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BLACK MUSIC MONTH:
BACK TO PHILLY

June is Black Music Month, a tradition begun several decades ago. In the present music culture and marketplace, of course, Black music is always dominant. We'll be following the through lines of some particularly resilient musical currents in our upcoming BMM special. Stay tuned. In the meantime, we revisit this excerpt from Miles Marshall Lewis' prior interview with soul music pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

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 79, 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 launched 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.

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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