Long before Daryl Hall, John Oates and Todd Rundgren were met with major success, songwriting legends, hit producers and label founders of Philly International-Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff-put the “City of Brotherly Love” on the musical map.
Long before Daryl Hall, John Oates and Todd Rundgren were met with major success, songwriting legends, hit producers and label founders of Philly International-Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff-put the “City of Brotherly Love” on the musical map. Architects of the “Philly Sound,” through such timeless self-penned songs as “Love Train,” “For the Love of Money,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Only the Strong Survive,” “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” “The Love I Lost” and countless other smash hits, Gamble and Huff surrounded themselves with a talented artist roster numbering the O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Archie Bell and the Drells, Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, The Three Degrees and others. Quickly, they built a towering musical dynasty, fashioning impeccably crafted message songs, awash in strings, horns, violins and cellos-all driven by the passionate musicality of the MFSB band. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March of 2008, Gamble and Huff are a living testament to the enduring appeal of their wonderful, lasting body of work.
Characterize what each of you brings to the table as a creative team.
Leon Huff: I’m the musician and Gamble’s the lyric writer. It’s a pure collaboration, but sometimes Gamble will come up with something musically. For instance, I think Gamble was the one who came up with the “Me and Mrs. Jones” chords that he showed me…whatever needs to be done we can do it.
Kenny Gamble: Huff said it pretty much. Huff’s a master keyboard player. We feed off of each other. He might play a chord-and it’s hard to explain-but that chord resonates in my brain into words. Then another word will come and then another chord, and before you know it we’re rollin’. Huff is banging on that piano and the groove is being set. It’s destiny. It’s magic. Some things are just meant to be, and you have no explanation for it. It just works.
Can you define the Philly Sound?
LH: When Gamble and Huff came up on the scene, I think that’s the first time I started hearing that phrase, the “Philly Sound.” We had a style of writing that people took notice of. After we started our production company and began working with Wilson Pickett and Nancy Wilson, Archie Bell and The Drells, Dusty Springfield…people started noticing a certain style that was coming out of Philadelphia. We basically were using the same musicians, the same arrangers, the same studio [Sigma Sound] and the same engineer [Joe Tarsia]. Sooner or later you develop a signature sound that people started noticing.
What were some of the musical trademarks of that sound?
LH: I’d say the orchestration. I played in bands, and Gamble was always into orchestration. We started using tympani, vibes and French horns in our music. We loved strings. Cellos and violas. We incorporated all of that into our orchestration.
Discuss how Gamble & Huff’s songs reflected the outside world, the social and political tumult in the culture.
KG: Say, for example, “Love Train.” That song came around 1972-73…when the Vietnam War was still happening. It was just unbelievable, the sentiment in the country and around the world. People were just so hostile to each other. Huff and I were talking, and we were saying, “People all over this world need to be together.” “Love Train” was a way to say that without it being dogmatic or like you were beating somebody over the head with a message. But it was fun; it was light and it was happy. We were talking about people sharing and caring about each other, and that’s a good thing. That message is still out there today. Our songs are in different categories. Some of the songs would be political and social. Some of them would be great love songs like “Me and Mrs. Jones”, “Close the Door” by Teddy Pendergrass, the O’Jays’ “Darling Darling Baby”…and then in the other category were songs that make you dance and make you have a good time like “For the Love of Money.”
LH: The best thing about our message songs is none were written with anger. We were just talking about how we were feeling and the reality of it all. Gamble is such a freestyle writer those words in songs like “For the Love of Money” were just automatically flying off his brain.
Daryl Hall, another Philly boy, has lauded “Me and Mrs. Jones” as the greatest song ever written.
LH: “Me and Mrs. Jones” was a scene that came before our eyes. Every morning I used to come from Camden, New Jersey to meet Gamble, and we’d eat breakfast together in this restaurant. We kept seeing this couple come in every day. They used to sit at the same table. When they’d get up to go, she’d go her way and he’d go his way. The next day at the same time, same place, same table the same thing would happen all over again. Me and Gamble saw that scene develop, and we put that in a story. It wasn’t Jones at first. We had some other names…Smith, Johnson…
KG: “Me and Mrs. Johnson.” [Laughs]
LH: But Jones worked out to be the one that sounded the best. That was a real scene that developed before our eyes.
“Back Stabbers” could be directed towards quite a few folks in the music business.
LH: McFadden and Whitehead brought that story to us. Me and Gamble were starting to get busy. I happened to go to an area in my studio where we had a candy machine and a water fountain. They kept saying to me, “Huff, we got something that we want you to read.” They didn’t have any music, just words written on a piece of paper. I took it and showed it to Gamble because the story was so real. What are they doing? Smiling in your face…. I’m not sure where they got their idea, but “Back Stabbers” is so universal. You’ve got more back stabbers today than you had in the ‘70s. I think that story is going to be around forever. Me and Gamble went into the studio and cut that track. I thought something had to be dramatic in the song because the story was so dramatic, so I came up with that piano roll up in the front. That roll says, “Uh oh, something’s comin’.”
“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes has had an amazing life. Simply Red resurrected it in 1989. Tell me about that one.
KG: “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is a song about relationships. Just imagine yourself in a relationship; you come home from work and she says, “Where you been at?” You say, “I’ve been working?” Then she says, “Why you out so late?” It’s like somebody’s trying to smell you to see if you have perfume on you. It’s suspicion. They don’t trust you. That’s the kind of thing that song is about…people who have been together 10 or 15 years that still don’t know each other and still don’t trust each other. [Recites lyrics] “If you don’t know me by now, you’ll never ever know me…” That was the key to that song. [Recites more lyrics] “What good is a love affair when you can’t see eye to eye?” It don’t mean nothin’; you’re just fooling yourself.
How did you come to write “Only the Strong Survive?”
KG: I wrote “Only the Strong Survive” with Jerry Butler and Leon Huff. We were sitting around one day writing, and we came up with the title “Only the Strong Survive.” We were talking about people who survive. The song really had a great story to it and a great message. We made it into a love song, of course, but in any given situation, no matter how hard it may seem…if you hold on, you’re going to survive. That’s what we were talkin’ about. Even in the music business, it’s hard to get ahead. It’s hard to get your records played-and only the strong will survive. In the late ‘60s, “Only the Strong Survive” went number one on the r&b charts and went Top Five on the pop charts.
LH: When I heard that Elvis recorded a song we wrote, I thought, “I’ve arrived!” [Laughs]
“The Love I Lost” is another classic Gamble and Huff song.
KG: “The Love I Lost” is one of those songs where you need to just close your eyes and think about some of the relationships you had or somebody else had and you go, “Wow, that was a sweet girl, but I lost her.” That’s a great love song, and it started out as a ballad. When we got into the studio, we decided to put a groove up underneath…if you’ve got a great song, that song should be able to be performed slow, it should be able to be performed as a cha-cha, and it should be able to be performed fast. It should be able to fit all formats. So we took that one from being a ballad to an up-tempo song.
LH: When the musicians got into the groove of that song, we didn’t stop playing. That was one of the long cuts. Our engineer, Joe Tarsia, just kept the tape running and we just kept playing. We were just so hypnotized with the groove. We kept playing it until the tape just ran off the reel.
Tell me about The Three Degrees smash, “When Will I See You Again.”
KG: I saw this girl one day, and we were talking…and all of a sudden I said, “When will I see you again?” That was it. Just like that, and we had the idea. We tried to use phrases that people say all the time. How many times do you say “When wilI I see you again?” Or, “I’ll see you when I get there.” [Laughs] That was another Lou Rawls song. I put that title on a pad, and when me and Huff came together, the music made the words come together.
Let’s talk about one of your most recognizable tracks, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).”
LH: Don Cornelius, the host of the TV show Soul Train, contacted Gamble. He was getting ready to launch that show, and he was desperate for a theme song. Gamble told Don, “Come on to Philadelphia, and we’ll see what we can come up with.” So it was a Saturday night, and we called the musicians and went into Sigma Sound… but we didn’t come up with anything that night. One thing Gamble and I do is we don’t force creativity. Don got a little frustrated and wanted to fly back home. Gamble convinced him to come back the next day. Me and Gamble went back to our offices, and we came up with that [sings melody line of “TSOP”]. We called the musicians back into the studio, and it came together just like that. Don was very happy. Gamble took The Three Degrees into the studio and put the vocals on the track.
“I Love Music” typifies how you feel about your work…
KG: One day we were in the studio, and we were enjoying all this great success. We just said, “I love music,” and boom, it was like a light just came on. Then Huff started playing, and I came up with “I love music, any kind of music.” See, I do love all kinds of music. I like jazz. I like it all. [Recites lyrics] “As long as it’s swinging all the joy that it’s bringing…”