Interview by Miles Marshall Lewis

Grammy-winning songwriter/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, creators of what would come to be called The Sound of Philadelphia, stand tall in the history of music. This year marks the 50th anniversary of their Philadelphia International Records, home to the classic soul of The O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and many, many more.

Ballads like Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” (1972) and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” (1972), and proto-disco jams like MFSB’s 1974 “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”—aka the Soul Train theme—have been ubiquitous for decades. Other indelible hits included The O’Jays’ “Love Train” (1973), The Three Degrees’ “When Will I See You Again” (1974), Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” (1976) and McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (1979).

The “Philly soul” sound began to take shape in 1964 when pianist Huff, now 78, first teamed with Gamble, 77. Their collaboration with songwriter Jerry Ross on a single by Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister)—1966’s “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”—was an early milestone, landing in the R&B Top 20.

Also laying a foundation of hits by Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett, The Jacksons and other acts as independent producers, Gamble and Huff are largely responsible for the vibe of 1970s R&B radio.

The authors of more than 3,000 songs, Gamble and Huff eventually wrote and produced 40 gold and platinum albums. The duo established the template for Pharrell Williams, Babyface, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and scores of other producers. In 2008 they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

As they launch an anniversary celebration marked by a dedicated Sonos Radio channel and a vinyl boxed set called VMP Anthology: The Story of Philadelphia International, among other commemorations, Gamble and Huff spoke with HITS about their enduring legacy.

Where did The Sound of Philadelphia come from?
Leon Huff: I’ve heard so many theories about that, but the way I think about it is, when Gamble and I started collaborating and consistently putting out music, we had a certain style of producing: the way I played—I was the piano player on all the music—the style of Gamble’s lyric-writing… When the disc jockeys started noticing that sound, they’d say, “There goes another one of those Philly records”; they started saying, “That sound is coming from Philly.” Gamble and I didn’t sit down and try to think up a brand name; it’s just something people put on us. We just said, “OK, The Sound of Philadelphia”; let it be.

A lot of your productions reflected Black pride. What gave you the courage to do that when record companies wanted music to cross over to white audiences?
Kenny Gamble: It’s true. We had some great love songs, but we also had a message in the music. We did a lot of those songs with the O’Jays. They used to hate us almost—“I don’t wanna do no more message songs!” I asked Eddie [Levert of The O'Jays], “Why don’t you wanna do message songs?” He said, “’Cause you gotta live up to ’em!” I said, “Give the people what they want.” We were like homing pigeons. They used to put messages with the pigeons. They could fly everywhere and get that message through. We were the messengers.

Leon Huff: I’m originally from Camden, New Jersey. Gamble’s the one originally from Philadelphia. But the conditions were the same, the ghettos we always thought could be better. We wrote about the conditions of the communities we all grew up in and were living around. Gamble and I started to write those type of songs to help make things better.

What modern artist would you like to apply the Philly Sound to?
Leon Huff: Well, it’s all about the song. But I love H.E.R. She’s so different, so original.

Given the Sound of Philadelphia’s booming basslines, orchestral strings and high-hat rhythms, how much do you think you were responsible for disco?
Leon Huff: To me, disco is really just up-tempo dance music. When we were making albums, we always had ballads and we made an effort to put dance music on them, too. We were always into dance music. It evolved into disco. So yes, we did have an influence on that.

I remember going into a club in New York when the disco era first started, and they were dancing to a track Gamble and I produced for The O’Jays called “I Love Music.” They danced to that music all night long! We didn’t say, “OK, this is gonna be disco”; that wasn’t even in our minds. We just wrote and produced dance music, and we ended up in the Dance Music Hall of Fame.

Is there a demo somewhere of Diana Ross singing your #1 hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way” [originally released in 1975 by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes]? Some say the song was lined up for her before Motown passed it to Thelma Houston in ’77.
Leon Huff: Really? I never heard that, though The Supremes did do a duet with The Temptations with a Gamble and Huff song we did with Jerry Ross: “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” [#2 in 1969].

Kenny Gamble: There was a brother that worked with us, Hippy Cary. He and Thelma were messing around with that song. The three of us wrote that song together and it was great, unbelievable. At the time, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were in the studio, too. We recorded it with them as well. When we put it out, we found out that at Motown, they’d given it to Thelma.

People would go to our albums and try to steal our songs, try to get them before we could go all out. But the Thelma Houston record was unbelievable; it was like the #1 disco song in the world. We didn’t try to compete with them. In fact, I think that made it even better, when you had Thelma Houston and you had [Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes lead singer] Teddy Pendergrass and them doing the song [a #1 hit for Simply Red in 1989].

How did you feel about the Philadelphia International house band, MFSB, moonlighting as the Salsoul Orchestra?
Kenny Gamble: Well, at first there was a little contention. You listen to the Salsoul Orchestra, it sounded like MFSB because it was the same musicians, right? But when you play the Salsoul Orchestra and listen to MFSB, MFSB was like, “Wow!” It was unbelievable. The Salsoul Orchestra was good too, of course. Vince Montana was the guy who came up with it.

Every day there were people trying to steal that sound and get the musicians. We got used to it eventually. Nothing we could do. Promotion men, producers, everybody was standing in line trying to get these guys to work for ’em. What made the difference, though, were the Gamble and Huff songs—that was the whole thing.

MFSB stands for Mother Father Sister Brother, but didn’t it also stand for something you couldn’t exactly say on the radio? Kenny Gamble: Everybody knew. We’d say, “Well, MFSB—y’all know what we mean, right?” Everybody knew it during that era and today, they really know it. But we were making a point with Mother Father Sister Brother: that Philly International and the message we were trying to promote was about family, about unity; it was about pulling our people together and letting the Black man do what we wanted to do.

Was there ever a song you guys disagreed about that became a hit anyway?
Leon Huff: We rarely disagreed. But there was a song I had second thoughts about when we were listening to the playback, because it was so different from the rest of the music. We wrote that song, “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The story was true; Gamble and I watched the story play out. The artist was Billy Paul. Billy was a male solo artist, but he was different. And the track, the music, was so different from what we were accustomed to doing. I said, “This is a different animal here. Let me see what this is gonna do.” It sounded good and felt good. And it grew on me.

Was there an “a-ha moment” when you realized you clicked as a production team?
Leon Huff:
Yeah, when we had 10 records in the Top 40! “Uh-oh, Gamble—we got the pulse of the world!”



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