By 1971, prolific songwriters/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had a catalog of R&B and pop hits including The Soul Survivors “Expressway to Your Heart,” The Intruders “Cowboys to Girls,” and Jerry Butler’s “Only the Strong Survive,” and a network to help move the product released by their number of boutique record labels. But minor success wasn’t enough for the inseparable twosome, so they longed for an opportunity to bridge their love of music, humanity and keeping their ear to the streets under a larger brand, for a broader audience.
Their ship eventually came in. Gamble and Huff landed a deal with Clive Davis, then CBS Records president, to house their label, Philadelphia International Records, and its signature “Philly Sound.” The GRAMMY-winning musical pair recorded out of Sigma Sound Studios, accompanied by their 40-piece orchestra, MFSB. The Rock & Roll, Dance, and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees assembled an impeccable roster of talent like The O’Jays, The Three Degrees, The Intruders, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, The Jacksons, Lou Rawls, The Jones Girls, Patti Labelle, Phyllis Hyman, and McFadden & Whitehead. The creators additionally wrangled an in-house slate of songwriters, producers and engineers including Thom Bell, Bunny Sigler, Linda Creed, Bobby Martin, Joe Tarsia, Dexter Wansel, and Cynthia Biggs.
Gamble and Huff’s lush arrangements, danceable grooves, precise rhythms, and stellar vocal production were the basis for classics like “Back Stabbers,” “For the Love of Money,” “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” “Wake Up Everybody,” “Love Train,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” and “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Owning the second largest Black-owned music brand by 1976, Gamble became a co-founder of Black Music Month three years later.
This year, Philadelphia International Records has released two limited edition vinyl sets (including a rare 1973 concert in San Francisco featuring its full artist roster) and landed partnerships with Pandora and Sonos Radio HD(opens in a new tab) to stream and pair selections from Gamble and Huff’s catalog with stories behind their compositions. Another eight-CD set features all of their label’s first full-length LPs remastered. Each month concentrates on a theme related to Philadelphia International. During the coronavirus pandemic, Gamble hosted his own weekly Facebook podcast, “Message in the Music,” and even joined Huff for periodic Clubhouse panels. A feature documentary and Broadway production spotlighting Gamble and Huff’s impact are on the horizon.
Gamble and Huff, who originally met in an elevator over six decades ago, recently sat with GRAMMY.com to reminisce about their storied career, the key to their friendship, and staying relevant.
How does that feel commemorating a 50-year legacy this year?
Gamble: Fifty years is only part of it; that’s when we started Philly International, but Gamble and Huff have been rollin’ since 1963, ’64, somewhere around there. It’s a good thing. There were a lot of people that participated in that; many of them are not here anymore. It gives me real good memories of the past, but the future looks even brighter to me.
Huff: It’s bright because I heard that music all day over the last two to three days. I’m in the doctor’s office gettin’ a colonoscopy, and on the radio comes [sings] “You’ll Never Find.” I’m in the grocery store afterwards, and [sings] “Me and Mrs. Jones” comes on through the monitor. The music is everywhere. [Laughs.]
Gamble: You sound a little bit like Billy [Paul] there, brotha. You sound good. [Smiles.]
What’s the story behind the Philadelphia International Records logo?
Gamble: That logo is really the yin and the yang, but it’s a rectangle. The guy that worked with us at CBS Records was named Ed Lee; he was an Asian brotha. He did just about all of our album jackets; he’s the one that suggested the colors. They kinda reminded you of the freedom colors: the red, the black and the green. It just caught on because I see it all the time on commercials; it’s really distinctive. The colors stand for the beginning and the end.
Did you have a writing process?
Huff: The piano was in Gamble’s office, so that’s where we created most of the songs. The writing process for Gamble & Huff was scientific. That piano was rigged to a point where it sounded like something else. I went and got some thumb tacks that I put behind all of the hammers: 88 behind each one of them. When the thumb tacks hit the strings, it created a whole different sound. Of course, the front and the top of the piano were off, so that music came blastin’ outta like you’ve never heard before.
Gamble was sitting beside me, and we had a tape recorder playing all of the time because most of the song titles come from everyday life: slogans that people would say like “When Will I See You Again?” “Me and Mrs. Jones” played out right before our eyes. We were like movie directors. That’s the way Gamble wrote those lyrics. We paid attention to the news and current events; we talked about everything, so that’s what we wrote about—relationships, the community, the world. The music of Gamble & Huff soothed the savage beast.
Gamble: We were coming up with stuff. If you just say a certain word, BOOM! It might become a song.
What role did you play in the creation of Black Music Month?
Gamble: We had an organization with all of the disc jockeys that we’d been working with around the world called the Black Music Association; we were creating a communications network between all of the Black disc jockeys, artists, show promoters, etc. One day we were talking about October being Country Music Month; I asked how come there’s no Black Music Month? Everyone was asking what month; I said June.
With Black Music Month, we came up with a slogan: Black Music is green, which means economics. It’s about money. Today, I’m just overjoyed to see how many people are participating in it now. There was a time when Huff and I were coming up when you couldn’t put an album or single out with Teddy Pendergrass on the cover because record shops and promoters wouldn’t even put him in the window. They didn’t put no Black people on the covers. We were fortunate enough to come up in a time where we could put Teddy Pendergrass or Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes out. What we contributed, and we were with CBS Records at the time, was getting distributors to see that Black music was an economic issue. Young people were buying these albums left and right; it wasn’t just singles that Black people were buying.
When we had the first convention in Philadelphia [in 1979], Stevie Wonder and Bob Marleyperformed together. It was amazing; we must’ve had about 1,000 people at that first thing because it was business. How you take the fun, joy and laughter is good, but at the end of the day, how many jobs are you producing from this industry from African American music? So many spokes in that wheel: from manufacturing, distribution to everything that you can think of.
We had a great group of people like Clarence Avant working with us. We had just about everybody in the whole industry working with us. It sounded right, and it was right to do this. Clarence Avant knew this guy in Atlanta who knew President Jimmy Carter. He asked Carter if he would entertain Black Music Month at the White House. Carter did it; we all went down there [in 1979]. Huff and I went down there with all of our crew from Philly. I don’t think they ever had that many Black people in the White House. We had all of the Black disc jockeys like Frankie Crocker. We had everybody: Billy Eckstine, Evelyn “Champagne” King performing and Barry White. It was a great thing to see our people working together. Jimmy Carter was sitting on the grass. It was nice. It was beautiful.
“When me and Huff are doing these interviews together, it always opens up something in my mind that allows me to see the bigger picture in these 60 years that we’ve been working together…That’s a long time, and it brings back a lot of emotions.” Kenny Gamble
Is it overwhelming utilizing the various digital and new media platforms to share that music and history?
Gamble: Overwhelming is the right word; I say to myself this is a lot. I’m an old man; I ain’t no young boy no more. It’s nice working with all of the new outlets and social media. I do have to admit that it is tiring sometimes; it’s a whole lot of talking and doing interviews, but it gives me a lift though.
When me and Huff are doing these interviews together, it always opens up something in my mind that allows me to see the bigger picture in these 60 years that we’ve been working together. I was 23, 24 years old, fresh outta high school, when Huff and I started working. That’s a long time, and it brings back a lot of emotions. As long as we can do something that’s positive and add to everything, I’m willing to do as much as I can to keep it going. There’s a whole lot there.
Is there talk of both a feature documentary and a Broadway production to chronicle Gamble and Huff’s story?
Gamble: Our team is talking about it now. It’ll be great if they do it because not only did we write songs about it, but we actually really did do our part: cleaning up the community and helping out. Don’t take for granted everything that you have in this physical world; you can do something more important than that. So many young people need guidance; we all need guidance. I need guidance.
Gamble and Huff | Photo: Vernon Smith
How do you nurture your friendship outside of your creative and professional relationship?
Huff: It’s about growth, loyalty and respect; me and Gamble grew together. You have to really like a person to really want to be around them all of the time. That’s really how it started. I was coming over from Camden, New Jersey; Gamble’s from Philly. I couldn’t wait to get over with Gamble; he introduced me to a lot of new musicians I was ready to play with and that taught me a lot. It was just the joy of being together. I had pure laughter when we were collaborating. I sit now and think about it; it was a wonderful time. Me and Gamble hung out in clubs; we’re joined at the hip. We were in a creative zone that was scary. It really was. It was something I wished we could’ve filmed; it would’ve been something sacred.
“It was just the joy of being together. I had pure laughter when we were collaborating. I sit now and think about it; it was a wonderful time.” Leon Huff
What are you most proud of?
Huff: I’m still alive, healthy, hearing my music, and playing the piano. Not like I used to, but I still play. I’m proud of our success; I thank God for it everyday.
Gamble: As long as you’re doing good, it’s alright. Your heart and soul has to be in it. Philadelphia International was an example of doing good business and living up to our word. When we commit ourselves to something, we actually fulfill our commitments so people won’t have anything ill to say about us.