When the Hits Flowed From Philly

It has been 35 years since Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the legendary architects of the renowned Philly sound, founded their record company and made pop music history.

It has been 35 years since Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the legendary architects of the renowned Philly sound, founded their record company and made pop music history. As Philadelphia International Records marks its 35th anniversary, Gamble and Huff spoke with Billboard to share their memories, insights and future goals.

Is it true that you first met in an elevator in the Schubert Building in Philadelphia?

Gamble: That's the truth. We met in an elevator in the Schubert Building at 250 South Broadway. I worked with [record producer] Jerry Ross on the sixth floor, and Huff was working with [songwriters John] Madera and [Dave] White. In fact, White was one of Danny & the Juniors, the "At the Hop" guys. I learned a lot from Jerry Ross, and Huff learned a lot from Madera & White, just how to structure songs when we were trying to get in the business.

Then one day in that Schubert Building we met, because there weren't that many black people coming in that building except for a lot of the artists like the Dream Lovers and stuff. So we met and that was it: "Let's get together." And we got together one day, and it was like an explosion. We must have wrote maybe six or seven songs.

It was meant to be, because I'm basically a lyric writer and Huff basically wrote on the piano. We sang, we just followed each other. And what made it easy was, we had a tape recorder taping everything. Sometimes we didn't even know what we were doing, we were playing around and having fun.

Huff: Gamble came over to my house in Camden, N.J., because I had a piano, and we sat down and wrote about 20 songs in a first sitting. So it was like magic when me and Gamble started working together -- we were so powerful together. I think me and Gamble liked being around each other. Because you have to like the person for the chemistry to even start, you have to like the character that you're dealing with.

The two of you had established yourselves as songwriters and producers by the late '60s with your own publishing and production companies. Was it an easy transition to launch a record label?

Huff: It was a smooth transition to me, because me and Gamble had a production company and we became a very hot production company. We had hits with Jerry Butler, Dusty Springfield, Archie Bell & the Drells, Nancy Wilson. So we were making money for a lot of the labels within the industry at that time. So it was just natural for me and Gamble to start our own business and make money for ourselves.

Gamble: In '67, '68, '69 we were independent producers, we produced Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield, the Sweet Inspirations and Jerry Butler, we had a good run with Butler with "Only the Strong Survive" and "Never Gonna Give You Up." And we were with Chess Records first, then something happened; they went out of business.

Around 1970 we called Clive Davis and that was it, we went to CBS. That was the perfect marriage for us, because they had everything that we didn't have, and we had everything that they needed from a creative standpoint.

I knew Clive when I was singing. He was at CBS when I was an artist there when I was 18 years old, he was a creative executive. The thing of it was, Gamble & Huff, we're not good working under a situation where we had restraints. So basically, Clive Davis said, "OK, you guys just make the records."

And we would come to Clive [and] had great meetings to give him suggestions how to make CBS better-prepared to market and promote black music. And so CBS was a great partner in that sense of the word, because they were open to suggestion and we were able to bring two worlds together.

You were writing, recording and overseeing the label and Mighty Three Music. Was it work or play?

Gamble: It was fun. It was work, though, because I'm glad that it's over with. Hey, you're trying to do 13, 14 albums a year, that's a lot of work. Say an average of 10 songs an album, 13 albums, that's 130 songs. How many songs you figure you gotta write to get 130 songs? You might have to write 500. Five times as many to pick and record. We didn't cut just 10 songs, we might cut 25 songs on the O'Jays and you pick 10.

Huff: That's how we grooved, writing those songs. Imagine me and Gamble in there writing "Love Train." Visualize the energy that song had to have for the O'Jays to like it when they came to town to hear new material. Eddie Levert's voice and Walter Williams' voice-man, that song took them to the peak of their performance. And it was based on them coming to listen to the way Gamble was singing it when we were writing it.

The songs used to sound so good in rehearsals we used to fall out on the floor laughing. The feeling was so strong, so dynamic in that room writing that song.

Were there personality clashes with artists in the studio?

Huff: Well, the disagreement wasn't so intense that it would disrupt things. No, we always had a ball in that studio. We always had control over what we wanted. Me and Gamble weren't in the studio guessing, trying to figure it out. No. We got everything figured out how we wanted to approach this song at rehearsal.

And we always believed in rehearsing, we had very intense rehearsals, that's where the drama came in, getting that song right. Who's singing the right note or who's flat, all of that, we went through all of that drama, but that drama created a refined piece of work.

What were the elements of the Philly International sound?

Huff: The way I played the piano I think had a lot to do with shaping that sound, because Gamble wanted a certain feel of a keyboard player down at the church. It had a gospel sound, even the blues songs had a gospel feel.

Gamble: When people ask me to describe the sound of Philadelphia I always tell them it was the octave sound on the guitar of Wes Montgomery, who was a jazz guitar player. Roland Chambers was excellent, and Norman Harris [both guitarists] played those jazz licks in the octaves.

Then you had the vibes -- like George Shearing, the piano and the vibes together -- then you had the funky drums and the kind of gospel piano with Huff and Thom Bell and the organ with Lenny Pakula and those great voices we had.

But what really topped it off was the classical arrangements we had with the strings and the bluesy horns. It was a fusion of everything you can think of.

It really was that orchestra along with those songs that really made that sound different from anything else. When you think of violins and orchestrations and rhythm and blues music, you have to go all the way back to the Drifters with Leiber & Stoller, you have to go back to "Under the Boardwalk" and "There Goes My Baby," those songs were the ones that inspired us to use orchestration.

And I'll tell you, I don't know if he would say this, but Thom Bell's biggest inspiration from an arranger's point of view was Bacharach & David. You listen to all of Dionne Warwick's records, they had great arrangements on them. So we tried to use different instruments like French horns and sitars and flutes and oboes. When you listen to that music, you hear some very classical instruments on there.

What are you most proud of in creating the Philadelphia International sound?

Gamble: We were products of the James Brown era, with "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud." We were trying to lift the consciousness of the people through music, even McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" and "Wake Up Everybody." Those songs were not just songs-they were anthems. Not just in America but all over the world, people were using them for campaigns and for motivation, to try to raise the quality of life in our community. It has done that and it's still doing that, which I'm very proud of.

I think the biggest thing I'm proudest of is that we opened the doors for a lot of young people. It wasn't just Gamble & Huff, it was all these other people. We had an outlet through CBS and all these other independent production avenues, but we shared it with a lot of people and it was very good for them and good for us, and it put us in a position where we could do a lot more quantity.

What's your fondest memory?

Huff: I remember when me and Gamble put on a show in San Francisco when CBS had their international sales convention [in 1974], they had a Philadelphia International night. It was a Saturday night, and all of our artists were there.

We had a star-studded roster. Billy Paul was hot with "Me & Mrs. Jones," Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes was hot with "The Love I Lost," O'Jays with "Back Stabbers." Then we had the MFSB orchestra and I played keyboards, Bobby Martin directed the orchestra, and that's when we were hot with the "Soul Train" theme and Don Cornelius was the MC.

Talk about a night! All the big CEOs, the presidents, all those international distributors and everybody [were there], and we ripped that place up. And after that, sales went through the roof. It was amazing, and we recorded that. We might release that in the future.

Any regrets or things you would have done differently?

Huff: I would have filmed more, basically cause if we had documented more of me and Gamble's destiny ... Even recording some of the studio recording sessions would have been something to see. I would have done more of that, but I wasn't focused on that. I was thinking more about the songs and records. But I would have done a lot more filming earlier in our careers.

In the mid-'70s, the label and some of its officers were named in a federal payola investigation. How did that affect productivity and morale at the label?

Huff: Baby, that's when me and Gamble went on our roll then. During that time we were really working, so we just vented in the studio. Creatively, that was our most creative moments, because that was the way we balanced that stress off.

We were in the studio working while they were trying to tell us we were doing something else. So we'd be going through all those procedures in the courtroom and everything, but at night we'd be in the studio having a great time and making hit records. We had a good, successful time during that time when all that stress was going on.

What does the future hold for Philadelphia International?

Huff: I'm having fun licensing my catalog now. That's very active since we did the "American Idol" show ... our catalog's really really becoming active again. So basically that's what I'm doing. And my son [Pops Gamble] is developing as a rap producer, so sometimes Pops calls me to play on some of his tracks and hopefully he can find success. Unless me and Gamble find something special we want to do that would put us back in the studio.

Gamble: I listen to the music now with a different ear than I did when we were making it, because [back then] when we did sessions I would listen to the music for mistakes because I was listening to it as a producer. Once I was finished with it, I wouldn't listen to it anymore unless I heard it on the radio or something like that.

And now that we're not as active as we used to be, especially with the new digital mastering of the albums, I sit back and listen to them, and it's hard to believe we were able to do that amount of work. It's hard to believe in a 25-year time span that we were able to do so many songs with so many different varieties of people. Like none of that music sounds the same. The Blue Notes didn't sound like the O'Jays, they didn't sound like Patti LaBelle, and it was basically the same musicians and the same writers.

Do you have any advice for young artists today?

Huff: I tell musicians today, "Know your instrument. Master it. Know it. 'Cause opportunities are out there." When I was coming up I was playing mostly by ear, I could play what I wanted but I'm not a good [music] reader. So I would tell them today you have to be into this new technology, you got to know something about Pro Tools and all this new stuff.

Gamble: I look at the new artists, and there's a lot of great singers out there and a lot of great writers. I like the music that Mariah Carey just put out, she's a real good singer. And Mary J. Blige, I like this record she's got out now. Meaningful songs that mean something to people, that's the best use of the music, something that's going to be around for a while.

I think the digital world is great, I think it's all progress. But the basics of music will never change. They can have as much technology and whatever as they want, but when you have a great artist on that microphone, nothing will take the place of that.