Bobby Eli, the renowned guitarist and co-founder of the iconic MFSB disco group, known for his significant influence on the distinct Philadelphia sound through his contributions to various recordings under the Philadelphia International label, has passed away at the age of 77. His demise was confirmed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, and his wife, Vonnie, shared that he peacefully passed away in his sleep at his residence in Havertown, Pennsylvania, on August 17. Although Eli had suffered a stroke in 2016, his passing was attributed to natural causes. Last week, The Spinners, who collaborated with Eli on hits like “I’ll Be Around” and “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” announced his passing on Instagram.
Bobby Eli played a pivotal role as a member of the house band at the Philadelphia International label’s Sigma Sound Studios. This band, under the guidance of producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, transformed R&B and soul music influenced by Motown and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section into infectious disco anthems. Hits such as “Love Train” and “Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays, both featuring Eli on guitar, showcased the blend of soulful, politically charged lyrics with danceable rhythms that resonated not only in Philadelphia but also in the emerging New York disco scene.
Eli himself attributed the origins of disco to the groundbreaking drumming innovations by Earl Young on “The Love I Lost,” Teddy Pendergrass’ breakout hit with Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes in 1973, a track on which Eli played guitar.
As part of Gamble and Huff’s house band, Bobby Eli contributed to the formation of MFSB during the early 1970s. They crafted their signature tune, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” which became the theme song for the television show Soul Train and marked the first theme song to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Their subsequent hit, “Love Is the Message,” became a staple at the renowned Loft parties hosted by David Mancuso. Within MFSB, Eli skillfully combined elements of jazz harmony with gospel sensibilities. His mastery of pedals and effects earned him the nickname “Electronic Eli.” He developed simple yet captivating melodic motifs that propelled the momentum of the songs, at times mirroring basslines or introducing hooks that would be later amplified by strings and horns.
While MFSB rode the disco craze and later transformed into the Salsoul Orchestra, Bobby Eli and his fellow band members supplemented their income with live performances between studio sessions. They left their mark on disco classics like the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” and Grace Jones’ debut album, “Portfolio.” Eli’s musical journey extended to collaborations with Sister Sledge (alongside Nile Rodgers), Curtis Mayfield, and later, luminaries like Elton John and Isaac Hayes. Despite being a white Jewish individual in the diverse fabric of the Philadelphia music scene, he was even included in the 1978 Who’s Who of Black Americans, a recognition he modestly corrected when revealing his background.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Disco Music
Who was Bobby Eli and what was his role in the music industry?
Bobby Eli was a guitarist and co-founder of the disco group MFSB, a pivotal figure in shaping the iconic Philadelphia sound through his contributions to Philadelphia International recordings. He played a key role in advancing R&B and soul into danceable disco anthems.
How did Bobby Eli pass away?
Bobby Eli passed away peacefully in his sleep at his home in Havertown, Pennsylvania, on August 17. His wife, Vonnie, confirmed his passing. Although he had suffered a stroke in 2016, his death was due to natural causes.
What were some of Bobby Eli’s notable musical collaborations?
Bobby Eli collaborated with various artists, including The Spinners on hits like “I’ll Be Around” and “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love.” He also contributed to iconic tracks such as “Love Train” by the O’Jays. He played with acts like Sister Sledge, Curtis Mayfield, Elton John, and Isaac Hayes.
How did Bobby Eli contribute to the development of disco music?
Bobby Eli’s guitar work played a significant role in the evolution of disco music. He contributed to tracks like “The Love I Lost,” which he attributed as an early influence on disco. His work with MFSB, particularly songs like “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” and “Love Is the Message,” showcased his ability to fuse jazz harmony with gospel elements, shaping the disco sound.
What was Bobby Eli’s impact on the Philadelphia music scene?
Bobby Eli was part of the Philadelphia International label’s Sigma Sound Studios house band, contributing to the distinctive Philadelphia sound. He helped bring forth hits that combined soulful lyrics with danceable beats, contributing to the genre’s growth in both Philadelphia and the larger music scene.
How did Bobby Eli’s musical career extend beyond MFSB?
Beyond MFSB, Bobby Eli continued his musical journey, playing with acts like the Trammps, Grace Jones, and more. He remained active in live performances and studio collaborations, leaving a lasting impact on various musical projects and genres.