The Sound of Philadelphia and then some

Along with the reissue of their label's classic soul songs, Gamble and Huff say there's more - music "just sitting in our vaults" since the '70s.

Posted: August 14, 2007

One day in 1963, a hustling young songwriter from South Philadelphia ran into a piano player from Camden coming out of the elevator in the Shubert Building on South Broad Street.

Right away, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff hit it off, and the seeds of the Sound of Philadelphia were planted.

"We were the only blacks going in and out of that building in those days," says Kenny Gamble, remembering a time when most of Philadelphia's music business offices were housed in the Shubert (now the Merriam Theater).

Gamble got Huff to play piano on "The 81," a would-be dance-craze single by Candy & The Kisses that he was working on with producer Jerry Ross, and a partnership was born.

In 1967, the Gamble and Huff songwriting-and-production team cracked the Top 5 with the Soul Survivors' "Expressway to Your Heart." Then in 1971, Gamble and Huff signed a deal with a CBS Records executive named Clive Davis to market and distribute music on the label that would become the dominant force in rhythm-and-blues in the early '70s: Philadelphia International Records.

Starting this fall, with double CD collections of Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls, the vast PIR catalog will be reissued through a licensing deal with Sony BMG, the parent company of Gamble and Huff's original partners at CBS.

In addition to the reissue of albums such as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' Wake Up Everybody and the Jacksons' Goin' Places, greatest hits and rarities boxed sets are planned for 2008.

And in an interview last week, Gamble and Huff said that they plan to mine their archives of unreleased material of live and studio recordings by artist such as the O'Jays and Patti LaBelle that "are just sitting in our vaults."

The reissue announcement makes sense for both the music industry and Gamble and Huff. With combined sales of CDs and digital music files dropping 15 percent in the first half of this year, the recording industry is increasingly looking to market its valuable assets in creative ways. The Sony BMG deal includes plans to mine the digital download-only and ringtones market, as well as sell CDs to older fans who grew up on the Intruders' "I'll Always Love My Mama" and the O'Jays' "Back Stabbers."

And the deal comes at a time when there's been a resurgence of interest in the catalog of PIR, a label whose ambitious scope was signaled by its International middle name, and whose signature sound added jazz-like shadings and sweeping strings to a hard-driving rhythmic foundation that was as polished as it was powerful.

The O'Jays' "Love Train" is being used to sell Coors beer in TV ads, and the Eddie LeVert-led trio's "For the Love of Money" was the theme song to Donald Trump's The Apprentice.

Suave crooner Michael Bublé covers Billy Paul's sneakin'-around classic "Me & Mrs. Jones" in concert, and on her breakout album Back to Black, Brit retro-soul singer Amy Winehouse recast the song as "Me & Mr. Jones." Jay-Z and 50 Cent have sampled TSOP sounds on their hip-hop hits.

And in 2005, Gamble and Huff got their own night on American Idol, with forgotten man Bo Bice singing "For the Love of Money" and Carrie Underwood doing her best Teddy P. on "If You Don't Know Me by Now."

In 2006, Philadelphia International opened the Sound of Philadelphia record shop at 309 South Broad, underneath the PIR offices (and across the street from where Gamble and Huff first met). But "this music never had a real major marketing push before," Gamble says, "because the music always sold itself."

Gamble and Huff's success - including the pre-PIR years in the 1960s, when they scored hits like Dusty Springfield's "Silly, Silly Fool" and Wilson Pickett's "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You" - included 70 No. 1 pop or R&B hits, according to PIR. They were aided by a local music community that included genius songwriter-producer Thom Bell, plus legions of musicians, songwriters and arrangers such as Bunny Sigler, Bobby Martin, Norman Harris and Earl Young, not to mention Sigma Sound Studios owner Joe Tarsia.

"Talent," says Huff, 64. "Talent. That's what we had around us. We had some young guys around us who were budding musicians who grew to be great musicians. And I think when me and Gamble connected - physically and mentally - it was a powerful moment."

"Yeah, it was," seconds Gamble. "We were both headed in the same direction. We respected each other and were able to trust each other."

In so doing, they built an African American entertainment company that took its cues from Motown, and put Philadelphia soul on the map alongside Berry Gordy's Detroit powerhouse and Memphis' Stax as the preeminent R&B labels in America.

"You only get these kind of musical explosions now and then," says Gamble, 65. "Where you get a group of people who . . . create a body of work over a 10- or 15-year period. We had everybody working with us. Old and young, Italians, Irish. It didn't matter because the music was universal and brought everybody together."

Though Gamble and Huff were shrewd about owning their master recordings and the publishing rights to their songs, Sony does own a small portion of the PIR catalog. "So this is good because it puts all the music together in one place," says Gamble.

And it will further cement the Gamble and Huff legacy as pioneering black music entrepreneurs. "What they accomplished in business was as important as what they contributed creatively," Quincy Jones has said.

"They're not only role models: I think of them as road maps," Minneapolis producer James "Jimmy Jam" Harris told The Inquirer in 1997, upon the release of the three-CD boxed set The Philly Sound 1966-1976: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and the Story of Brotherly Love. "Next to Motown, the Gamble and Huff catalog is the most important catalog of songs there is."

"We had a lot of people here who were extremely talented," Gamble says. "We encouraged each other, and we competed with each other. We knocked on many a door, but then we were able to open doors for other people who were like us, people like McFadden & Whitehead, and Thom Bell and Linda Creed, who didn't have a way in. That was the greatest thing about it."


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.

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