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On Being Black: How Gamble & Huff Turned a Dream into Destiny

Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame

Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff speak onstage at the Songwriters Hall of Fame 45th Annual Induction and Awards at Marriott Marquis Theater on June 12, 2014 in New York City.

As Philadelphia International marks its 50th anniversary, its co-founders look back on the industry challenges they faced in launching the iconic label.

Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff have come a long way since a chance meeting in the elevator of Philadelphia’s Schubert Building, which housed several production and publishing companies back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Huff was working at a production company on the second floor; Gamble on the sixth.

“I knew Gamble was connected with music, because he had a guitar in his hands,” recalls Huff. “And I played piano. We ended up meeting a few days later at my home in the Camden, New Jersey projects and wrote six or seven songs. We felt so good about our first writing session that we did it again and again and again.”

Now Gamble and Huff are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their iconic label, Philadelphia International. (Our Billboard staff just ranked our picks for the label's 50 greatest songs.) In this as-told-to, the pair reminisce about the challenges and rewards of their journey as they lay out a blueprint for music’s next generation.

Gamble: The difference between the industry then and now has a lot to do with the respective time periods. In terms of the racial issues, I see some of those same problems now. But when we were coming up, there were also many more problems with marketing and distribution. All we had were R&B stations playing our music in the ‘60s, like the Intruders’ “Cowboys to Girls.” But they didn’t have the wattage to create the maximum exposure that led to maximum sales.

We tried to do our own distribution, but it was hard. When we started putting the albums out in the early days, Black artists’ pictures weren’t put on the covers because most retail stores didn’t want those pictures seen in their store windows. White stations versus Black stations; Black artists performing only at Black venues. There’s always been this divide-and-conquer thing.

Huff: Those were the stresses we encountered in what was then a normal process. But we had to endure, especially since we believed in our product. We knew we had powerful music.

Gamble: [Founder] Berry Gordy’s Motown and its great music was what inspired Philadelphia International. Motown had a quality sound that stood out to everyone no matter what color you were. That’s what we started to shoot for: music that would conquer every barrier that was being put up.

Huff: Gamble and I initially started with Gamble and Huff Productions. We were doing records on Wilson Pickett, the Sweet Inspirations, Archie Bell & the Drells and Dusty Springfield for Atlantic. We worked with Jerry Butler at Mercury. We were having a lot of success. So I’m thinking if we’re having hits for all the majors that we work for, why don’t we form our own label? So we started with Gamble Records and the Intruders. You always get naysayers. But we had confidence in our abilities to create music and produce records.

Gamble: Once Huff and I began putting our two ends together — a production company and a creative company — we needed a machine like a CBS/Columbia that could take those records all over the world. We also wanted to move into owning our publishing and masters, which we learned from others like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. We didn't have a lot of money, but we had a lot of songs — which we equated to being able to generate money.

Once we partnered with Columbia in 1971, we were able to get our music on pop radio. Sales tripled or quadrupled because we were dealing with stations that had 50,000 watts of power instead of 500 or 1000. Clive Davis gave us that shot at Columbia and we came through. The first batch of records we gave him included “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Back Stabbers” and “The Love I Lost.” It was a product deal at first. Numbers are jumping around in my head, since this was 50 years ago, but I think the deal was for something like $70,000 for four pieces of product. Then we negotiated a new deal after that.

Huff: We did exactly what we wanted to do: sign artists and build a star-studded roster, work in our own studios and bring in great songwriters, producers, musicians and engineers. All Gamble and I had to do was concentrate on the songs. To this very day I have no regrets. But I don’t think I could start a Philadelphia International now, because I’m from the live musician era. I’d have to learn to work on machines. And I know I wouldn’t be in the mood to do that. [Laughs.]

Gamble: Besides ourselves, there were Thom Bell, Linda Creed, McFadden & Whitehead, Bobby Martin … I can’t even think of all the great songwriters, producers and artists we had. Philadelphia became a center for its own music.

Now in music’s digital world, the best advice I have for music’s next generation is to learn as much as you can about the industry and distribution, align yourself with a strong business partner and also learn as much as possible about the past so you can shape the future. Get to the place where you own your own projects so you have something valuable to sell later or pass down to your family.

Huff: Believe in yourself and your talent. And do a lot of praying. You also have to make the right connections because it’s also about relationships, surrounding yourself with the right business people and thinkers. We’ve had the same accountant now for almost 50 years. Songwriters also need to be critical of themselves, and not worry about writing a hit record. Just write great music. Gamble and I wrote every day, 24/7. When I hear our music played today, it still sounds relevant.

Gamble: In the beginning for Huff and I, it was like, "Maybe we can make $20 a night on a weekend." After that, music became a source for us to make a living. Then it became more: a 60-year partnership and friendship, working and planning together as we built a destiny.

Huff: Gamble and I never had a plan B. We built a solid relationship based on loyalty and respect that grew into a success that went well beyond my imagination. And we still like each other [laughs]. We’ll always be joined at the hip with music.