Gamble & Huff, Philly Sound architects, enter Hall of Fame
By JONATHAN TAKIFF
Philadelphia Daily News
EVERY 13.5 minutes, it’s been calculated by Columbia Records, a song with the imprint of producers/songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff is played somewhere on earth.
But tonight marks an extra special reason for celebration by this creative team and our city. These architects of the Philly Soul sound are being ushered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – the first inductees honored under the newly named Ahmet Ertegun Award. If you feel like eavesdropping, the black tie event will be carried live on both the VH1 Classic channel and also on MTV’s Music High Definition: MHD channel, starting at 8:30 p.m.
Much more has been made, over the years, of their Detroit rivals in soul music. The truth, though, is that Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records (PIR) often eclipsed Motown in the 1970s both creatively and at the cash register. Their savvy productions became the benchmark for musical urbanity – a lavish mix of R&B rhythms, deep funk grooves, jazzy guitars and vibes, pulsing horn charts and glossy string arrangements (oft performed by sidelining members of the Philadelphia Orchestra).
And the ongoing impact of the Philly Soul sound has been huge. This was the music that predicted and ushered in disco, smooth jazz and sophisticated adult urban evolutions like quiet storm and neo-soul.
PIR took off in the early 1970s through a distribution deal with Columbia Records. But Gamble and Huff had actually been woodshedding since the late 1950s. That’s when a teenage, South Philly-rooted Gamble started fronting a group called The Romeos that included keyboardist Thom Bell (later a top creative figure at PIR), playing at the bottom of the bill at the Uptown and backing artists like Chubby Checker on tour.
Gamble also kept his ear to the ground as a gofer at WDAS and later by running a small record shop on South Street.
The Camden, N.J.-born Huff, meanwhile, was cutting his teeth as a pianist/arranger in New York, working with the likes of super producer Phil Spector and all the top songwriting teams (like Gerry Goffin and Carole King) at the Brill Building.
Gamble and Huff’s first collaboration came in 1965 with a song by Candy & The Kisses, “Do the ’81.” While this dance sensation didn’t exactly sweep the nation, it was a regional hit and still gets played at gatherings hosted by G&H’s old bud and supporter Jerry Blavat.
The hits that really made Gamble and Huff – and Philadelphia — famous started popping out of the oven two years later. In chronological order, here are our picks for the Top Ten that should be in your collection. And as luck should have it, most are newly available on a just released Legacy package, “The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits.”
1. “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” – Dee Dee Warwick.
Written by G&H and early collaborator Jerry Ross, this chest-beating romantic anthem got to No. 13 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1967 in a performance by Dionne Warwick’s little sister. But you probably know it from a very close cover version by Motown stars Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations that later reached No. 2 on the R&B and pop charts. Yeah, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.
2. “Expressway to Your Heart,” Soul Survivors.
Inspired by a traffic jam on I-76 – even back then the Schuylkill Crawlway was “much too crowded,” – this 1967 Top 5 pop chart hit ushered in the era of “blue-eyed soul” singers, and proved that G&H’s touch had universal appeal. From this session, the guys got lots of assignments from Atlantic Records to work with the likes of Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield and also connected with Jerry Butler for his career-reviving “Only the Strong Survive.” (Butler will be making the presentation to G&H at the Hall of Fame ceremony tonight.) The profits from “Expressway” also helped the guys fund their own Gamble and Neptune record labels, building a talent roster with, among others, Bunny Sigler, the Three Degrees, Billy Paul and Cleveland exports The O’Jays.
3. “Back Stabbers,” The O’Jays.
The first hit (1972) for Philadelphia International Records, this No. 1 R&B, No. 3 pop hit scribed by Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Leon Huff really hit the nail on the head with its snappy conversational lyrics and sneaking-up-on-you vocal call-and-response (both qualities aped readily and often by Hall & Oates). And what wasn’t there to love about its deliciously breezy arrangement with brassy horns and chunky, jazz-chorded guitar work?
4. “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.
Charting No. 1 R&B and No. 3 pop in 1972, this G&H gem set the mold for much of their work, with its trademarked blending of a gruff, gospelly lead singer and heaven-sent, doo-wop style harmony vocals, all riding atop a lush, string-swept orchestral arrangement. Of course, this is the soul testifier that made a star out of the Blue Notes’ drummer turned lead singer Teddy Pendergrass, who later broke out as a solo act and remained a label mainstay until his debilitating auto accident a decade later. It wasn’t until 1989 that G&H were belatedly honored with a Grammy (best R&B song) for this psychologically deep kiss-off, in its remake by Simply Red.
5. “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Billy Paul.
Man, was PIR ever on fire in the fall of ’72 – selling 10 million discs in that brief span! This was the biggest hit of ’em all from that period, scoring No. 1 on both R&B and pop charts. Jazz-rooted vocalist Billy Paul struck just the right emotional tone – at once slyly boasting and pitifully lamenting his adulterous conduct, a topic rarely touched in pop music. Yet keeping it real was a big part of the Philadelphia International code of the road. Inspiration came to Gamble and Huff from seeing a married colleague hanging with another squeeze at their favorite cafe. Still a barn-burner today, Michael Buble recently cut a strong version, and “American Idol” cutie Syesha Mercado performed it a couple of weeks ago in a role reversal fashion that confused judge Simon Cowell but has kept her in the competition.
6. “Love Train,” The O’Jays.
Hitting No. 1 on both pop and R&B charts in ’73, this tune’s lead track status on the new Gamble and Huff hits collection underscores how much the song means to the guys. Inspired, Gamble once shared, by the Cat Stevens song “Peace Train,” it carries a similarly hopeful, unifying message atop a chugging discophonic beat. And still needs to be heard: “All of you brothers over in Africa, tell all the folks in Egypt and Israel too, please don’t miss this train at the station, ’cause if you miss it, I feel sorry, sorry for you.”
7. “I’ll Always Love My Mama,” The Intruders.
This 1973 release only rose to No. 6 R&B, No. 36 pop. Still this collaboration with McFadden and Whitehead remains one of the most important and durable of the 3,500 songs in the G&H catalog, with its “good old days” recollections (sung and spoken) of a hard-working woman who kept the family together through thin and thinner.
8. “T.S.O.P (The Sound of Philadelphia),” M.F.S.B.
While a lot of disco music was slammed for its cheesy, artificial qualities, the 28 players (ages 26 to 73!) of the Philadelphia International house band who cut this hit at Sigma Sound proved you could get the funk on in fully organic, big-band fashion. Mostly instrumental save for the repeated “People all over the world” phrase lifted from “Love Train” (and maybe influenced, too, by cowboy movie themes of the era), the song was initially commissioned by TV host/producer Don Cornelius for exclusive use as the “Theme from ‘Soul Train.’ ” Then Gamble convinced him it was foolish not to release the performance as a single. Renamed “T.S.O.P,” the track rose to No. 1 on the R&B chart, No. 7 on the pop chart in the spring of 1974 and won the Grammy that year as best R&B instrumental performance. The initials M.F.S.B officially stood for “mother, father, sister, brother” said G&H, to underscore the “family” nature of the operation, but the abbreviation was also open to a more colorful interpretation.
9. “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” Lou Rawls.
PIR grew so hot that artists from other towns and non-aligned musical styles felt compelled to pilgrimage here to catch the magic. The guys did well by Laura Nyro (working with LaBelle) on the “Gonna Take a Miracle” album of vintage R&B covers, with The Jacksons (formerly Jackson Five) on their first post-Motown projects circa 1976-’77, and especially with jazz- and blues-rooted vocalist Lou Rawls, who Gamble and Huff successfully repackaged as a soul/disco crooner on this ’76 chart-topper (No. 1 R&B, No. 2 pop).
10. “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” McFadden and Whitehead.
Whenever a Philadelphia sports team seems close to winning a league championship, this booty-shaking rhythmic chugger gets played incessantly. It’s been so since 1979, when the spirit lifter peaked at No. 1 R&B, No. 13 pop. And hey, what’s a wedding party without its celebratory refrains? “There’s been so many things that’s held us down, but now it looks like things are finally comin’ around.”
With those phat horns and silky strings, cooing female background singers and raspy leads by songwriters John Whitehead and Gene McFadden, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” is another perfect example of the Philly Soul sound, and sure to endure even when people no longer remember what a “record” was. *