Honoring Philly’s Finest: Gamble and Huff

If you’re more than vaguely familiar with the history of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you probably know that Atlantic Records’ legendary founder Ahmet Ertegun spearheaded its formation 25 years ago. Feeling as if music was one of the world’s most valuable resources, Ertegun wanted to create an institution committed to celebrating pioneering performers, songwriters, and producers in the fields of rhythm and blues, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll.

A crucial aspect of Ertegun’s historical project was recognizing the immense contributions of African American artists. Such a commitment and goal was hardly surprising to those familiar with the music mogul. Even though Ertegun had shepherded the careers of white and black artists from both sides of the Atlantic, he always appeared most proud of his connections to African American cultural giants like Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, Ruth Brown, Solomon Burke, and Aretha Franklin. Conversations about his place in music history seemed to invariably return to the souls and gifts of black folk. When questioned about his legacy in an interview conducted before his death in 2006, Ertegun asked to be remembered for one endeavor: “I’d be happy if people said that I did a little bit to raise the dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music.”

Surely, the man with the utmost respect for black artistic creativity and genius would have been proud that the first recipients of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Ahmet Ertegun Award are Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.

Legendary entrepreneurs, producers, and songwriters, the dynamic duo stands out as one of the most formidable tandems in popular music history. Enjoying their greatest success in the 1970s, Gamble and Huff created mesmerizing music which not only moved bodies, but inspired souls. Strikingly manifest in many of the timeless anthems (i.e. the O’Jays’ “Love Train” and “For the Love of Money”) released on their legendary label, Philadelphia International (PIR), was an unwavering love for humanity, as well as an unflagging commitment to confront the world in all of its complex beauty and chaotic ugliness. To an increasingly fragmented society burdened by racism, economic exploitation, and war, Gamble and Huff’s music illuminated the possibility of a new human paradigm and a new world order in which equality, fairness, and justice reigned supreme.

Of course, the sound of Philly extended beyond the protest vein. Anything but one-dimensional, Gamble and Huff created aural masterpieces ideal for the bedroom (Teddy Pendergrass’ “Turn off the Lights” and “Close the Door”), the dance hall (MFSB’s “TSOP” and the Jacksons’ “Enjoy Yourself”), and even the sanctified church (The O’Jays’ “Put Your Hands Together”).

Such broad range contributed immensely to Gamble and Huff’s commercial success. Endearing themselves to fans of soul, rhythm and blues, pop, and disco, the duo crossed racial and generational boundaries. Consistent buyers of their music included blue-collar African Americans, members of the expanding black bourgeoisie, gay men who frequented the nation’s discothèques, and a rainbow coalition of women enamored with the Satin Soul of Philadelphia International’s leading balladeer, Teddy Pendergrass.

The music of Gamble and Huff had universal appeal, but love for PIR ran especially deep in black America. Stacked on the consoles of many stereos in African American households were singles and albums by Pendergrass, the O’Jays, Lou Rawls, and the Intruders, among others. Numerous factors accounted for this success in the black community. Sure, the social commentary found on message songs like “Wake Up Everybody”, “Give the People What They Want”, and “Bad Luck” struck a chord among African American listeners, but Gamble and Huff’s voyages into the private spaces of everyday life also contributed to their popularity. Such PIR classics as “We Cry Together”, “I Don’t Love You Anymore”, “Love T.K.O.”, and “Stairway to Heaven” provided a window into the interiorities of black familial and romantic lives, those private spaces where women and men caressed, loved, quarreled, sinned, forgave, reconciled, or moved on.

If Motown was the sound of Young America in the transformative ’60s, Philadelphia International was the sound of two talented individuals seeking to grapple with the changes, challenges, and possibilities of the ’70s.

To understand how Gamble and Huff help define an exciting era of music, you must begin with their humble roots in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Camden, New Jersey.

Much of the detail about Gamble and Huff’s early lives is assiduously documented in John Jackson’s brilliant study, A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, but a few basics deserve repeating. A product of a single-parent, female-headed household, Kenny Gamble was born in the city of brotherly love on August 11, 1943. Taking an interest in music at an early age, he grew up with the sounds of gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues in his ears. Endowed with a beautiful voice, but unable to read music or play an instrument, the young singer had the propitious sense to forge relationships with individuals gifted in those areas where he lacked proficiency. One of those individuals was a youngster named Thom Bell, a very gifted pianist with whom Gamble started writing songs.

Not long after their encounter, Bell and Gamble recorded a song (“I’ll Get By”) with Jerry Ross, an independent producer and promoter in Philadelphia. Enamored with Gamble’s lush baritone, Ross saw great potential in the ambitious youngster. The producer’s unwavering faith in Gamble — even after “I’ll Get By” flopped — paid huge dividends in 1963, when two of Ross and Gamble’s compositions, “Everybody Monkey” and “Who Do You Love” landed on the radio. Written for one of Ross’s recent acquisitions, the Sapphires, the latter was a top 25 hit.

Enthused about the possibility of even greater success, Gamble spent a considerable amount of time honing his craft at Ross’s offices in Philadelphia’s Schubert Building, which, like New York’s famed Brill Building, housed some of the city’s leading publishers, writers, producers, and so forth.

Among the talented musicians occasionally working in the building was Leon Huff. One year Gamble’s senior, Huff was born in Camden, New Jersey, on April 8, 1942. His remarkable skills on the piano enabled him to make a modest living as a session player for some of the biggest producers (Phil Spector) and songwriters (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) in New York City. Eventually gaining respect for more than his skills as a pianist, Huff really grabbed the attention of some of his peers when Patty and the Emblems scored a top 20 hit with one of his earliest compositions, “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl”.

All of the skills Huff acquired and sharpened during his tenure in New York proved monumental when he and Gamble began their music partnership in the mid-’60s. Huff’s deftness on the piano coupled with his strong sense of groove perfectly complemented Gamble’s lyricism. Possessing remarkable chemistry, the tandem poured their energy into their songwriting. Their efforts would be rewarded in 1965, when the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart” gave the duo their first top 5 hit.

Over the next five years, Gamble and Huff worked with such respected singers as Chicago legend Jerry Butler, the mercurial Southern soul man Wilson Pickett, songstress Dusty Springfield, Archie Bell and the Drells, along with the Intruders. Proving early their ability to achieve commercial success with a wide range of artists, the duo scored gold certifications with Butler’s “Hey, Western Union Man”, the Intruders’ “Cowboys and Girls”, and Pickett’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You”.

Fairly soon, Gamble and Huff gained as much respect for their business acumen as their hit-making abilities. Entering a business arrangement that would become a model for other enterprising blacks, Philly’s hottest producers linked a distribution deal with Columbia Records at the end of 1970. Each party’s duties were relatively simple. Gamble and Huff had full control over the signing and recording of their artists, while Columbia’s subsidiary, Epic, handled product marketing and financing. So far as Gamble was concerned, this was the perfect situation for all involved. “I think we made a very good move,” he later explained to Rolling Stone. “They’re strong where we’re weak, and we’re strong where they’re weak.”

Choosing Philadelphia International (PIR) as the name for their company, Gamble, Huff, and their expanding staff prepared to conquer the world of popular music. Commercial success eluded PIR during its first year of existence, but things changed dramatically in 1972. That year, Philadelphia International celebrated three gold singles: Billy Paul’s salacious tale of adultery, “Me and Mrs. Jones”, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ riveting “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, and the O’Jays chart topping “Back Stabbers”.

Climbing to the top of the charts in the summer of ’72, “Back Stabbers” sustained the attention of music listeners for the entire year. Frequently referenced as evidence of how the positive outlook of the 1960s had given way to the cynicism of the ‘70s, the song’s narrative encapsulated the brutal realities found in the inner city blues of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and the increasingly despondent Sly Stone. Anything but casual music, the haunting groove demands that one deals with the hurtful truth of foes camouflaged as friends and smiling faces telling lies.

Seemingly Gamble and Huff had given the people exactly what they wanted, for “Back Stabbers” moved one million units by the fall of that year. Much to Columbia’s delight, PIR artists not only moved singles, but they also sold albums. The first half of 1973 witnessed gold certification for the O’Jays Back Stabbers and Billy Paul’s 360 Degrees, along with strong album sales for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

Not just pulling fans to the record stores, Gamble and Huff drew tremendous praise from critics who loved the producers’ work with PIR artists and outside acts like Joe Simon (the producers wrote and produced his million-seller “Drowning in the Sea of Love.”). “Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff,” raved writer Daniel Goldberg in 1972, “are the current grandmasters of R&B production.”

Not resting on their laurels, Gamble and Huff remained on the grind, spending long hours in their new PIR offices and in engineer Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Studio. Lending great support to their efforts was a talented stable of writers, arrangers, and musicians. To compete in the fast-paced world of soul and pop, Gamble and Huff relied on the deft arranging skills of Bobby Martin, Norman Harris, and Thom Bell, the magnificent writing of Bunny Sigler, Victor Carstarphen, Gene McFadden, and John Whitehead, and talented individuals like keyboardist Lenny Pakula, drummer Earl Young, bassist Anthony Jackson, and guitarist Bobby Eli. Supported by some of the best talents in the business, Gamble and Huff maintained a high-profile presence on the pop and soul charts.

The sound of Philly became even more popular when Don Cornelius, the host and creator of the popular dance show Soul Train, elicited Gamble and Huff’s services in 1973. Notwithstanding their unfamiliarity with the television program, the duo obliged Cornelius’ request for a theme song. Fittingly titled “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)”, the dance track featured instrumentals from PIR’s house band, Mother, Father, Sister, Brother (MFSB), along with backing vocals from the female trio the Three Degrees. Considered by many to be one of disco’s foundational texts, “TSOP” and its driving high-hat drum pattern put bodies on the dance floor. Occupying the number one position on the pop and rhythm and blues charts for two weeks, the song moved more than one million units, and added greatly to both MFSB’s and the Three Degrees’ popularity (selling two million copies worldwide, the latter’s “When Will I See You Again” was a smash on white and black radio, domestically and internationally.).

Shaping established and emergent genres, PIR could seemingly do no wrong. Commercial success, however, never dulled the company’s political sensibilities — especially as long as Kenny Gamble remained in charge. Like Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and other cultural workers who viewed art as an instrument of change, Kenny Gamble infused his lyrics with social commentary. “Instead of just giving them [music listeners] a beat,” Gamble remarked during the height of his success, “we try and deliver a message that will uplift their minds.”

Embracing the opportunity to reach minds and souls through music, Gamble interjected his opinions on race, poverty, masculinity, the family, and spiritual dislocation on numerous PIR releases. Consider, for instance, his work on the O’Jays’ Ship Ahoy. On this 1973 classic, Gamble revisited the horrors of the African Miafa/Middle Passage (title track), pointed out the dangers of greed and crass materialism (“For the Love of Money”), and raised fundamental questions about the ethical dimensions and intraracial responsibilities of Black Power (“Don’t Call Me Brother”).

Even though Huff left social commentary to his more politically-engaged partner, his importance to the popularity of PIR’s message songs should not be overlooked. His moving work on acoustic piano and the Moog synthesizer added dimensions, texture, and depth to Gamble’s lyricism, communicating heartfelt emotions and feelings. Take a listen to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake-Up Everybody” and consider the degree to which Huff’s memorable solo at the beginning provides the perfect segue into song’s uplifting lyrics (written not by Gamble, but by Gene McFadden, John Whitehead, and Victor Carstarphen).

Complementing each other beautifully, Huff and Gamble created magical moments, as well as inspired many artists coming in and out of their studios. One of their greatest admirers was pop megastar Michael Jackson, who worked with the production team after he and his brothers departed Motown in 1975.

Convinced the new addition to their musical family could dominate the pop, soul, and dance charts, Epic assigned the Jacksons’ production to Gamble and Huff. No one was more excited about this arrangement than brother Michael: “We’d always had great respect for the records that Gamble and Huff had overseen, records like “Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (featuring Teddy Pendergrass), and “When Will I See You Again”, by the Three Degrees, along with many other hits.” Very attentive to Gamble and Huff’s creative process, Jackson learned a great deal about songwriting from the two men. “Just watching Huff play the piano while Gamble sang,” the superstar later recalled in his autobiography, “taught me more about the anatomy of a song than anything else. Kenny Gamble is a master melody man. He made me pay closer attention to the melody because of watching him create.”

To Michael Jackson and many others, Gamble and Huff elevated pop and soul to a level of unprecedented sophistication. Love for the architects of Philly soul, however, was not universal.

Complaints that PIR, with its lush orchestration, sprawling arrangements, and excessive sentimentality, had taken the grit out of soul intensified during the second half of the 1970s. “Most recent Philadelphia International records,” critic Russell Gersten bemoaned in a 1977 review, “have sounded over-refined and almost emotionless.” Coupled with complaints about PIR’s antiseptic sound were broadsides against Gamble’s political rumblings. Of concern for some writers, including Robert Christgau and Robert Palmer, were the heavy dosages of testosterone and patriarchal impulses found in some of the lyrics.

Complaints from critics, however, hardly kept fans from the record stores. Sales of PIR artists remained solid during the second half of the ’70s. Still connecting deeply with their base of supporters, Gamble and Huff scored number #1 hits with the O’Jays (“I Love Music” and “Use Ta Be My Girl”), People’s Choice (“Do It Any Way You Wanna”), and the newly acquired Lou Rawls (“You’ll Never Find (A Love Like Mine”).

Gamble and Huff (outsides) with Teddy Pendergrass

(center) during contract signing

Considerable magic was also created with PIR’s leading man, Teddy Pendergrass. Leaving Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in 1975, Pendergrass embarked on a hugely successful solo career. Thanks to classics like “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me”, “You Can’t Hide from Yourself”, “Life Is a Song Worth Singing”, “Close the Door”, “Come Go with Me”, “Turn Off the Lights”, and “Love T.K.O”, Pendergrass ascended quickly to superstar status in the music world. His albums regularly reached platinum status, his songs received constant airplay, and his legendary ladies-only shows packed venues large and small.

Everything seemed in its right place — until March 18, 1982, when a horrific car crash in the Germantown section of Philly left Pendergrass paralyzed from the neck down. Emotionally devastated, Gamble and Huff struggled to deal with the questions and emotional pain brought by this mind-numbing tragedy. A man who had contributed immensely to the success of their empire was in the fight of his life.

Small surprise given Pendergrass’s importance, PIR’s future was also in question. A major concern was the company’s relationship and distribution deal with Columbia/Epic. Now with a roster boasting talents like Earth, Wind and Fire, the Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross, and Michael Jackson, the Columbia family no longer relied on PIR as a gateway to black dollars. Considering the changing circumstances, few were surprised when Columbia/CBS/Epic suspended its deal with PIR in November of 1982.

Struggling to remain a force in the industry after the split, PIR released leftovers from Patti Labelle’s 1981 sessions (which included classics like “If Only You Knew” and “Love and Need and Want You”), along with material from the O’Jays, the Jones Girls, and Teddy Pendergrass. Ominous clouds hung over PIR, but not everyone had lost faith in the company. Thanks to their past record of success, Gamble and Huff secured a distribution deal with Capitol-EMI in 1985. Out of this partnership came memorable records like the O’Jays’ Let Me Touch You and Phyllis Hyman’s amazing Living All Alone and Prime of My Life. But though strong in many regards, none of these releases had the commercial success and cultural impact of the music from Gamble and Huff’s golden years.

Gamble and Huff accept Dance Music Hall of Fame Award in 2005

As time passed, new genres emerged, new stars rose to ascension, and the names of Gamble and Huff faded from the charts. But their music has remained a part of our cultural landscape. Their continued influence can be gauged by the mega-corporations (including Gap and Chevron) utilizing their music in commercials, the frequency in which their songs still invade our airwaves, and the profound respect they’ve garnered from some of the industry’s most influential players. “They’re not only role models,” producer James “Jimmy Jam” Harris once remarked, “I think of them as road maps.”

Undoubtedly millions of music fans who loved, danced, and cried to Gamble and Huff’s classic anthems share Harris’s admiration and respect, and the Ahmet Ertegun Award is thoroughly deserved.