Evan M. Lopez
It's a strange thing, hearing a top-flight classical ensemble take on a barnstorming soul anthem like "People Make the World Go Round." The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia does it well, but wow.
They're usually throwing lifetime-achievement galas for Plácido Domingo or Marvin Hamlisch, but a celebration of the producing and songwriting duo behind "I'll Always Love My Mama," "Back Stabbers" and the steamy albums of Teddy Pendergrass? That's new.
But it's true: In May the orchestra gave its Lifetime Achievement Award to Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, whose hit albums and songs came to define this city in the '70s and early '80s.
As the founders of Philadelphia International Records (PIR) and architects of The Sound of Philadelphia, Gamble and Huff have been honored before. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Academy of Songwriters' Hall of Fame, the Grammys and numerous other organizations have heaped awards upon them — and let's not forget the 100 gold and platinum records. "We are always humbled by these accolades," says Gamble. "The inspiration given to Huff and I wasn't the usual. It was highly unusual. I mean, we were really prolific."
At the gala, the Westin Hotel ballroom was packed. The house was restless. For classical music aficionados, this was one loud crowd.
Graciously, the tuxedoed throng quieted on two occasions. One was during Billy Paul's swaggering rendition of his naughty smash "Me & Mrs. Jones." The other was when the Chamber Orchestra gave the audience a sneak peek at a project meant to celebrate the PIR main men. A team of string players turned "You Make Me Feel Brand New" into something angularly avant-garde yet sonorous and beautiful.
The sauntering song was written by G&H teammates Thom Bell and Linda Creed, recorded by the Stylistics and released by PIR in 1974. On the Westin stage, the romantic hit took on an eerie, pointed brilliance as cellos, violas and violins replaced the creamy vocal harmonies and gentle guitars familiar to anyone who has ever slow danced to that tune.
The trademark plush arrangement was pared down to something spacious, languid and somehow more haunting than it had been. This rendition proved how enduring this soul song is, no matter how and when it is executed.
"To have this collaboration occur puzzles and excites me," says Huff a few days earlier. "This really is so new."
PIR turns 40 this year, and is one of the most successful African-American-owned record labels of all time. Gamble and Huff's music writing partnership turns 50 next year.
And yet, this is a time for new things. The duo has hired an agent for the first time, signing with William Morris Endeavor, and they're looking to rebrand their legacy. Huff's even got a new solo album, Groovy People, his first in more than 30 years.
"It's like Lou Rawls once sang: 'All things in time,'" says Huff with a chuckle.
The yearlong Gamble and Huff celebration started in May. That's when they got an Outstanding Achievement Award from the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, sharing honors with Nicki Minaj and American Idol, the latter of which saluted the duo during its 2005 season.
The celebration continues with June 24's Sound of Philadelphia Night at the Phillies game, July 4's Welcome America show with the Roots on the Parkway, July 11's Dell Music Center event featuring several PIR artists, and August's National Association of Black Journalists National Convention, which will make Gamble and Huff its honorary chairmen.
Huff's solo album should be out by the end of this year, followed by the Chamber Orchestra's classical studio recording of G&H hits.
Yet for all the acceptance speeches, for all the sampling of their finest moments (count Jay-Z and Usher in), with their songs covered by giants like Elvis, Rod and Mick, with their self-owned copyrights to many of the 3,500 songs in their catalog, and the oft-quoted estimate that one of their tunes is played on the radio somewhere in the world every 13.5 minutes, something still isn't right in their Philly Sound fiefdom.
For one, the duo has been under-represented in the bigger picture, a marketplace now rich with Elvis, ABBA and Green Day musicals and music legend biographies galore.
Of course there have been ad revenues and soundtracks with commercial spots for Chevy and Old Navy and films like The Nutty Professor. But where is the catalog remastering and promotions like the ones their contemporaries at Atlantic or Motown (PIR's longtime rival) have?
It's no secret that Gamble and Huff once felt PIR didn't get its proper due during its heyday with CBS/Columbia Records. When they signed in 1971, Clive Davis gave them creative but not financial autonomy. Not owning the means of distribution stung, and in 1984 they split, taking the distribution rights to their post-1976 catalog to their new label, EMI.
"It's all about the leverage when doing distribution deals, and they all depend on how badly you want to be doing such deals," says William "Biff" Kennedy Jr. of Charterhouse Music Group.
From 1976 to 1989, Kennedy worked for Epic/CBS/SONY as Philly radio marketing manager. "They were the best global record company for decades, and had all the leverage," he says of his one-time employer. "Part of the reason they were so strong, beyond A&R and distribution, is that the business affairs and legal departments are good at negotiating rights to the commerce, at the compromise of the artist."
Kennedy wasn't privy to financial records on a corporate level, but says that if Gamble and Huff were ever unhappy with that arrangement, it was likely for good reason.