They sat in the audience, politely smiling when the cameras focused on them. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, songwriting and producing partners for over 30 years, had received the Lifetime Achievement Grammy from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and actor/rapper Will Smith acknowledged their award by shouting into the podium microphone, at the top of his lungs, a boisterous chant of “PHILLY IN THE HOUSE!!!
Smith wasn’t just boasting about the duo’s home town. His chant acknowledged the musical style Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff have brought from Philadelphia to radios and record collections around the world, a balance of passionate soul ballads and funky dance tracks that became known as the “Philly Sound,” or more appropriately, a “Gamble and Huff song.” Their songs of peace, love, social conscience and turmoil sold millions of records, made superstars out of artists that had previously toiled in obscurity, and created the sweet, sexy, stirring, socially conscious “Sound of Philadelphia.” Born in Philadelphia on August 11, 1943, Kenny Gamble was always surrounded by music, and much of his youth was spent working in the music industry – he cut his first records at penny arcade recording booths; he used to bring coffee to WDAS morning personalities Georgie Woods and Jimmy Bishop; he operated his own record store in South Philadelphia.
In the early 1960’s, his harmony group, “Kenny Gamble and the Romeos,” had a regional hit with “Ain’t It Baby, Pt. 1” (Arctic 114). The Romeos’ lineup – which included songwriter Thom Bell and guitarist Roland Chambers, would continue a decades-long association with Gamble and his songwriting/producing partner, Leon Huff. While with the Romeos, Gamble and Huff discovered they had a shared love of songwriting and composing. “When me and Huff first got together, the first time we wrote, we must have wrote ten songs. We were writing some songs for another group, the Sapphires (including the 1964 hit “Who Do You Love,” on Swan 4162). Ten songs in one sitting. And it’s been like that ever since.” A song Gamble and Huff had written for Dee Dee Warwick, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” was later covered note-for-note by the superstar pairing of the Supremes and the Temptations, and taken into the Top 10. “One day I was riding home, and I heard Jimmy Bishop say on the radio, ‘There’s a new record by Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,”‘ and I almost crashed my car. Hearing that song sung by them was beautiful; I enjoyed that, it was like a lift. They took that song to where it needed to be.” From that point, Gamble and Huff became the hottest independent R and B producing team of the late 1960’s. Artists like the Soul Survivors (“Expressway To Your Heart”), Archie Bell and the Drells (“I Can’t Stop Dancin’”), Wilson Pickett (“Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You”), The Intruders (“Cowboys To Girls”), and Aretha Franklin (“A Brand New Me”) all benefitted from Gamble-Huff productions. Their collaborations with Jerry Butler produced two #1 R and B hits, “Only The Strong Survive” and “Hey, Western Union Man,” providing “The Iceman” with a new singing career.
After some early successes with their own homemade labels, Gamble and Huff created “Philadelphia International Records” in 1971. After a conversation with CBS President Clive Davis, PIR secured a distribution deal through America’s largest record label. Almost from the day PIR first opened their doors, artists on this new label began to dominate the R and B and pop charts. Within a year, the O’Jays had #1 R and B and pop hits like “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train,” Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes were riding high with “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” and Billy Paul earned the label’s first Grammy with “Me and Mrs. Jones.” During the early 1970’s Philadelphia International Records was a dominant force in the R and B and pop music industries. By 1974, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell (the partners in PIR’s music publishing company, Mighty Three Music) placed over 25 songs on the pop and R and B charts, making Mighty Three Music the biggest-selling music publishing company of the year.
Two years after its creation, Philadelphia International was the second-largest African-American-owned music company in America, just behind Motown. And CBS, a label that once dropped Aretha Franklin from their roster, was now distributing more soul music than at any time in their previous history. During these fertile years, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were able to tailor songs for various artists and musical styles. They emphasized Lou Rawls’ deep bass voice for the hit “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” When the Jackson Five left Motown in 1976, they recorded their first two Epic LP’s in Philadelphia – with Gamble-Huff songs and the Philadelphia International production crew. Gamble and Huff even wrote hits for the PIR house band, MFSB, creating the long-running theme for the TV dance show Soul Train, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”. “TSOP” not only reflected the music of Philadelphia and of MFSB, but it also represented the sound and spirit of the City of Brotherly Love – it was freedom at Independence Hall, the vibrations of the Liberty Bell, the locomotive rhythm of a SEPTA subway train, the ebb and flow of a Bobby Clarke slap shot and a Mike Schmidt triple and a Julius Erving dunk.
When Dick Clark hosted American Bandstand from Philadelphia, the common phrase was that it had a good beat and you can dance to it. With “TSOP,” the beat was so strong even those with no rhythm found the groove. One of Kenny Gamble’s proudest moments in Philadelphia International history involves a song and album he recorded with the entire PIR roster, “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto.” Originally designed as a Tobacco Road-style ballad for Lou Rawls, “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto” featured the vocal talents of Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul, the O’Jays, Lou Rawls, The Intruders, Dee Dee Sharp and Archie Bell. Young people were hired to pick up garbage, paint over graffiti, and sweep dirty streets in their neighborhood. The successful project was initially endorsed by the mayors of Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis and Atlanta, then adopted by states throughout America. Among the proclamations the project received, one was from Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp, who reserved one week in August each year for “Clean Up The Ghetto Week.” The “Clean Up The Ghetto” campaign has evolved into a special personal dream for Kenny Gamble – the renovation of his South Philadelphia neighborhood.
With his Universal Companies, Gamble has given his old neighborhood a new lease on life. He opened a successful restaurant at 15th and Christian Streets; after five years, it became a more successful bookstore. He purchased over 100 condemned and vacant properties, and provided construction jobs to local residents to fix up the properties – which are then rented to low-income and middle-income families. Gamble’s Jamiyat Construction Company has already built one mosque in the neighborhood; a second one is being planned. The area framed by Broad and 18th and Christian and South Streets is now thriving, thanks to the efforts of Kenny Gamble. “The Universal Companies encourage economic growth that will help resurrect some of the small businesses in the area. The Universal Business Center is a place where small businesses can have a support system to help them thrive. We have the Universal Institute Charter School, which is an option to public education through the charter school system, that opened in September, 1999 with 300 students. We have the Universal Community Employment Training Center, which has programs for adults to teach them job skills and provide job placement. It’s one thing to build a house, but we’re doing substantially more than that – we’re rebuilding a neighborhood and rebuilding the people in the neighborhood, so they can sustain the neighborhood. If we know better, we do better.” “We all need a little bit of religion,” said WDAS disc jockey George Woods, “But Games and Huff never preached. They were committed to a single purpose: the well being and welfare of their people. Making lives and conditions better in the community. Teaching responsibility and self-respect. Encouraging people to vote and clean up their neighborhoods. Honoring the importance of family.
During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Gamble and Huff continued to write Top 10 hits for Teddy Pendergrass, the O’Jays and the Jones Girls. They produced million-selling hits for McFadden and Whitehead, Pattie LaBelle and Phyllis Hyman. They also saw many of their compositions become big hits for other artists. In the last fifteen years, their songs were re-recorded by the Communards (“Don’t Leave Me This Way”), Tierra (“Together”), Heavy D and the Boyz’ (“Now That We’ve Found Love”), Nas (“I Remember,” using the melody from “Cowboys to Girls”), Daryl Hall and John Oates (“Love Train”), and Big Punisher (“I’m Not A Player,” which samples from the Gamble and Huff catalog). And today’s R and B producers, from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, to L.A. and Babyface, to Puff Daddy and the Family, can all trace their musical roots back to the productions of Gamble and Huff. The power and longevity of Gamble and Huff’s music can be shown by one of their biggest collaborations, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” Originally recorded as a Top 10 pop and R and B hit for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the song was remade 16 years later by the British group Simply Red. The song hit #1 on the American and British charts, and the remake eventually won Gamble and Huff the 1989 Grammy for Best R and B Song.
Kenny Gamble’s charitable contributions are not limited to his neighborhood. He has provided contributions and support to the T.J. Martell Leukemia Foundation and the AMC Cancer Research Center and Hospital (when the latter organization honored Gamble with their Humanitarian Award in 1980, it was the first time that their award was bestowed upon an African-American individual). He also sits on the board of directors of the Philadelphia Music Foundation, whose goal is to honor the legacy and accomplishments of singers, songwriters and musicians from the City of Brotherly Love. Brass plaques line the sidewalks of South Broad Street, honoring such performers as Bessie Smith, Leopold Stokowski, The Four Aces, Boyz II Men, Phyllis Human, Joan Jett, the Intruders, Teddy Pendergrass – and Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell, who in 1993 saw their plaques installed across the street from the Philadelphia International studios.
After writing or co-writing 3,000 songs, an output that rivals such famed songwriting teams as Lennon-McCartney, Holland or Jagger-Richards, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were inducted in 1995 into the National Academy of Songwriters Hall of Fame. Four years later, they were awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Grammy, an award reserved for such musical visionaries as The Beatles, Berry Gordy, Frank Sinatra and Walt Disney. Even with all these awards and accolades, Kenneth Gamble continues to write songs every day, collaborating both with his longtime partner, Leon Huff, and with many of the new writers and lyricists of Philadelphia International Records. He still lives in his South Philadelphia neighborhood with his wife Faatimah, his sons Caliph and Salahdeen, and his daughter Princess Idia. And as each new family moves back into his old neighborhood, Kenneth Gamble knows his contributions have made a difference – both in music and in life.