As summer broke in 1985, a thumping song boomed in nightclubs across the country. Here in Philadelphia, its lyrics were loaded, linked to a vivid travesty.
“The Roof Is on Fire” was released by Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three six months before the MOVE conflagration.
The lyrics, which had nothing to do with the incident, became a popular dance-floor chant:
“The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. We don’t need no water, let the motherf—– burn. Burn, motherf—–, burn.”
Charles “Charlie Prince” Pettiford, a member of the group from the Bronx that wrote and performed the song, said he knew nothing about the MOVE incident at the time and still knows very little about it now.
“What planet does he live on?” asked Ramona Africa, a MOVE survivor who spent seven years in prison after the incident.
Africa says she can’t help but link the song and fire.
“It definitely reminds me of what happened on May 13,” she said. “I never thought it was written for that. But you automatically connect the two.”
The song entered popular culture linked to MOVE, but another tune inspired by the fire quickly became too politically hot to handle by local song legends.
Bunny Sigler, the famous Philadelphia R&B singer, songwriter and producer, said he was working with other musicians in a studio at 6th Street and Olney Avenue on the day of the MOVE fire. They could see the smoke off in the distance as the fire raged through the day.
Then they went to work.
“These guys started playing this song,” Sigler recalled. “It was something. They felt that pain. They played the funkiest baseline that I ever heard.”
But Sigler said his management, Philadelphia International Records, was “very tight” with then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. and didn’t want the song.
“They said, ‘Hands off! Hands off!’ ” Sigler said. “They wouldn’t use it.”
Sigler, who now has different management, started thinking about the song, “Philadelphia’s Burning,” this year, after a fire ravaged the offices of Philadelphia International Records. He decided to revive it, collecting footage from the incident and shooting scenes out on Osage Avenue for a new music video.
“Bullhorns were shouting profanities. Led to all this misery. People told the mayor we can’t take no more. You do something before we knock down the door.”
“Philadelphia’s burning, what a shame. Philadelphia’s burning, who’s to blame?”
“When you hear the song, the whole story is there,” Sigler said. “People might get mad at me but I’m going to tell the story.”