William “Poogie” Hart, lead singer and songwriter of the Delfonics and one of the driving forces behind the Philadelphia sound that defined the 1960s and ‘70s, died Thursday at age 77.
Kinged as one of the best falsettos of the time, Mr. Hart’s vocals and lyrics fueled some of the genre’s biggest hits, including “La-La (Means I Love You),” “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),“ and “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love).”
Mr. Hart died at Temple University Hospital after complications from surgery, his son, Hadi, confirmed to The Inquirer.
“He was a great leader, he believed in helping people, and he really believed in showing people some good, clean music,” said his son. “If you’ve ever listened to his music, it was very clean, no dirty lyrics. He took pride in that.”
Mr. Hart and his brother, Wilbert, founded the group with Randy Cain at Overbrook High School in the 1960s. They quickly became known for their falsettos and three-part harmonies.
“You don’t realize it’s three-part harmony,” said Jerry Blavat, who played the Delfonics hit “La-La (Means I Love You)” on a WFIL-TV show he hosted called Jerry’s Place.
“It’s so full that you actually think it’s four-part.”
But Mr. Hart’s “unusual falsetto voice” was a special one to behold, according to Philadelphia International Records cofounder and Sound of Philadelphia architect Kenny Gamble — the pair met 60 years ago while living in West Philadelphia.
“People used to have contests to see who could sing the highest, and Poogie was right there with the best of them,” along with Russell Thompkins Jr. of the Stylistics, said Gamble.
The Delfonics never did record for Philadelphia International. Instead, they were signed to Philly Groove records, along with the Stylistics, who were run by their manager Stan Watson.
Still, the Delfonics collaborated with Gamble and Huff’s songwriting partner Thom Bell, the producer and arranger who provided the feathery sound on hits like “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mine This Time)” and “La-La (Means I Love You),” the latter of which was covered by Prince, among many others.
At a time when Motown Records and soul reigned supreme, Blavat said the Delfonics leaned heavily on romance. The music spoke to young people who called Blavat’s show asking for the perfect song to dedicate to the person they didn’t know how to talk to.
The perfect example is the 1968 hit “La-La (Means I Love You),” penned by Mr. Hart with Bell on production and arrangement. Together the pair defined the group’s silky, sophisticated sound, which transported listeners through the highs and lows of love.
“La-La” could touch something innate in people of all ages, even toddlers. Bell told The Inquirer in 2020 that credit for the song should also go to Mr. Hart’s toddler son, who heard the melody and starting singing gibberish that turned into the title.
“When you listen to the song ‘La-La (Means I Love You),’ it’s talking to you and the experience that you had with a girl that you fell in love with,” said Blavat. “When a kid did not know how to express himself. The music spoke for what he felt.”
» READ MORE: Now’s the time to appreciate Philly soul great Thom Bell, one of ‘The Mighty Three’ alongside Gamble and Huff
The 1970s brought the Delfonics critical acclaim and fame; “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” oozes longing, love, and heartbreak through its lyrics and sweeping instrumentals that never overpower the vocalists. The song earned the group a Grammy in 1971 for best R&B performance by a duo or group. The Delfonics beat heavyweights in the category, including the Four Tops.
Gamble said as African Americans in the music industry, the Delfonics’ success was no small feat, even in Philadelphia.
“But the Delfonics were one of the first big million sellers to help establish the Philly sound all over the world,” said Gamble. “We created the Philly Sound and packaged it like the Motown sound, and made everybody look and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on in Philly.’ ”
Throughout the decades, the Delfonics performed in different iterations with members like Cain leaving and then returning. Mr. Hart, who was the sole owner of the group’s name, would reunite with Cain in the late 2000s. He would continue to tour until early this year when he fell ill, according to a Delfonics spokesperson.
Even as the dominant faces of R&B changed, the Delfonics have remained a cultural touchstone cropping up in popular culture. The Fugees’ 1996 album The Score featured Lauryn Hill singing “Ready or Not,” a song that refashioned the Delfonics’ “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love).” The following year, Quentin Tarantino’s film Jackie Brown featured Delfonics songs, including a scene where Pam Grier plays “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” for Robert Forster on vinyl, bringing the group’s music to new audiences.
Mr. Hart made an effort to keep the Delfonics sound alive outside of his own performances. In 2013, producer Adrian Younge teamed with Mr. Hart to produce the acclaimed album Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics, which paid homage to and revamped the group’s classic sound.
Most recently, Philly Sound fans might have caught “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” in the HBO TV show Euphoria.
Mr. Hart is survived by his wife of 53 years, Pamela; sons Hadi, Yusuf Ali, and William Romance; and 11 grandchildren. His son said services in North Philadelphia are scheduled for Monday.