Flip your TV channels these days, and you’re likely to hear the O’Jays’ classic “Love Train” as part of Coors’ new ad campaign, sounding as inspiring and danceable as it did when it topped Billboard’s Hot Black Singles chart in 1973.
That O’Jays hit also pops up on the soundtrack to last year’s comedy hit “Hitch,” while the group’s 1976 anthem “Family Reunion” appears on the soundtrack to the soulful comedy “Madea’s Family Reunion.” And no episode of the Donald Trump reality TV hit “The Apprentice” is complete without the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” theme.
The continued popularity of the O’Jays’ brand of slick urban soul is a testament to the legacy of the immortal Philadelphia International Records (PIR), the label founded in 1971 by writer/producer executives Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
In its ’70s heyday, the label earned 175 gold and platinum albums and revolutionized the world of not just R&B but pop music with hits by stars including Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, Dee Dee Sharp, Billy Paul, the Three Degrees, the Jones Girls, Archie Bell & the Drells, MFSB, McFadden & Whitehead, Jean Carne, Patti LaBelle and Lou Rawls.
As Gamble & Huff celebrate the 35th anniversary of the label known for innovating the Philly Soul sound, they are looking forward, not back. The pair continue to promote PIR through strategic marketing, promotional tie-ins, synchronization deals, catalog reissues and other projects.
An appearance by Gamble & Huff on last year’s “American Idol” competition also upped the label’s profile, reminding TV viewers, the music community and corporate America of the power of the PIR catalog, which includes indelible hits like “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Back Stabbers,” “Now That We’ve Found Love,” “Bad Luck,” “Love TKO,” “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)” and “When Will I See You Again.”
Last month in London, the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters presented Gamble & Huff with its special international honor at the 51st Ivor Novello Awards for songwriters.
Interest in the label’s sophisticated brand of urban soul — a combination of gospel, jazz and blues overlaid with unabashedly romantic or socially conscious lyrics — remains strong as ever, thanks to a number of contemporary artists. Those who have recently covered or sampled PIR classics include Angie Stone, Jaheim, T.I., Jennifer Lopez, Ne-Yo, Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans.
Today, Gamble & Huff are the proprietors of Philadelphia-based Gamble-Huff Music, a division of PIR that oversees the catalog and develops new projects. Executive VP Chuck Gamble, a nephew of Kenny’s who has been with the label since 1997, has refocused the label on its future: digitalization, catalog exploitation and licensing.
In the early ’60s, after meeting in the elevator at Philadelphia’s Schubert Building, where both were toiling as writers for separate music production firms, Gamble and Huff joined forces and became a potent songwriting/production team. They formed their own band, Kenny & the Romeos, through a network of musical friends, and the group became the foundation of what would become their famed in-house recording band, MFSB.
Flush with hits for the Intruders, Dee Dee Sharp, Archie Bell & the Drells, Jerry Butler, the Soul Survivors, Peaches & Herb, Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield, among others, the pair also established the labels Gamble and Neptune to release some of their product.
But independent record promotion was a tangled Web of indie promoters and radio stations that required more resources than they had. Gamble & Huff began seeking a new distribution avenue for their work and found an admirer in Clive Davis, who was then the newly appointed president of CBS Records.
“Our production company was hot at that time, and we was hot enough to be recognized by Clive Davis,” Huff recalls. “We went to New York, had a sit-down and we ended up signing with CBS, and Clive Davis gave us autonomy to let our creative juices just flow. That was the best decision we made. We were under no pressure, we picked our own singles, we signed who we wanted to.”
Gamble, inspired by the example of Berry Gordy and Motown, immediately came up with a name for his enterprise. “I loved Motown,” he says. “This was the inspiration for black America. It gave me the idea. If they can do it, we can do it. Theirs was the Motown sound — so we’ll make ours the Philly sound. It wasn’t hard to come up with Philly International.”
The timing for the newly minted label in the changing music industry was also fortuitous, Gamble recalls. “It was hard to get a black artist on pop radio back in the ’50s and even in the ’70s until black radio went FM in the ’70s, which was a blessing for us,” he says. “In the ’60s it was pretty much AM radio. That made the difference in our exposure.
“Also, the industry became an album industry; before it had been a singles industry. That was the difference between Motown and Philly International. I would imagine most of their releases were mono, and they were 45s. We tried to come up with album concepts.”
Gamble & Huff brought in Thom Bell, the third partner in their Mighty Three Music publishing company established some nine years earlier, to help with songwriting, arranging and orchestrations for the new label venture.
Bell, a classically trained pianist/songwriter, and arranger Bobby Martin were an integral part of the PIR sound. However, Bell continued to work independently with such non-PIR groups as the Spinners, the Stylistics and the Delfonics. He says he turned down offers to be PIR’s third principal.
“I’m a music person,” Bell says. “Put me in the studio, and I’ll work with songs, artists, musicians, engineers all day long. When it comes to talking about ‘cross-collateralization of some publishing of the European markets and industrialization of marketing,’ man, I don’t want to be bothered. I would have been a liability to that organization, I would not have been an asset. It wasn’t that it wasn’t offered to me, Gamble offered it to me many times. It just did not interest me.”
Within its first year, PIR was second only to Motown as an R&B hitmaker, earning chart positions for Cleveland-based trio the O’Jays; Philadelphia veterans Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and their drummer-turned-lead singer Teddy Pendergrass; local blues performer Billy Paul, whose “Me & Mrs. Jones” was PIR’s first million-plus seller; Archie Bell & the Drells, who came to the label after a run on Atlantic; Philly group People’s Choice; and MFSB.
The label is even credited with issuing one of the first 12-inch records as disco culture took hold in the ’70s: the O’Jays’ “The Love I Lost.”
But by the early ’80s many of the label’s top acts had defected, broken up or been hit by tragedy. In 1982 Pendergrass, the sexy solo star who helped PIR sail through the late ’70s with hits like “Close the Door,” “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “Love TKO,” suffered a near-fatal 1982 car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. The following year, CBS and PIR parted ways.
Though PIR was revived in a smaller capacity via a 1985 deal with Capitol-EMI, releasing the final albums by the late Phyllis Hyman and others through 1994, the pop music climate had changed. The rise of rap and new jack and the proliferation of other urban music labels meant the glory days of PIR were effectively over.
In 1991, Gamble & Huff sold their hefty Mighty Three Music catalog — featuring not only their own compositions but hits by Thom Bell & Linda Creed; Bunny Sigler & Phil Hurtt; McFadden & Whitehead; Jefferson, Simmons & Hawes (who wrote for the Spinners); and others — to Warner/Chappell Music for a multimillion-dollar sum.
“The music industry had changed for us, and we decided to let our catalog work for us,” Chuck Gamble explains. It was kind of a rest period for Gamble & Huff.”
Warner/Chappell certainly recognizes the value of its acquisition.
“This is a catalog that we see as being filled with so many gems. It’s hit after hit after hit-there’s such richness in it,” says Nancy Taylor, senior VP for the office of the president at Warner/Chappell. The publisher has been actively pitching the overall Mighty Three catalog and its PIR hits with steady success, beginning with the high-profile inclusion of an updated version of “For the Love of Money” in a medley by Queen Latifah (featuring Troop & Levert) in the 1991 film “New Jack City.”
“As we get really good placements like ‘For the Love of Money’ in ‘The Apprentice’ and the ‘Love Train’ Coors commercial, that sparks even more interest in the advertising community,” Taylor adds.
Today, PIR is refocused on not just preserving its musical heritage, but keeping it a vital part of the contemporary music business. The label is working with Sony-Legacy, which owns the masters to the label’s pre-1975 output, and Warner/Chappell Music, to find new outlets for the classic Philly sound.
“We have expanded our relationship with Sony BMG through partnering of digital and other worldwide licensing activity,” Chuck Gamble explains, adding, “As we came into the ’90s we saw a lot of our songs being sampled. By 2000, 2001, we saw an opportunity to increase our activity in other uses in synchronization, specifically having our music covered in TV and film and commercials.”
The pairing of Coors beer with the O’Jays’ “Love Train” is a coup for the label and its publishing partner, demonstrating the vibrancy of music first recorded almost 40 years ago.
“In my mind it’s one of the great catalogs of the last 50 years,” notes Brad Rosenberger, senior VP of film and TV/catalog development for Warner/Chappell. “When you put a Mighty Three record in a movie or soundtrack, it’s not that it’s not an old track, but there’s just something really contemporary in the sound of it. The actual sound of the ‘Love Train’ record, the fidelity, is quite amazing … there’s nothing that sounds dated about it to me in any way, shape or form.”
Last year also saw Verizon’s use of McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” for a series of TV spots, while the 2005 Bernie Mac/Ashton Kutcher movie “Guess Who” featured an updated version of Lou Rawls’ classic “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)” performed by Marcus Miller on its soundtrack. The 2006 family film “Akeelah & the Bee” includes the original Blue Notes inspirational gem “Wake Up Everybody.”
One unique use of the catalog came in the form of a themed venue: the state-of-the-art TSOP Live supper club, located in Atlantic City, N.J.’s Tropicana Casino Resort. Owned by Gamble & Huff in partnership with Philly restaurateurs Robert and Benjamin Bynum, the venue seats 400 for dining and on weekend evenings is configured as a dance club and performance space. The DJ spins mostly music from the sound of Philadelphia, but also mixes in Motown, James Brown, Stax, and other sounds from the ’70s.
The process of digital conversion of the PIR catalog continues, with future plans to include digital download availability and mobile communications applications.
“We’re working actively with some of the mobile aggregators so we’ll also have the music available for mobile downloads, ringtones and ringbacks, and even get Gamble & Huff’s voices in there,” says Chuck Gamble, who wants to raise the profile of the two founders along with the music. “Everybody knows our music, and secondly they know our artists, but not everybody always knows it’s Gamble & Huff. It’s different from Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy, where those men for some portion of their music career were always at the awards shows.”
Part of the reason Gamble & Huff have not been on the national stage in recent years is that they have directed their energies toward their hometown. Gamble in particular has helped revitalize some of Philadelphia’s poorer neighborhoods, creating low-income housing through his Universal Companies and working to reposition Philadelphia as the cradle of R&B music and history.
His efforts have resulted in the relocation of the embattled Rhythm & Blues Foundation from Washington, D.C., with its first Pioneer Awards ceremonies in two years to be held June 29 at Philly’s Park Hyatt Hotel. Among the honorees will be Gamble & Huff’s label inspiration, Berry Gordy.
Also, Gamble & Huff are primary forces behind the establishment of an R&B Music Center within the city, which would house the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, musical archives, restaurants, music companies, educational facilities and performance spaces.
“We’ve engaged the governor, the mayor, the city council and the chamber of commerce and asked them to support it, much like Nashville, when they made it the center of country music,” Gamble says. “What we’re proposing is an entertainment strategy for the city of Philadelphia, which has been accepted, and we’re working to create Philadelphia as the home of rhythm and blues.”
In the coming year, Chuck Gamble says the songwriting and production duo will be more visible as the pair celebrate the 45th anniversary of their partnership with a number of events and plan another hits compilation, among other projects now in development. Ever the musician, Huff has been working on a new solo jazz album.
In addition, Gamble & Huff have authorized a documentary film titled “Message in the Music,” currently being produced by Philadelphia media personality Dyana Williams and noted author Nelson George, and directed by Jack Benson. Slated for completion later this year, the film will feature interviews with Gamble & Huff as well as 30 entertainers and PIR associates past and present, with Will Smith set to narrate and Gerald Levert writing the score.
Looking back, Gamble & Huff still cannot believe the amount of music they were able to churn out in a few short years. Gamble says, “‘For the Love of Money’ just won’t stop. ‘The Apprentice’ has it; anything involving money they use it, it’s the money song. ‘When Will I See You Again’ by the Three Degrees is still a big song around the world. So many songs, you know? ‘Wake Up Everybody.’ And ‘Love Train,’ look what’s happening with the Coors commercial. It’s got a new life to it already, the lyrics apply to today just as much as they did back then.”