Gamble & Huff Celebrate 50 Years of Philly Soul and Socially Responsible Music

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In the early 1970s, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff would meet regularly in Gamble’s office next to an upright piano with a track list and a tape recorder to talk about the news or what was happening in Philadelphia. Their chemistry as songwriters and producers, combined with these frequent conversations, laid the groundwork for some of the most memorable and socially conscious songs in popular music to date.

“It was like Gamble and Huff at the Apollo, man,” Huff recalls. “Gamble would sing, and I would play. Once we started, we didn’t stop; as quickly as I figured out which chord to play next, Gamble could write lyrics off the top of his head. It was an incredible time.

It’s five decades later, and Gamble and Huff are commemorating their thunderbolt in a bottle. Older statesmen who signed veteran artists like The O’Jays, The Three Degrees, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, The Jacksons, Billy Paul, Phyllis Hyman, The Jones Girls, Lou Rawls, Jean Carne and Patti LaBelle Celebrate 50th Anniversary of Their Label, Philadelphia International Records, With Year-Round Campaign Featuring Digital and New Media Partnerships; remastered and limited edition versions; and monthly themes associated with the now iconic brand.

The Grammy-winning duo recorded two-thirds of The Mighty Three at Sigma Sound Studios with arranger / producer Thom Bell. Responsible for the songwriting of the theme song “Soul Train”, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”, Gamble and Huff are synonymous with the creation of “Philly Soul” or “Philly Sound”, a hybrid of string arrangements lush, pre-disco rhythms, jazz horns, precise melodies, spirited harmonies and funky grooves performed by their 40-piece orchestra, MFSB.

The O’Jays v. 1970.Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

“The ’70s were our time,” Gamble said. “‘Soul Train’ took off, and it became a monster. We were all together; I give Don Cornelius his props because it seems like every two weeks he had one of our performers until all of our artists were there, it was beautiful and amazing.

Classic songs like “Back Stabbers”, “For the love of money”, “If you don’t know me by now”, “When am I going to see you again”, “Turn off the lights”, “Me and Mrs. Jones “,” ‘Don’t leave me like this “,” You are going to make me love someone else “,” Love Train “,” You will never find a love like mine “,” Close the door “and” Awake Everyone ”all stemmed from black slogans or colloquialisms the writing couple heard often.

Members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Dance Music Hall of Fame, Gamble and Huff personalized each song based on the artist. The lyrics often spoke of romantic love; embrace their ethnic and cultural identities; or take steps in the right direction to uplift people from all walks of life.

“We had a star roster with great singers, performers and an orchestra to play,” said Huff, 79. “It was like a songwriter’s paradise; we had a certain speed and a certain tempo to write from.

“Some of the things we do come naturally,” said Gamble, 77. “We talked about improving humanity and allowing human beings to be the instrument. We don’t just have love songs; it helps alert our community with some great music, lyrics and grooves.

The iconic sound of Philadelphia

Gamble and Huff met in 1963 while taking an elevator into the office building where they worked four floors apart. Huff, a sessional musician who worked for a junior job, began traveling to Philadelphia regularly from his hometown of Camden, NJ to host songwriting marathon sessions with record store owner Gamble. and leader of a vocal group, The Romeos. Huff, the former Songwriters Hall of Fame co-chairs, released 10 songs in their first full reunion.

“I didn’t have a plan B,” Huff said. “My goal was to be successful in the music business one way or another; I didn’t do anything other than wash dishes in hospitals, but I knew that was not my calling.

Among Gamble and Huff’s early hits were Intruders ‘”Cowboys to Girls”, Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart”, Archie Bell and the Drells ‘”I Can’t Stop Dancin'” and “Only the Strong Survive” by Jerry Butler. . “Also owners of several rotating record companies, Gamble and Huff’s first attempt to secure a distribution from Atlantic Records was rejected.

Harold Melvin & Blue Notes, c. 1970.Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

But Clive Davis, then president of CBS Records, took note of the couple’s growing list of writing credits and signed them for a distribution deal for PIR in 1971. Gamble and Huff built a stable network with distributors and radio programmers for their past creations, but felt it was necessary to gain the support of a major brand to promote and disseminate their cohesive production.

“Huff and I had been totally independent, and that’s how we worked the best,” Gamble said. “Every two years you start to notice that the record companies would have new people, but me and Huff worked like dogs, but we love it because we love music. We love doing this every day; we had fun doing it; and we had a lot of help, especially the black disc jockeys.

Gamble and Huff have used their influence to create more diversity, equity and inclusion in the music world in the era of the civil rights movement. Under PIR, they developed and trained an internal roster of writers, producers, arrangers and engineers like Bunny Sigler, Phil Hurtt, Linda Creed, Gene McFadden & John Whitehead, Bobby Martin, Joe Tarsia and Cynthia Biggs. “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto,” PIR’s 1977 ensemble project credited to its Philadelphia International All-Stars, is the forerunner of the “group cuts” later popularized by record labels and hip-hop teams. , and also spawned national campaigns in black neighborhoods for the community. development.

The advocacy and activism of the production duo are responsible for the majors that are developing black music departments; they convinced CBS Records to do it after they made their deal. “We just looked at our community and our people to determine what kind of contributions we could make,” Gamble said. “We had the ear of our community, which is sometimes difficult to obtain. We used our music to wake people up.

Billy Paul in 1973.Michael Putland / Getty Images

Pandora and Sonos Radio HD both run playlists associated with Gamble and Huff’s commentary behind their original compositions. One of PIR’s limited editions this year, “Golden Gate Groove: The Sound of Philadelphia Live in San Francisco 1973”, was discovered on a two vinyl set on Record Store Day on June 12. Hosted by “Soul Train” host Cornelius at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco as part of an international convention, the show was the first time that PIR’s full roster has shared a stage.

In 1976, PIR was the second largest black-owned music company behind Motown Records. Gamble and Huff’s proof of concept prompted industry executives to pay more attention to their production, putting their business deeper in the dark.

“We blew up the roof of San Francisco,” Huff recalls. “All the record directors were at the top of the tables, dancing, standing in their seats and drinking once the music started playing. Sales skyrocketed after that night because people saw firsthand what was going on in Philly. It was a great night. “

Gamble agrees, “We didn’t just talk about it. You could see polite acts. When our numbers take the stage, they blow the joints; it’s nothing like hearing the record. We had the president of Columbia Records standing at the tables; it was good for the soul.

Gamble, also the owner of a workforce and community development organization, Universal Companies, is one of the co-founders of Black Music Month. Originally a collective of black DJs, promoters, executives and artists, the collective voice of the black music industry landed them on the lawn of Jimmy Carter’s White House in 1979.

The biggest mission, Gamble and Huff add, was to show the economic power of black music.

“Young people bought these albums left and right; it wasn’t just singles that blacks were buying, ”says Gamble. “The way you have fun, the joy and the laughter are good, but ultimately jobs are created from African American music. We had pretty much everyone in the entire industry working with us. It sounded good, and it was good to do it.

Decades later, their work is still actively sampled or covered by various R&B and hip-hop groups, and appears in commercials. They also shared their story on Clubhouse panels, Instagram Lives, and a Facebook podcast.

It’s a change from the analog days when Gamble and Huff were successful, but they’re committed to keeping their legacy alive.

“Your heart and soul have to be there,” Gamble said. “Philadelphia International is a great example of good business and keeping our word. As long as we can do something positive and add to it all, I’m willing to do whatever I can to keep this going. “

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