[11 April 2008]
Let’s begin with the obvious: Trying to gain a mastery of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s extensive discography can be a daunting task. To truly get a sense of the sheer beauty, breadth, and cultural impact of their music, one needs to consult the classic albums on their legendary label, Philadelphia International (PIR), their early work with Jerry Butler, Joe Simon, and Wilson Pickett, and those underrated goodies from artists like Jean Carne, Bunny Sigler, MFSB, and the Three Degrees. Such a piecemeal approach to the duo’s body of work is not only expensive but time consuming.
One option requiring far less money and time would be purchasing the i-Tunes version of The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and the Story of Brotherly Love. This three disc collection provides insight into the duo’s remarkable talent, documents their contributions to pop, soul, and disco, and features a wide range of artists. Like most collections however, The Philly Sound has its shortcomings. Complications surrounding the licensing of PIR’s post-1975 recordings resulted in the omission of solo material from balladeer Teddy Pendergrass and chart toppers from the king of supper soul, Lou Rawls. Also conspicuously missing are some of Patti LaBelle’s finest moments during her brief tenure with the Philly-based company.
Fortunately for those collecting older music by way of “best of” packages, some of PIR’s later jams are included on a recently issued compilation from Legacy, The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits. Sure to benefit from all the publicity surrounding the producers’ recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, this new collection boasts 12 gold and platinum singles, 11 R&B #1s, and several pop hits.
A nice slice of popular music history, The Sound of Philadelphia attests not only to Gamble and Huff’s hit making abilities, but their amazing versatility as well. One gets a glimpse of how the producers and their associates successfully communicated the travails of love and life (“Back Stabbers”, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, and “Me and Mrs. Jones”), uplifted troubled hearts and souls (“Love Train” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”), enlivened parties (“T.S.O.P.” and “Do It Any Way You Wanna”), and spiced up the bedroom (“Close the Door”).
Notwithstanding its exploration of PIR’s diverse sounds, styles, and messages, The Sound of Philadelphia will not please everyone. Surely some will be perplexed by the omission of classic anthems like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody”, The O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” and “Give the People What They Want”, and Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love T.K.O.”. Others might be irritated by the fact that this latest collection of greatest hits duplicates its predecessor Philly Super Soul Hits nine times.
Only the unreasonable, however, would deny this compilation’s value. Even with its duplications and omissions, The Sound of Philadelphia is a great introduction to the music of Gamble and Huff. It covers the entire ‘70s, includes at least one song from all of PIR’s major hitters, and strikes a nice balance between dance tracks, soulful grooves, and late night ballads.
If you’re unfamiliar with the music of Gamble and Huff, The Sound of Philadelphia is a great purchase; but for the more experienced travelers on the PIR train, I’d recommend another compilation, Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records. Comprised of obscure singles released by Gamble and Huff’s three principal companies, PIR, TSOP, and Gamble, Conquer the World shines light on lesser known material by artists like Dee Dee Sharp, Bunny Sigler, Frankie and the Spindles, Carolyn Crawford, Love Committee, Yellow Sunshine, Bobby Bennett, Ruby and the Party Gang, and the Mellow Moods. None of the songs on this collection of rarities scorched the charts, yet most are enjoyable. One factor in their appeal is their rugged quality. Numbers like Pat and the Blenders’ “Hard Workin’ Man”, the Soul Devalents’ “Grasshopper”, the Peoples Choice’s “Big Hurt”, and Ruth McFadden’s underground classic, “Ghetto Woman”, exude the type of grittiness absent in more popular PIR tunes.
As to be expected given its roots in Philly, Conquer the World also has its saccharine moments. Producers Gamble and Huff put their delicate touch on Johnny Williams’ beautiful “It’s So Wonderful” (quite possibly the best included track) and the Futures’ “Love is Here”.
Interesting contributions also come from Bunny Sigler. A very talented musician, Sigler played piano, produced, and wrote for Philly International for several years. His pen was completely or partially responsible for songs like the O’Jays “Now that We’ve Found Love”, “You Got Your Hooks in Me”, and “Don’t Call Me Brother”, along with Archie Bell and the Drells’ “I Could Dance All Night.” Sigler’s importance to the PIR machine is fully evident on Conquer the World, where he appears as a performer, songwriter, or producer on six of the disc’s cuts. If you’re a fan of Sigler, “Conquer the World (a Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell-style duet with Dee Dee Sharp)”, “The Theme for Five Fingers”, “Makin Up Time”, and “Everybody Needs Good Loving” deserve your attention.
Though far from perfect, and probably not the ideal gift for the casual music fan, Conquer the World enriches rather than lessens one’s appreciation for the diverse talent and music coming out of Philly International.