In 1971, producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff co-founded Philadelphia International Records, the label that recorded the O’Jays, Patti LaBelle and other soul artists. Originally broadcast in 2008.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the label Philadelphia International Records, which released many hits that helped define the Philly sound, like “For The Love Of Money,” “Me And Mrs. Jones,” “I’ll Be Around,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Love Train,” “Break Up To Make Up” and “TSOP” – a.k.a. the “Soul Train” theme. The anniversary is being celebrated with the release of several archival collections and remixes. Today we listen back to my interview with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who founded Philadelphia International Records in 1971 and wrote and produced many of the label’s hits.
The label was home to such groups as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the O’Jays, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass and McFadden & Whitehead. When I spoke with Gamble and Huff in 2008, they’d just released a box set called “Love Train,” collecting many Philadelphia International hits, along with some Gamble and Huff collaborations they recorded for other labels before they created their own label. Let’s start with one of the hits they wrote and produced. From 1972, this is the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BACKSTABBERS”)
THE O’JAYS: (Singing) What they do? They’re smiling in your face. All the time, they want to take your place, the backstabbers. Backstabbers. They’re smiling in your face. All the time, they want to take your place, the backstabbers. Backstabbers. All you fellas who have someone…
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, Leon Huff, was that you on the piano at the very beginning?
LEON HUFF: Yes.
GROSS: OK. Tell us about figuring out what you were going to play there.
HUFF: “Backstabbers” sounds like something, like, eerie, you know, something eerie. Like – so that roll was like something horrible because that’s what backstabbers are. So that roll reflected that type of a drama. And it worked.
GROSS: OK. So after we hear that opening, then the rhythm section comes in and then the strings. And it’s a really big production, which is something that Philadelphia International really specialized in. Kenny Gamble, you want to talk about that kind of big, produced, orchestral sound that you got?
KENNY GAMBLE: Well, you know, that sound of the orchestra was always – that was our dream, to be able to play so many countermelodies that came along with those songs that the orchestra was able to put that together. And plus, too, you know, during the time when we were coming along, it was stereo. It went from mono to stereo. And so you had a lot of space, you know, to fill up. You know, stereo was much more soothing than mono. So we had – we thought about the mixes that we could do. And the music was not only funky, it was classical at the same time. So the string players and horn players, you know, we had the greatest orchestra. I think – MFSB, that was the name of the orchestra.
GROSS: How did you know a lot about the instruments of the orchestra that you wouldn’t typically hear in a small band, like French horns or flugelhorns?
HUFF: Yeah. Right. Right. Yeah.
GROSS: Like, did you study that kind of…
GROSS: Like, how did you develop an ear for those kinds of instruments?
HUFF: Well, I’ve come in contact with those types of instruments because I was in a band in elementary school, marching band…
GROSS: Oh. I love marching – I was in a band like that, too (laughter).
HUFF: …Which is a great experience, you know?
HUFF: So I had the opportunity to hear trombones and French horns and flutes and piccolos and all that kind of good stuff that makes up a fantastic orchestra. So that’s how I became familiar, you know, vibes, bells, maracas, shakers, tambourines, the whole nine yards. And Gamble experienced the same thing, too. That’s why we was able to incorporate those type of sounds.
GROSS: Kenny Gamble, were you in a marching band also?
GAMBLE: No, no. Not no marching band. But we had a band. And I think that the music that influenced me most, you know, from like the early – late ’50s, like Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Leiber and Stoller – you know what I mean? – the Drifters when they had strings. And they first introduced the strings. And…
GROSS: Yeah, strings and timpani and – yeah.
GAMBLE: Everything, you know? “There Goes My Baby,” I think that was probably one of the first songs that had a full orchestra. And then Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach and Hal David – I mean, they did some fantastic arrangements. And they used all kinds of instruments doing that and the rhythmic thing. So we were products of that era and also the Motown era, which had the greatest influence, which also used a lot of horns and baritone saxes or things like that. So we stretched out. And plus, Tommy Bell, Bobby Martin, the arrangers, they would also make suggestions from time to time. Well, why don’t you use a oboe over here or this or whatever. And it all worked, you know, worked together once we were able to get in that studio.
GROSS: Let’s hear another great track from Philadelphia International Records. And we’re going to hear “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. And Teddy Pendergrass sings lead on this. And, I think, Leon Huff, you’re the one who discovered that Teddy Pendergrass could sing as good as he did.
HUFF: Well, you know, caught my ear, you know, in a rehearsal, his particular sound – the big baritone.
GROSS: He was the drummer with the band. Did you know that he could sing?
HUFF: No, not really. You know, he’s just – his voice just stood out, you know, amongst the other voices. And it just grabbed your ear – mine, anyway, at first.
GAMBLE: Plus, Hal Melvin knew that he could sing, you know? Hal was really the architect of that group, of the Blue Notes. He’d been in the Blue Notes since in the late ’50s. And so that’s why, eventually, what we decided to do was call it Hal Melvin & the Blue Notes, because the Blue Notes kept changing, and – but Hal Melvin remained there all the time. And then Teddy Pendergrass came along.
HUFF: His voice roared.
GAMBLE: Yeah. So we called it Hal Melvin & the Blue Notes, featuring Teddy Pendergrass.
GROSS: Did Harold Melvin mind that Teddy Pendergrass was singing lead and not Harold Melvin?
GAMBLE: Yeah, he might’ve.
GAMBLE: Yeah, he might’ve because, see; it was Hal Melvin & the Blue Notes. And people thought that Teddy Pendergrass was Hal Melvin.
GAMBLE: And so he used to come to me and say, man, they think that Teddy’s Hal Melvin. I said, well, you know, don’t worry about it, you know? But…
HUFF: Yeah, that was that power shining through.
GAMBLE: You know?
GROSS: Well, before we hear “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” do you want to say anything else to introduce it about how you wrote the song, for instance?
HUFF: All I knew, we was in the room in Gamble’s office. That’s where the piano was, a old upright. And we was just – the ideas was just coming – I don’t know how that song came about. I just…
GAMBLE: Well, you just go – and suppose you got a friend or you’re in a relationship. So I say – let’s say, well, where you been at? You know, I was working. I was doing – you know? And then all of a sudden, you say, well, if you don’t know me by now, you’ll never know me. I mean, that’s, like, a relationship kind of thing. So Huff and I, we used to write titles down. You know, we’d come in with a legal pad full of nothing but titles, and that’s how we would get our songs ’cause the title – each title had a story to it. So we’re playing around and messing around and…
HUFF: Just pick one. Just pick one.
GAMBLE: Yeah, pick one. And then all of a sudden, you know, if you don’t know me by now, you’ll never know me. It seemed like it fit the order of the day.
GROSS: OK, so this is Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes from 1972 with Teddy Pendergrass singing lead, and my guests Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff wrote the song and produced the record.
HUFF: And won a Grammy.
GROSS: And won a Grammy for it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “IF YOU DON’T KNOW ME BY NOW”)
HAROLD MELVIN AND THE BLUE NOTES: (Singing) If you don’t know me by now, you will never, never, never know me. All the things that we’ve been through, you should understand me like I understand you. Now, baby, I know the difference between right and wrong. I ain’t going to do nothing to upset our happy home. Oh, don’t get so excited when I come home a little late at night ’cause we only act like children when we argue, fuss and fight. If you don’t know me by now – if you don’t know me by now – you will never, never, never know me. You’ll never, never, never know me. Oh.
GROSS: That’s Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes with Teddy Pendergrass singing lead, recorded in 1972, written and produced by my guests Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. And while we were listening to that, Kenny Gamble, you were telling me something I want you to repeat.
GAMBLE: Well, I just wanted to let you know that…
GAMBLE: …During the background – see? – Huff and myself and Bunny Sigler – we used to do a lot of backgrounds on records because – not saying that the group wasn’t really good, but there’s a certain sound that we wanted. And so on that, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” is Gamble, Huff and Bunny Sigler. We’re doing the background on there.
HUFF: Yeah, boy, they can harmonize, boy (laughter).
GAMBLE: Yeah, me and Huff and Bunny Sigler – you know, I mean, we really had a good sound together. And in fact, like, on a lot of the Stylistics songs, you know, we sang on the Stylistics songs in the background and Joe Simon. We sang on Joe Simon.
HUFF: Archie Bell, the Drells.
GAMBLE: Archie Bell – we were the Drells. I mean, you know, so…
GROSS: Oh, you’re kidding.
GROSS: That’s so funny.
GAMBLE: So “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” – we were singing that. I don’t know if I could hit them notes again, but…
GROSS: Well, that leads me right to where I want to go. I mean, I know you used to sing in a group called the Romeos.
GAMBLE: Oh, yeah. We had a lot of fun with the Romeos. And Huff and Roland Chambers, Karl Chambers…
HUFF: Yeah, that was a great time.
GAMBLE: …Woody Wolford and Thom Bell and myself – you know, we were an excellent band, and we sang together. We had sort of like – the best part of the band, you know, was when we used to sing songs like The Four Freshmen, you know what I mean? We’d have that kind of modern harmony kind of songs. And we did the standard “Moon River.” We had a great arrangement of “Moon River,” and we had a great arrangement of “I Wish You Love.”
HUFF: Oh, yeah.
GAMBLE: Huff would play the drums on there, and Roland and Karl, his brother – and we would sing together. So we just sang a little bit, you know?
HUFF: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Neither of you is going to do a few bars of “Moon River” for me?
HUFF: We don’t care for that anymore.
GAMBLE: You know, I can’t even hardly remember it.
HUFF: (Singing) Moon river, wider than a…
GAMBLE: I know it had a bassline – boom, doo, doo-doo, doo-doo-doo, doo-doo, doo, doo – something like that, you know?
HUFF: Yeah, like a – it was great, you know? It was funny, that – that was a highlight of my early music career. As a musician from Camden, N.J., at that time, I felt like I could play good enough to join a band. And I kept hearing about Kenny Gamble and the Romeos appearing down at this club in Lawnside, N.J., called Loretta’s Hi-Hat. And I had a day gig at Cooper Hospital, but every weekend – see; word of mouth was powerful.
GAMBLE: You better believe it.
HUFF: And that’s all I heard – just Kenny Gamble, Kenny Gamble. Kenny Gamble and the Romeos, they’re down at the – so I had an opportunity to be off one weekend, and I caught a ride down there. And they had lines around the corner, people trying to get into this club, had busloads. I mean, you might have thought the Rolling Stones was in, right? You know?
HUFF: So it took me about an hour to get in. Well, once I got in, then I could see why – because they was rocking the place. So me as a musician, I could say, oh, I could be in a band like that – ’cause I thought I could play that good, you know, at that time, you know?
GROSS: Well, you know, I should mention, early – Leon Huff, early in your career, you also did some session work for Phil Spector.
GROSS: Played piano on the famous Phil Spector Christmas album.
HUFF: Yeah. That’s right.
GROSS: You did work with Leiber and Stoller.
GROSS: So did that – did you think that that was your future, doing session work? Or did you…
HUFF: That was one of my first dreams. I wanted…
GROSS: …Think you’d become a songwriter-producer?
HUFF: You know, as a young boy, I always had albums in my house. My mother used to take us to music stores, albums, to read liner notes. I used to do all of that, you know?
GROSS: To read liner notes?
HUFF: I used to get – then they had liner notes on back of albums.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
HUFF: I used to read all of them, you know? And I always wanted to be a studio musician. That’s what I wanted to do.
GROSS: What did you learn from working with Phil Spector and Leiber and Stoller, great producers, that you applied to Philadelphia International Records?
HUFF: Phil Spector had a whole different approach ’cause…
GROSS: Like what? What did he do?
HUFF: You know, the wall of sound, you know? You know, you have every – every individual musician played their part down, you know, then he worked for hours on the drum sound. He’ll tell all the musicians to take a break, but he’ll be in there, like two or three hours, just working with them drums. So if you listen to his productions, you’ll see that they sound like nothing else.
GROSS: We’re listening back to the interview I recorded in 2008 with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They co-founded Philadelphia International Records in 1971, which had dozens of hits and defined the Philly sound. We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD MELVIN AND THE BLUE NOTES SONG, “THE LOVE I LOST”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded in 2008 with songwriters and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the label they co-founded, Philadelphia International Records, which defined the Philly sound. When we spoke, they’d just released a box set collecting songs from their label. It also included some Gamble and Huff collaborations that they recorded for other labels before founding their own.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: I want to play one of those, and I think this is the first real hit that you had. It’s from 1967 – “Expressway To Your Heart,” The Soul Survivors. So tell us how this recording came to be. Why don’t you start with writing the song? And let me say, you – you’re from Philadelphia, Kenny Gamble. Leon Huff, you’re from Camden. Close enough? (Laughter).
GAMBLE: Yeah, 20 minutes.
HUFF: That’s East Philly, Camden.
GAMBLE: Yeah, yeah. That’s right.
GROSS: Yeah, it’s just right over the river in New Jersey. And there is an expressway in Philadelphia called the Schuylkill Expressway…
GROSS: …That is famous for its unpredictable traffic jams.
GROSS: So does the Schuylkill Expressway – is that the expressway referred to in “Expressway To Your Heart”?
GAMBLE: That’s it.
GROSS: Were you thinking about that?
GAMBLE: Yeah, that’s it.
HUFF: Gamble wrote the lyrics.
HUFF: I think it’s one of the most clever lyrics I ever had in a – you know?
GAMBLE: Yeah. What happened with that song – it’s sort of like – it’s self-explanatory. I was on my way over to see a friend of mine, a young lady. So the expressway was just backed up. That’s when they first started the expressway. This is ’67, so it was just beginning. I’m sitting there for what seemed like hours. You know what I mean? So I start beating on the dashboard, you know, talking about – (singing) expressway to your heart.
GAMBLE: (Singing) Trying to get to you.
GAMBLE: You know what I mean? And that’s how I come through with that. I said – expressway to your heart, put that baseline – doo, doo, doo-doo-doo (ph). And that was – you know, that’s how songs come, though. Songs come from your imagination. You just got to be quick. You got to be quick to capture the moment for the concepts, you know?
GROSS: So when you were in the car writing that song on the way to see your woman friend…
GROSS: …Who did you end up seeing first – Leon Huff or her? (Laughter).
GAMBLE: Oh, I saw her first.
HUFF: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: So her first. And then…
GAMBLE: Yeah, yeah. I saw her first, yeah.
GROSS: So you kept it in your mind?
GAMBLE: I saw Huff the next day, yeah.
GAMBLE: But I would write stuff down, though.
GAMBLE: ‘Cause I’ll forget it.
GROSS: Now, Leon Huff, did you think what this song needs to start with – well, first of all, it starts with horns like, you know, horns – car horns honking in traffic.
HUFF: Car horns.
GROSS: And the horns are tuned. I mean, there’s a line…
HUFF: They sound like it, don’t they?
GROSS: Yeah, there’s a line with, like, one horn, and then that line is repeated in different pitch in another horn, and they’re in harmony with each other.
HUFF: (Laughter) It sounds like it.
GROSS: So are those rail car horns? Or did you…
HUFF: Oh, yeah, they’re real car horns. But you know what? That was inspired a little bit by – there was a song called “Summer In The City.”
GROSS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
HUFF: (Singing) Hot town, summer in the city.
They had car horns in it and stuff like that.
GROSS: That’s true. They did. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
HUFF: That’s true. So Joe Tarsia and I, we just…
GROSS: He was the engineer, Joe Tarsia. Yeah.
HUFF: He was the engineer. And so we just – we got some – they have these sound effect records where you can – they have car horns on it. They got everything on them, sound effect records. And so we just used car horns on it. And just one more thing about that song…
HUFF: …That a lot of people don’t know, is that we used the same lyrics in “Expressway” that we used in a song with The Temptations and The Supremes, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.”
GROSS: Wait. What’s – I know…
HUFF: Think about that.
GROSS: I know that song, but I’m trying…
GROSS: …To think of what the similarity is.
HUFF: OK. The Temptations were – (singing) I’m going to make you love me, every minute, every hour. I’m going to shower you with love and affection…
HUFF: OK, you see it now, right?
GROSS: Yes, the – in your direction, yeah.
HUFF: Now, “Expressway” – right.
GAMBLE: Yeah, yeah.
HUFF: The same thing – (singing) it’s coming in your direction on the expressway.
Same thing. See?
GROSS: Is that cheating?
HUFF: No, no. That’s being – that’s really taking advantage of creativity, you know?
GAMBLE: You can say a lot of things in a lot of different ways.
GROSS: Good. OK, well, this is a great record. I’ve always loved this record.
GROSS: It’s “Expressway To Your Heart,” The Soul Survivors, 1967, written by my guests Gamble and Huff and produced by you, too, right?
GAMBLE: Yeah, we were just…
GROSS: And, Leon Huff, are you playing on this?
GROSS: That’s you at the piano?
HUFF: Mmm hmm, yeah.
GROSS: OK, here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “EXPRESSWAY TO YOUR HEART”)
THE SOUL SURVIVORS: (Singing) I’ve been trying to get to you for a long time ’cause constantly you been on my mind. I was thinking about a shortcut I could take, but it seems like I made a mistake. But I was wrong – ooh, took too long. I got caught in the rush hour, the fellas started to shower you with love and affection. Now you won’t look in my direction. On the expressway to your heart, that expressway, not the best way. At 5 o’clock, it’s much too crowded – too crowded – no, it’s much too crowded – too crowded – too crowded – too crowded – it was much too crowded. Oh, yeah. So, so, so crowded. Oh, too crowded.
GROSS: We’ll hear more of my 2008 interview with songwriters and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the founders of Philadelphia International Records, after we take a short break. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review the new Sons of Kemet album “Black To The Future.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “EXPRESSWAY TO YOUR HEART”)
THE SOUL SURVIVORS: (Singing) I was wrong. Baby, it took too long. I got caught in the rush hour. Then fellas started to shower you with love and affection. Come on, look in my direction.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Philadelphia International Records, which defined the Philly sound. It was founded by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who modeled their label on Motown Records. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded with Gamble and Huff in 2008 after they released a Philly sound box set called “Love Train,” named after one of their many hits. When we left off, Gamble and Huff were talking about writing and producing the hit “Expressway To Your Heart,” which they recorded with The Soul Survivors before Gamble and Huff founded Philadelphia International Records.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: What impact did that recording have on your careers?
GAMBLE: “Expressway” – boy, it had a tremendous impact.
HUFF: Oh, yeah.
GAMBLE: And I think one of the good things about it was that The Soul Survivors was a great performing act. They were performing places and just turning the places out. But it was, like, a breakthrough for us, for Gamble and Huff, because it seems like everything started to happen from then because right after – during the same time as “Expressway,” we recorded The Intruders with “Cowboys To Girls.”
GROSS: Love that song.
GAMBLE: So we had been trying with The Intruders with “United,” “Together.” We had four or five different records before then. They were building. But then “Cowboys To Girls” came out and just exploded. So we was on a roll. That’s when we went up to Motown.
GAMBLE: We went up to Motown. We had “Expressway” on the charts and “Cowboys To Girls.”
GAMBLE: Had two records, like, in the top 10. So we figured we’d go to Motown, you know?
GROSS: And why didn’t you stay there? Like, what didn’t work when you were thinking of moving there?
GAMBLE: Oh, well, I think it was kind of far away, No. 1. You know, our families were here in Philadelphia. And I think we were just basically going exploratory. You know, let’s see what’s up there, because we admired them so much, you know?
GAMBLE: And we met Holland, Dozier and Holland. We met Norman Whitfield. We met all these great songwriters and producers…
GAMBLE: …That we admired for so many years. And we wanted to see whether or not there was an opportunity at Motown.
HUFF: That’s all it was.
GAMBLE: But what happened was – is that from a business standpoint and from a logistics standpoint, I think that me and Huff decided when we were there – we said, I think we better try to do this back in Philly, you know? And, you know, thank God it worked out.
HUFF: We didn’t sign.
GAMBLE: It went real good for us. The timing was good. And Motown will always be my favorite record company.
GROSS: Now, you know how you said you kept a list of titles and then eventually wrote songs that would grow out of the titles? Was “Cowboys To Girls” one of the titles that was on your list before it was a song?
GAMBLE: Oh, yeah.
HUFF: It was on that list.
GAMBLE: No question about it.
GROSS: And do you remember how it got on the list in the first place?
GAMBLE: “Cowboys To Girls” – because it’s a story. That story is, like, a story about a guy who grows up – like, little kids – they grow up, and the guy be beating the girls up. And they be pulling their hair, and, you know, they don’t treat them tender. Then all of a sudden, he grows up and say, hey; you know, now I know girls are made for kissing. You know, ain’t it fun reminiscing? And the girl – she went from baby dolls to boys. You know, it’s just clever. I tried to – the lyrics that we were trying to put together was something that was a little bit different and a little bit – “Expressway To Your Heart” was different, all right? “Cowboys To Girls” was different.
GROSS: So let’s squeeze in “Cowboys To Girls,” and this is one of those songs that they did before Philadelphia International Records. This is “Cowboys To Girls.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “COWBOYS TO GIRLS”)
THE INTRUDERS: (Singing) Cowboys to girls. I remember, I remember when I used to play shoot ’em (ph) up. Shoot ’em up – bang, bang, baby. I really loved when I chased the girls and beat them up. But I was young and didn’t understand, but now I’m a grown-up man. I know girls are made for kissing – never knew what I was missing. Now my life is not the same. My whole world has been rearranged. I went from cowboys to girls. Oh, yes, I did. Shoot ’em up – bang, bang. Cowboys to girls. I remember…
GROSS: That’s “Cowboys To Girls” written by my guests Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the founders of Philadelphia International Records. And there’s a new four-CD box set that collects music from Philadelphia International Records and some of the Gamble and Huff collaborations that preceded that record label.
Now, you’re from Philly. You’ve been working – Philly and Camden. And Philadelphia International Records has been headquartered in Philadelphia, which was also the home, when you were getting started, of “American Bandstand” with Dick Clark, and that had a really strong impact on the Philadelphia music scene. And the record label Cameo-Parkway, which was based in Philadelphia, had a lot of performers that ended up being stars on “Bandstand,” including Dee Dee Sharp, Chubby Checker and his record “The Twist,” Bobby Rydell.
GAMBLE: Frankie Avalon.
GROSS: Frankie Avalon.
GAMBLE: Fabian. I think Cameo-Parkway was another learning tool for us because they basically had a group of writers, too. They were – I mean, Motown was – inspired them because when you go to Cameo-Parkway, they had a library, and they had every Motown record you could think of. And all the writers at Cameo-Parkway was basically listening to Motown Records, trying to really duplicate the Motown sound. And I think Cameo-Parkway and “Bandstand” – “Bandstand,” to me, was like “American Idol” is today. You could get an artist on “Bandstand” during that time, and he’d perform his record. And in a day or two, he had the No. 1 record in the country because “Bandstand” had that much influence in the music industry.
GROSS: I think the period when you start having hits is past when “Bandstand” was really still based in Philadelphia.
GAMBLE: Oh, it was gone then.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
GAMBLE: “Bandstand” was gone.
GROSS: So you couldn’t really break your records on “Bandstand.”
GAMBLE: In fact, “Soul Train” had come into play.
GROSS: Well, you wrote the record that became the theme for “Soul Train,” “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia).” So I guess my first question about that is, why did you do an instrumental? I mean, instrumentals were basically – they’d kind of fallen from fashion by the time that you did this. Things had vocals on them. So why did you even think about doing an instrumental?
GAMBLE: Well, you know, it had words to it, too.
GAMBLE: You know, The Three Degrees was on there – (singing) soul train, soul train. Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da (ph). Soul train.
I mean, you know, they was singing “Soul Train.” Plus, too, we always looked at it like Johnny Carson. You know, he had a theme song. You know, da, na, da, da, da (ph) – that’s Johnny Carson, all right? You take Bob Hope. He’s got “Thanks For The Memory.”
GAMBLE: You understand? Everybody great has kind of – like, you know, from television has a theme song. So we wanted to give Don Cornelius a theme song.
GROSS: Did he ask you to write one?
GAMBLE: Yeah. He came into Philly.
GROSS: Oh, I didn’t realize that. Oh, he asked you.
GAMBLE: No, he came into Philly, you know, because the music he had on there – he was a real good friend of ours, you know? And all of our artists was on his show, you know? And so he came in. And me and Huff and all the musicians, we got together. And like the first day, like Huff already said, we didn’t get too much the first day. So me and Huff went back to the office. And that melody came up, that (singing) soul train, soul train. And then once you got that melody, then you put the other pieces to it. I put that (vocalizing). You know what I mean? And then that did it, you know? So…
GROSS: OK. So this is “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” – which you also know as the theme from “Soul Train.” And this was written and produced by my guests, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
(SOUNDBITE OF MFSB AND THE THREE DEGREES SONG, “TSOP (THE SOUND OF PHILADELPHIA)”)
GROSS: We’re listening back to my 2008 interview with songwriters and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who co-founded the label Philadelphia International Records 50 years ago. We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEON HUFF SONG, “I AIN’T JIVIN’ I’M JAMMIN'”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the record label Philadelphia International Records, which had many hits and defined the Philly sound. The label was founded in 1971 by songwriters and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Let’s get back to my 2008 interview with Gamble and Huff.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Let me play another record that you wrote together and that you produced. And this is “Me And Mrs. Jones,” which Billy Paul recorded. And I’ve read that you have described this as one of the trickiest songs that you did. And I’m wondering what was tricky about it.
HUFF: That probably was me telling that because it was just – I had a different feel. It was more jazz-orientated, the way – I remember when Gamble was showing me the chords because he had the chord progressions that’s in the intro. And I couldn’t catch it for a minute because I had a different type of timing factor that was different, you know? I never played a song like that until, you know, I got to learn it, you know? But that was the most different track of all the tracks, I think.
GROSS: How did it start off? I mean, how did the idea start off?
GAMBLE: The idea start off with – well, me and Huff used to go to – it was a little bar downstairs from the Schubert Building. That’s when we were in the Schubert Building. We used to go down there every day and talk to the barmaid. And this guy used to come into the bar every day, little guy that looked like a judge or something like that, right? So me and Huff, we’re watching everything. See; we’re songwriters. So what we see – everything we’re doing, we’re thinking about a song, yes? So we see this guy come in there. We said, OK. Then the next day, he come in there again. But when he come in there, every day, this girl would come in maybe 10, 15 minutes after he get there. They’d sit in the same booth, go to the jukebox, play the same songs every day.
So me and Huff, we said, oh, that’s “Me And Mrs. Jones” or whatever the name we was going to call it. But that’s how that song evolved itself. And then when they get ready to leave, he would go his way, she would go hers. So we – it could’ve been his daughter. It could’ve been his niece. It could’ve been anybody. But we assumed – we created a story out of this, that there was some kind of romantic connection between these people. And we go upstairs in our office. And we wrote the song, “Me And Mrs. Jones.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ME AND MRS. JONES”)
BILLY PAUL: (Singing) Me and Mrs. Jones, we got a thing going on. We both know that it’s wrong. But it’s much to strong to let it go now. We meet every day at the same cafe, 6:30. And no one knows she’ll be there. Holding hands, making all kinds of plans while the juke box plays our favorite songs, me and misses – Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones. We got a thing going on.
GROSS: That’s “Me And Mrs. Jones.” It’s one of the recordings on a new four-CD box set that collects some of the recordings from Philadelphia International Records, the label that was founded by my guests Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They wrote a lot of the hits on their label, including the record that we just heard, and produced a lot of those records, too. And Leon Huff played keyboard on a lot of those records, too – including the one we just heard?
GROSS: What do you consider to be, like, the end of the real, like, glory days of Philadelphia International Records?
GAMBLE: I think it kind of – like, around about ’80, ’86, somewhere around there – ’87 – Patti LaBelle, we had a big hit with Patti LaBelle around. But it started to fall apart a little bit – like the early ’80s.
HUFF: Well, I think people started to evolve. They wanted to do other things. And once you get hot like that, then everybody’s after you. You know what I mean? All the record companies was after the artists, you know? And the writers wanted to – you know, to start their own thing and so forth. And that’s natural, you know, for people to want to do that, you know? So I think we had a good run. We had a – we at least had a good almost 20-year run, strong run, you know? And…
GROSS: Was music changing also? Like hip-hop?
GAMBLE: Music was changing.
HUFF: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, the music was changing also at the same time. But…
GROSS: How’d you feel about that, when there was a kind of – like, you kind of helped create a sound, and then that sound is kind of becoming a little dated as a new sound – as hip-hop comes in.
HUFF: Well, I was glad, to be honest with you.
GROSS: Why were you glad?
HUFF: Well, I was kind of glad because we had worked so hard. I mean, even now I’m happy. You know, I mean, I’m thankful for what we had. I’m glad for what we had. But, you know, it’s like – I always had a perspective in my mind. I said, I know this is not going to last; nothing lasts forever.
GAMBLE: Yeah. Right.
HUFF: When it started to slow down, you know, I was thankful, and I was kind of glad because that schedule was…
HUFF: …Unbelievable, you know? And you start to feel it after a while, you know, doing 12, 13 albums a year. You know, we had a good staff of people working with us, but it was – no question, it was a lot. To get one song, one good song, we had to maybe write 10 songs.
GROSS: Of the songs that you wrote together, do you have a favorite that we should end with?
HUFF: Go ahead, Gamble.
GAMBLE: “Love Train.”
GAMBLE: Yeah, “Love Train.” That, to me, is the song that kind of capsulizes everything that we were thinking about, the message that we wanted to get out, you know? We’re always talking about a message in the music, and “Love Train” is, like, international, very optimistic about life in the world, you know, people living together in harmony and unity, you know? So I think “Love Train” is – somebody better get on board ’cause if you miss it, I feel sorry for you.
HUFF: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: Thank you both so much. Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff – thank you.
GAMBLE: My pleasure.
HUFF: Thank you very much for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “LOVE TRAIN”)
THE O’JAYS: (Singing) People all over the world – everybody – join hands – join – start a love train – you – love train. People all over the world – all over, now – join hands – love right – start a love train – love right – love train. The next stop that we make will be England. Tell all the folks in Russia and China, too. Don’t you know that it’s time to get on board? And let this train keep on riding, riding on through. Well, well, people all over the world…
GROSS: My interview with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff was recorded in 2008. This year marks the 50th anniversary of their label, Philadelphia International Records.
After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review the new album “Black To The Future” by the British jazz band Sons of Kemet. This is Fresh Air.
(SOUNDBITE OF VINCENT HERRING’S “YOU ARE THE SUNSHINE OF MY LIFE”)