In his first appearance at Camden High since graduating in 1960, Huff received a hero's welcome. His name was emblazoned on the marquee outside the school. He received proclamations and resolutions and a portrait of himself.
City Council President Angel Fuentes announced yesterday that a street in the city will be renamed in Huff's honor.
"He's a legend," Fuentes shouted to a cheering crowd of several hundred students, faculty and city officials who packed the high school auditorium.
Huff and Kenny Gamble founded Philadelphia International Records in 1971, writing for such artists as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls, and the O'Jays.
The song-writing duo, who were behind the Sound of Philadelphia, turned out such chart-topping R&B hits as "Me and Mrs. Jones," "Love Train" and "Betcha By Golly Wow."
"We were able to express ourselves through music," Gamble said. "When we got together it was magic; it was a miracle."
Huff, 59, grew up in the city's Centerville section and began playing piano at age 5 while attending 10th Street Baptist Church in Camden.
Also a drummer, he honed his talent in the city's elementary schools and later at Camden High, where he played in the band. He joined street-corner doo-wop groups that were popular at the time and performed at social gatherings in the city.
"I thought I was in Hollywood. They had talent in Camden on every corner," Huff said.
His former classmate Delia Brown recalled that Huff often played piano during school assemblies. She presented a resolution proclaiming yesterday "Leon Huff Day."
"He always had a love for music," said Brown, an administrator in the school district. "He nurtured that, and here he is today."
Faison, who has known Huff since he was a youngster, asked him last year to write a song to lift the city's spirits.
Huff wrote the lyrics and the music, and the song was recorded by Felicia Beverly with vocal backup by city public-school students. The song was played yesterday:
"Camden is our home.
I want it to be known
That we will do the right thing
To make our city better.
So let it be unity
A better place to live
For you and me. . ."
"We had never had a song," Faison said. "When I hear the music, it makes you feel good all over. There's something about music that lifts you up."
About 300 Camden High students will be able to study drama, dance and vocals and learn musical instruments when the academy opens in the fall.
"We wanted our students to be able to touch someone who walked in the same halls that they walked," Camden High principal Betty J. Herring said.
During yesterday's two-hour assembly for juniors and seniors, which at times resembled a concert, the audience was entertained with soulful hit songs.
They erupted when Harold Melvin's Blue Notes dazzled them with fancy steps and belted out "If You Don't Know Me By Now," one of the greatest hits written by Gamble and Huff.
"It's the best assembly that we've had this year," said the mayor's niece, Tamika Faison, 16, a junior. "I grew up listening to this music."
Added Byron Sellers, 17, a junior: "You get a chance to hear something your parents grew up with."
Gamble, who joined Huff on the stage yesterday, noted that many of the songs were written before the students were born, but the lyrics were familiar to them.
"It just shows you how these songs have a life of their own. They live forever," Gamble said.
Junior Carlos Rubio, 17, didn't recognize a few songs but enjoyed the performance. "It's kind of catchy and it has a rhythm to it."
Gamble said the music-writing team may produce more songs. The duo may write lyrics for Luther Vandross, he said.
"We still got a song in our hearts," Huff said.
Yesterday was also a day for Huff to thank his former teachers. The piano that Huff used to write his famous lyrics is on loan to the academy.
"I got all the teachers I didn't want, but I got the best education," Huff said. "It was a joyful time I will never forget."
Camden High, which has about 1,500 students, is one of four high schools in Camden, the largest public school district in South Jersey.
Senior Andrea Thomas, 17, an aspiring rapper, songwriter and lawyer, said she was encouraged by Huff.
"We need more stuff like this. It inspired a lot of students," Thomas said. "I feel like if he can do it, I can do it, too."
Melanie Burney's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.