby Eli gets a Nashville spotlight

It all started in 1960 with an amp turned up high beside an open bedroom window, where 14-year-old Bobby Eli was going to work on a Stratocaster he had received a year before for his bar mitzvah.

"Ma'am, can I speak to your son?" came the inquiry from a stranger, a musician, who happened to be walking by.

And just like that, a few days later, Eli was in a hastily acquired suit, drinking soda and staring at the women around the bar at a club he was far too young to be in legally.

Thus started the career of a Philly soul music legend who made an impact through arranging, recording, and writing — including Major Harris' biggest hit after leaving the Delfonics, "Love Won't Let Me Wait," co-written with Vinnie Barrett — and performing. Eli's guitar was featured on tracks for the Spinners, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, and MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother), the heralded group of Sigma Sound studio musicians and eventual headlining group that he helped found.

"They were neighborhood kids," Joe Chambers, director of the Musicians Hall of Fame, says of the session musicians across the country who shaped their cities' sounds while creating genres and standards deeply cherished today.

"The session musicians that walked in off the street to play music at Stax Records [in Memphis] when they opened became Booker T. & the MG's," Chambers says, adding that the same thing happened in Philadelphia. "Philly created a sound just like Nashville, Memphis, and Detroit, but it was a handful of musicians in each one of these cities that was responsible for doing it."

Eli "started out around late '68, playing on the road with a group called the Vibrations," the musician, now 70, recently recalled. "I was playing on the same bill with people who would be huge — Stevie Wonder, Sonny and Cher...There wasn't a lot of work in the studio [at the time], so I would supplement it by playing live on the road."

Studio work in Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, London, Germany, Boston, and, of course, Philly, followed.

In keeping with the stated aim of honoring all great musicians — including unheralded session musicians who appear on countless classic tracks — Eli was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville late last month, along with the Sigma Sound Studio Rhythm Section, the museum's name for the group of crucial session musicians who helped shape hit after hit in Philadelphia. Equally important members Tommy Bell, Dennis Harris, Charles Collins, Jimmy Williams, and Earl Young were inducted, and many of their collaborators were honored posthumously.

Joe Tarsia, who cut his teeth in audio engineering at Philly's Cameo Parkway Records before opening the legendary Sigma Sound Studios, was inducted in the engineers category. Other inductees included country music's Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Reed, and Garth Brooks & the G-Men; and guitarist Don Felder, a former member of the Eagles.

"I am so humble to be here today among the other studio musicians who have contributed to the rich tapestry of music," Eli said during his induction speech, adding that the absence of fellow Sigma Sound Rhythm Section musicians the late Ronnie Baker, Roland Chambers, Norman Harris, Vince Montana, TJ Tindall, and Larry Washington made it a bittersweet occasion.

"Bobby Eli is one of the unsung heroes of the Philly sound," says Jerry Blavat, a longtime champion of that sound. "Most people talk about, and rightly so, Leon Huff and Bobby Martin, Kenny Gamble, Tommy Bell — great musicians, great writers, great producers. Bobby Eli was very responsible for so many great songs."

"Bobby Eli was an integral part of the city's musical heartbeat from the early days, when Philadelphia first established itself as one of the centers of American pop music via Cameo Parkway [Records] and others, to the halcyon days of Sigma Sound, MFSB, and Philly International and beyond," says Dave Moore, co-author with Jason Thornton of The There's That Beat! Guide to the Philly Sound: Philadelphia Soul Music and Its R&B Roots: From Gospel & Bandstand to TSOP.

I  met Eli while tagging along with Moore during interviews for the book, which came out in September. It builds on the now-defunct There's That Beat! The Rare Soul Fanzine. (Disclosure: The book and fanzine's co-author, Jason Thornton, is my brother-in-law.)

"His guitar work as a member of MFSB put him right in the mix of one of the tightest and most talented house bands ever produced in American music. And he's still producing music today," Moore says. Indeed, Eli is active at his Grooveyard Recording Studio in Upper Darby. His recently formed Groove City Entertainment  released the single "Been There, Done That" by Dennis "Youngblood" Taylor in May 2015. Taylor, 20, of Charlestown, Mass., met Eli through mutual friends and started working with Eli four years ago. Eli says a debut album is in progress.

At the Grooveyard, I watched the multitalented Taylor direct session musicians with 40-plus years of experience on arrangements, in between bowling me over with his Luther Vandrosslike vocals (Vandross, by the way, recorded his own version of "Love Won't Let Me Wait.")

"He is a clone of Bobby Eli. In Dennis, he sees himself," Blavat says. He adds that Taylor, paired with singer Baby Washington for a duet, blew the audience away at his January 2013 Kimmel Center show, "The Divas of All Time Program."

"He reminds me of me, how much I was into the music, the deep appreciation," Eli says. It's fitting that Taylor's love of the music makes him a devoted traditionalist. "We're bringing back that old-school Philly sound," Eli says, beaming, when I bring this up.

Eli's work with Taylor and other young musicians is in keeping with another stated aim of the Musicians Hall of Fame, according to Chambers: to present an accurate history that can inspire the next generation.