Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky) by Bill Conti

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Every nerve a wire
Sweatin' blood, like fire
Gonna fly now... Read full Lyrics
Songplaces writer Jeff Suwak with his mother Alice in front of the "Rocky"
statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphians have a chip on their shoulders about… well, something. They disdain the spotlight and strive to maintain a blunt and independent attitude. This is why a city full of irate carousers and rabid fans have adopted "Rocky" as their Hollywood personality of choice, and with him, the synonymous theme song of the Italian Stallion, “Gonna Fly Now.”

The sentiment of the song is visualized in the movie's tremendous victory scene, where Rocky bounds up the 72 stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The archetypal anthem reaches its climax with Rocky standing triumphant on top of the steps with his arms raised in the universal signal of victory. Modern day visitors recreate the famed ascent daily, and so too do local Philadelphians during their own running routes. It’s been over 40 years since the film was released in theaters, but locals and visitors alike pay homage together every single day and celebrate "Rocky," each echoing the driving force of “Gonna Fly Now."
Statues lining top of building at Philadelphia Museum of Art
(thanks, Jeff Suwak)
Written for the movie at an initial one-minute length and being purely instrumental, composer Bill Conti suitably penned the iconic song in Philadelphia. The director of "Rocky," John Avildsen, continued adding scenes to the movie's training montage, and with each addition Avildsen asked Conti to add a little bit more music to the instrumental. Eventually the finished piece, with added vocal chorus, reached a length of nearly three minutes. According to Sylvester Stallone (the movie's screenwriter and star), Bill Conti finished the entire recording of the song in a mere 13 hours.

Conti was described as a hands-on composer for the recording of “Gonna Fly Now.” The powerful chorus of the song was directed by Conti, who also played the piano and conducted the orchestra. It’s worth noting that the chorus itself was composed of only three singers: DeEtta Little-West, Nelson Pigford, and Shelby Conti. The voices were overdubbed and layered to form the sound of a robust choir. The song held a No. 1 position on the Billboard music charts in July of 1977, and this distinguished position has led to “Gonna Fly Now” being one of the few songs from a movie to be featured on Sirius Radio’s '70s on 7 satellite radio station.
Precise location where Rocky stood
(thanks, Jeff Suwak)
The song itself manages to evoke feelings of rising to an insurmountable challenge; success is irrelevant, it’s the fight that matters. But there’s something else at work here that makes the song, and the character it is attached to, important to Philadelphians.

In Andrew Corsello's 2006 Philadelphia magazine interview, he asked Sylvester Stallone why he wrote the main character to embody a son of Philadelphia. Stallone spoke about how his original intent was to have the story set in New York, but he decided against it. New Yorkers, he said, had an “…imperiousness. I thought, you know, that Rocky moves at a certain pace. Not a New York pace. A Philadelphia pace. A more soulful pace. I thought of him as much more conservative in his life. And I thought that he would belong to a smaller kind of infrastructure, where the neighborhoods were tighter. Where the world was more claustrophobic. I just thought, ‘A Philadelphia fighter. Rocky’s a Philadelphia fighter.’" Though not exactly glowing, these comments are accepted by Philadelphians with an earnest nod of approval.

"Rocky" is the personification of generations of Philadelphians, a people who pride themselves on being the underdog. These are the people who snowballed Santa at halftime during a losing football game in the '60s, and then cheered when Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin suffered a career-ending injury. Take a walk down a street in Philadelphia and you’re going to encounter short-tempered people, willing to do whatever it takes to win the fight, and a discerning nose for an unfair deal. Turn around and walk back the same way and you’ll encounter hard-won wisdom and people who know how to get the most out of life… what’s more, they might even share it with you.
Section of the 72 steps Rocky climbed on his "victory" run at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
(thanks, Jeff Suwak)
Taken at face value, these are hardly glowing traits to advertise. But that’s Philly, and that’s why "Rocky" is honored by the city. People remember the underdog champion who went the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. But it’s easy to forget that the film begins with Rocky brawling with another club fighter. He then goes to his day job, where he’s a mob enforcer, little more than a hired goon. He smokes, he drinks, he steals… and he also visits the pet shop to visit the birds, feed the dogs, and attempt to win over the shy girl he’s got a thing for. Rocky’s mirror at home is bordered with family pictures, and he carries faded newspaper clippings of his best fights in his wallet.

That’s the power of "Rocky." It’s taking the good with the bad and doing what needs to be done. There’s no magic, no alchemical solution involved here. Philadelphians don’t hide their blunt and straightforward no-frills character; they embrace it and they move forward. “Gonna Fly Now” manages to harness this drive into three minutes of orchestral might, and provides proof of the power of a place being transformed into song.

~ Matt Suwak
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