During the 1970s, much of disco was just about dancing all night long. One song, however, signified more than just getting down; instead, it became an unofficial anthem for civil rights. McFadden and Whitehead's hit "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" certainly had a great beat, but its lyrics uplifted and empowered listeners as well.
While the duo may go down in history as "one hit wonders," they composed some of the biggest hits of the Philly Soul era. Although Gene McFadden and John Whitehead began as performers--they were members of the Epsilons, an Otis Redding-managed group, and later changed their names to Talk of the Town--they experienced greater success as songwriters. Philadelphia International cofounders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff discovered their talent for composing memorable soul, and hired them as in-house writers for their label. They immediately struck gold by composing the Intruders' "I'll Always Love My Mama," and followed it up with writing and/or producing classics such as "Backstabbers" by the O'Jays as well as "Bad Luck" and "Wake Up Everybody" for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
By 1977, the duo began recording under the moniker "McFadden and Whitehead," releasing their debut album in 1979. Its first single, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" (co-written with keyboardist Jerry Cohen) became an across-the-board smash, peaking at number one on the R&B singles chart and number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Featuring a killer bass line, the trademark Philly Soul strings, and a pounding beat, the song captured the last gasp of disco and brought people onto the floor.
However, there is more to "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" than just a danceable beat. Philly Soul tracks not only contain irresistible grooves, but they often include political messages ("Bad Luck") or commented on the darker sides of human nature ("Backstabbers," "For the Love of Money"). According to John A. Jackson's book A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" became "hailed by the civil rights movement as a black anthem of sorts," definitely encouraged by the Philadelphia International slogan "The Message Is in the Music." Whitehead later claimed the lyrics actually refer to his and McFadden's happiness and newfound artistic freedom. Gamble finally allowed the duo to record their own album, and the reference to "things that were keepin' us down" was directed at the music executive. These "things" in reality were "Gamble's ideas about how we could best serve his company," Whitehead explained.
No matter the interpretation, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" still symbolizes empowerment. Whitehead's raspy and emotional lead vocal resembles a preacher, exclaiming "If you felt we've been held down before / I know you'll refuse to be held down anymore!" McFadden harmonizes and ad libs during the hand-clapping chorus, emphasizing that "we're on the move" and "we've got the groove," obviously marrying motivational speaking to the discotheque. So many lyrics linger in the memory long after the song has ended: "Don' you let nothing, nothing / Stand in your way," "There's been so many things that's held us down / But now it looks likes things are finally coming around," and so many more. Artistic freedom, equality, and self-realization--all of these topics apply to the song's joyful and inspirational tone.
Sadly both McFadden and Whitehead have passed; McFadden died of cancer in 2006, while Whitehead succumbed to gunshot wounds in 2004. His murder remains unsolved. Despite their untimely deaths, their legacy remains in their words and music. "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" and its universal themes will continue to speak to generations of listeners.