Dexter Wansel Interview

Philadelphia is justifiably considered by most to be the center of Soul Music perfection during the 70s, and the “Mighty Three” — Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell — have rightly received a great amount of credit for the development of the “Sound of Philadelphia,” sometimes overshadowing the great artists from the O’Jays to the Blue Notes, but almost always unfairly pushing out the great musicians, writers, arrangers and producers who helped make that sound great.

Dexter Wansel is known to some as Philly keyboardist who released a number of moderately successful albums in the 70s including most notably Life on Mars and Voyager. His love of advanced technology and the fusion of rock, soul, dance and jazz led to a number of interesting pieces that drew for him a small but loyal following. However, Wansel is likely more notable for the great contribution he quietly made to the Philly Sound.

Wansel met Gamble and Huff while he was the leader of the group Yellow Sunshine. He signed on as a session keyboardist at G&H’s Philadelphia International Records and began his climb within the organization during the mid-70s. His luscious arrangements and strong production led to increasingly important projects within the organization, including albums by the Jacksons, Lou Rawls, Phyllis Hyman, Teddy Pendergrass and MFSB (the house band at PIR, for which Wansel served as conductor). And his songwriting may have been even better. Along with regular songwriting partner Cynthia Biggs, he penned numerous classic Soul songs ranging from “Nights Over Egypt” for the Jones Girls to the haunting “Hurry Up This Way Again” for the Stylistics.

By the early 80s, the consistency of Wansel’s compositions had arguably surpassed Gamble and Huff, and much of the uneven output of PIR during the 80s was modestly anchored by gorgeous Wansel ballads like “I Really Need You Now” (sung by the O’Jays), “You’re Leaving” (the Stylistics) and perhaps his most revered composition, “If Only You Knew” (Patti LaBelle).

In the 90s, as PIR was crumbling, Wansel stayed around, helping on a number of compilations and the scant new projects that came around. He also did some outside arranging, such as on three discs by Gospel harpist Jeff Majors. His last major work at PIR was putting together 2003’s controversial O’Jays compilation, Together We Are One. Like many at PIR, he never received public attention or credit commensurate with his significant contributions, but to those in the Soul Music world he is known as one of the great Soul songwriters, producers and arrangers of his era.

In late 2004, nearly two years removed from the end of his stint at PIR, Wansel quietly recorded and self-released his first solo album in over a decade. Digital Groove World is a mostly instrumental album, but Wansel’s love of technology and his unusual, often unexpected arrangements make Digital Groove World a little loopier and a lot more interesting than a typical smooth jazz disc.  Funky pieces like “Five Months to Mars” and “Believe This” are offset by melodic smoother songs like “A Kool Summer” and “My Vacation,” a great summer song which features a nice vocal addition by Denise King. A World is a solid album in its own right, and for lovers of Soul Music it marks the welcome return of a legendary songwriter and artist.


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