What comes to mind when someone says, “Philadelphia music”? Is it American Bandstand? The birthplace of Chubby Checker’s “Twist”? Philadelphia soul music — the very same James Brown/Parliament-Funkadelic trombonist Fred Wesley described as “putting the bow tie on funk”? Or do you think about the Roots and Questlove? Boyz ll Men? Will Smith? The Dead Milkmen? John Coltrane? Patti LaBelle? Or, for the opera fans, Mario Lanza and Marian Anderson?
Do you tend to list off more contemporary acts, like rappers Meek Mill and Lil Uzi Vert? Emo bands like Modern Baseball and The Wonder Years? Genre-defying indie rock like Mannequin Pussy and Japanese Breakfast? Post-hardcore like the Jesus Piece, or heavy shoegazers Nothing? Avant-rappers like Tierra Whack, or up-and-coming acts like Castro and Zilla Rocca? R&B and soul singers like Jazmine Sullivan?
Without a doubt, Philly is a town with a rich musical history, just like Memphis, New York, Atlanta and Detroit. But unlike those cities, with their dedicated museums and monuments to some of the greatest contributors to popular music history, Philly is a bit disjointed. Places that should be recognized as historic landmarks simply aren’t. It could be that Philly’s music history is eclectic with no particular sonic coherence. (This ain’t Motown, after all.) It could be that some sites, like familial homes, are located just outside of the city’s center, limiting tourist traffic. Whatever the case, to fully get the Philly music experience, you’ve got to work for it. Well, not you, because we compiled this handy guide.
Best Record Stores
506 South Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19147
If you’re visiting Philadelphia, chances are you’re already planning on migrating down South Street, a busy thoroughfare lined with independent businesses, delicious restaurants and mosaicked art courtesy Isaiah Zagar’s public murals. So why not check out another piece of recent Philly history? Repo Records opened in 1986 as the spot for indie and punk tapes and LPs in Wayne, PA before migrating to South Street in 1998, and that legacy remains intact today. The selection has become more eclectic as time has gone on, but the spirit of the place lives on.
608 N 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123
North of center city, in the improbably cool Northern Liberties neighborhood, is Creep Records. It’s a very fun and relaxed record store that stocks new and used vinyl as well as, like, pipes and 420-friendly memorabilia. Greatest of all: Creep routinely holds in-store performances, making it both a great place to shop and catch an intimate gig.
2027 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103
If it’s the traditional record store experience you’re after, look no further than the delightfully no-frills Long in the Tooth. (With that name, is calling it “old school” too on-the-nose?) The windows are few, the aisles are long, and the staff is equal parts totally knowledgeable, geeky and intimidatingly cool. You’ll leave with some rarity you didn’t even know existed before walking through their doors.
1517 N Bailey Street, Philadelphia, PA 19121
Brewerytown Beats has everything, but if you’re not diving deep into their funk, soul, R&B, reggae and hip-hop sections, you’re missing out — those genres are the beating heart of this place, and the Brewerytown neighborhood in general.
1524 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19125
If extra points can be given to a record store for having the most charming exterior, the home that houses Philadelphia Record Exchange would receive them all. But once you’re done admiring the outside, head on in to experience some of Philly’s greatest used records, CDs and cassette tapes collection. They buy, sell and trade, too, in case you’re looking to offload an old collection (to make room for a new one, of course.) It’s the ideal place for the broad music fan.
Best Music Venues
1026 Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123
In 1889, Union Transfer housed the Spring Garden Farmer’s Market — a sign for its original use remains on the grounds of this gorgeous, 1200-capacity room. After that, in the first half of the 1900s, it served as an old trolley barn for the Union Transfer Baggage Express Co., and later, and definitely most infamously, a Spaghetti Warehouse restaurant. In 2011, it became Union Transfer, one of the best-sounding rooms in all of Philly (nay, the country, when you consider its size — could those vintage wood walls be the culprit?) It is where you’ll see the biggest mid-size indie acts, all-star comedy and, if you are a Japanese Breakfast fan, a coat check named after the JB musician Michelle Zauner, who worked there before becoming a leading force in independent music and releasing a New York Times best-selling book.
2125 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103
Attending a concert in a church basement should be considered a rite of passage, and no church does it better — or more consistently — than Philly’s First Unitarian. Bonus points: the venue, unlike most official venues in the United States, is not owned or booked by Live Nation. It’s true blue independent booking, and that freedom mirrors the no-nonsense spirit of Philadelphia.
1201 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19125
In the heart of the hip Fishtown neighborhood sits Johnny Brenda’s, the perfect brunch spot/date night bar/music venue hybrid — the kind of place every city claims to have but they all kind of suck in their own way. JB’s (as it’s known to locals) is the perfect balance of all of the above. (And fun fact: If you’ve seen the movie Creed, this is the venue where Tessa Thompson’s character has a residency — and the spot where Michael B. Jordan makes googly eyes at her. If only all of us could be so lucky.)
3025 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104
In West Philly, at the University of Pennsylvania and in partnership with its station WXPN, sits World Café Live, a music venue dedicated to showcasing both great local talent and supporting acts of considerable size. And because of the radio affiliation, it’s a fantastic sound system — artists will often release “live at World Café Live” recordings for that reason.
847 N Franklin Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123
North Philly’s Ukrainian American Citizens’ Association has become an unexpected home for some of the greatest young touring musicians — but it’s also the spot where you’re most likely to catch the Philly acts on the cusp of breaking big, like the Avant-rock shoegaze rockers They Are Gutting A Body of Water. It’s a DIY town, after all.
The Music Lover’s Guide to NYCThe best record stores, venues and musical landmarks you’ll find in the five boroughs
1214 Reed Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147
As stated in the intro, it can be a challenge to locate landmarks dedicated to Philly’s rich music history, but the city has done right by opera singer Mario Lanza, who has a mini museum dedicated to his legacy in South Philly’s bustling Passyunk Square neighborhood. But if you weren’t looking for it, you’d miss it. So, don’t!
762 S. Martin Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146
You’ve got to hand it to the opera fans for keeping the legacy of their music alive. On the other side of Broad Street and a few minutes north from the Mario Lanza Institute is the National Marian Anderson Museum, a space dedicated to the legacy of the contralto known for becoming the first African American singer to perform at the Met Opera. And that’s only scratching the surface of her legacy and how she combated racial prejudice in the performing arts!
However, after facing a devastating flood, the museum’s tours will remain virtual for the majority of 2023. Check back on their website for more, and support them where you can.
2240 N Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19132
Very few of Philadelphia’s historic theaters remain, and Uptown Theater is one of the most iconic. Miles Davis, James Brown and Ray Charles all performed there; in the 20th century, the venue was part of the “Chitlin Circuit,” spaces where Black performers would hit the stage. You can take a tour of the historic site by calling the organization keeping it up and running.
1511 N 33rd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19121
In a row house at the southernmost tip of Strawberry Mansion sits the John Coltrane house. After serving in WWII, Coltrane moved his family from North Carolina to Philadelphia, where he quickly became a jazz legend. Keeping the house from falling into disrepair has been an ongoing battle: but as of May 2021, the site has housed the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center, where jazz fans of all kinds can walk where he walked and find inspiration in the process.
4328 Haverford Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19104
Imagine: the year is 1967. Nina Simone is in concert at Philly’s Lee Cultural Center, a mecca for musicians, artists, writers, photographers, theatrical performances, sculptors and the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble. Since its inception, the spot has been a beacon for Philly music history, and a spot that is unafraid to change with the times. Now that it’s a recreational center (where young people can still learn about the arts) you’ve got to appreciate the evolution.
Bars That Play the Best Music
1624 N Front Street, Philadelphia, PA 19122
A bar’s music is only as good as its DJs, which is why it’s a blessing that Philly’s International Bar has a rotating cast of some of the town’s best underground musicians behind the turntables. If you can get there on a night that’s hosted by the DJ collective Spliff Mountain, you’ve gone on the right night.
206 Quince Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107
Philly’s only queer leather bar frequently has themed nights and in-house DJs. The best nights are the goth and post-punk nights, when this dark, sexy spot comes alive.
847 N. Third Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123
If you want to catch the guys from Nothing or Night Sins spinning the coolest wax from Western Europe, look no further than Ortlieb’s. It’s a rocker’s dream, and the curious showgoer’s heaven. But hey, you could ignore the live music in the back room and spend your evening downing a few Citywides (that’s Philadelphian for a beer-and-shot special) in the front. Or you can catch a band in a space that doesn’t look totally unlike the red room in Twin Peaks.
1539 S Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147
A dive bar that fancies itself a nightclub (and sometimes, the hype is worth it), Dolphin Tavern is a South Philly staple — in particular, for their lively goth nights. Throw on a leather jacket and get out there.
530 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Downstairs, it’s a vegan-friendly restaurant with traditional bar fare, games and coloring books — upstairs, it’s a graffiti alley, often blasting punk, with old bumper cars acting as booths. Need we say more?
The Philly Music Walk of Fame
1601 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103
In 2017, the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame was recognized as an official landmark by the city council. Along the Avenue of the Arts, you’ll be able to check out over 100 plaques dedicated to Phllly’s great music talent. Here’s hoping that means more and more music landmarks, courtesy the incredible work of the Philadelphia Music Alliance!
The stretch between Christian and Carpenter Streets in South Philadelphia
It is impossible to exaggerate the impact Boyz ll Men have had on pop music history, R&B music history, boy band music history, vocal group music history and beyond — so it was only a matter of time before their hometown gave them their well-deserved props. A section of the Avenue of the Arts South was named after the greatest group of all time, also in 2017. (Are you sensing a pattern here?) We’re all the better for it, especially you once you go check it out and pose for an extremely Philly photo-op.
531 N 12th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123
It’s a venue, in a building co-owned by Diplo that once used to be used as a showroom for mausoleums, that now routinely houses punk shows and film screenings. What’s not to love?
The site of Philadelphia International Records
309 S Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107
You can’t see Philadelphia International Records, the groundbreaking and absolutely legendary label that launched “the Sound of Philadelphia” (think acts like the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and Patti LaBelle) but you can visit the site where it once existed, give your flowers and consider the dangers of not preserving American music history. We’re missing out on a lot!
3653 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19140
Everyone in Philadelphia has an opinion on where to get the perfect cheesesteak. Everyone who answers anything other than Max’s Steaks (at the intersection of Nicetown-Toga, Hunting Park and Franklinville in the real North Philly area) is wrong, for one crucial reason: in the back half of the cheesesteak-ery is a bar with live jazz music, which makes it a superior spot. It’s also featured in Creed, which is not a necessary anecdote to end on here, but it is nice to think about. Get the full Philly experience there.
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