By the early 1980s, disco stalled, and lush PIR hits were starting to give way to the likes of neo-funk acts such as Prince and New Wave's plethora of one-hit wonders.
Another turning point came in 1982, when Teddy Pendergrass, a PIR mega-star, was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident on Lincoln Drive.
"After Teddy's accident ...," Huff starts, then trails off. "Look, it took a lot of work to write for a voice such as Teddy's." He stops and rhapsodizes. "We had 10 back-to-back platinum albums with him." They had dozens of others with The O'Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, MFSB and more. "Gamble and I were ready to take a rest. We never slacked. We just slowed down."
G&H stuck with EMI through the '80s, and then turned PIR toward hip-hop in the '90s via a now-defunct subsidiary (Uncensored Records), but that yielded no major successes. Sony Music Entertainment continued to own and distribute PIR's hits from 1971 to 1976.
Their bread and butter, for a time, was lost to the company they left until 2007. That's when the two parties kissed and made up, and Sony's Legacy Recordings division acquired short-term rights to PIR's smash hits.
"Now, even if there was animosity, no one from the old days of the label is even around the new company to gripe at," laughs Gamble.
Both Gamble and Huff claim that upcoming remastered reissues and never-before-heard recordings of Lou Rawls, the Jones Girls, Jean Carn, Patti LaBelle and others will blow audiences away. "The sound and songs on those Rawls recordings are some of the best Gamble and I have ever produced and wrote," says Huff. "They'd have gone platinum if we released them back then."
So the hits and archives will finally get a second chance at glory, but there's a major hole in the exploitation of Gamble and Huff's legacy. Where are the books and biographies, the VH1 specials and the grainy PBS documentaries with Martin Scorsese?
Some of their contemporaries have had their biographical Broadway moments. Songwriters Leiber and Stoller had Smokey Joe's Café, Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons had Jersey Boys. Why is there no Gamble and Huff musical, one that collects all the hits and tells the pair's personal back story? The one where Huff, a gospel piano player at Camden's 10th Street Baptist Church, and Gamble, a socially conscious lyricist and singer from Philly, started bonding after playing backup at a Candy and the Kisses recording session?
"I was as surprised as you are that they hadn't ever had an agent or agency representation before this," says Mark Itkin of Los Angeles' William Morris Endeavor.
This is very new.
The duo signed with Itkin in March of this year to represent them in film, television, theater and books. He got to them not long after The Apprentice began using G&H's funky "For the Love of Money" — co-written by Anthony Jackson and a hit for The O'Jays in 1974 — as its theme song. Itkin heard from someone who worked for Apprentice producer Mark Burnett that Chuck Gamble, Kenny's nephew, wanted his uncle to better exploit the G&H catalog.
Itkin, a master at packaging nonscripted (reality) TV shows for syndication, was a disc jockey and an entertainment lawyer with a musical bent before he joined William Morris. "As much as I loved music is how much I didn't love the music business," he says. He was a huge fan of the PIR sound. "What I learned in the packaging business, I can bring to building the G&H brand through a lot of different platforms."
The first job is the hardest. For all the pair's acumen and hits, the layperson does not know their names. You ask "Who ran Motown?" and everyone knows the answer is Berry Gordy. If you didn't know Clive Davis from his achievements in the record business, you know him now from his appearances on American Idol. But when it comes to G&H, it's the songs that people know, not the names of the men who wrote and produced them. "What I think that they did, and did brilliantly, was stay behind," Itkin says. "They were the power behind all of the music they produced. They weren't in front of it. They weren't as well known as Berry Gordy even though they were the second-largest African-American-owned music business — maybe entertainment business — in the world."
Not being as well known as other record executives or songwriters made Gamble and Huff beloved underdogs. Staying in the area where they grew up while writing culturally conscious songs and building up neighborhoods made them heroes in the City of Brotherly Love.
It's the way that they give back — Gamble's community activism and housing development through his Universal Companies, in particular — that appeals to Itkin, as well. "You hear about Bono and DiCaprio causes every day," he notes. "But you don't hear much about Gamble and Huff, who help rebuild their city daily, guys who have attained great wealth and put their money where their consciousness is. They stayed in Philly. That's something. It is that rich history, story and songs that we have to tell."
Though Warner Chappell does much of the pair's licensing where commercials are concerned, Itkin sees to the overall packaging, the future synergy of tying G&H's songs and image to larger projects. He'll soon push networks on a documentary on their lives with live musical television specials to follow.
Currently Itkin is interviewing authors to help G&H tell their tale. "We have to get a book out there," he says. "Most importantly, we have to put together a live musical that tells their entire story and packages their music like Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia."
Five years from now, Itkin would like to see the live stage production running worldwide with a feature film based on that musical out there or in the works. "I think we're on track for that," he says. "Right now it's about introducing them to authors to help the write their story and script people to tell their story on the stage."
The pair had long been thinking about doing a musical production that spotlighted their tunes.
"Gamble and I had that idea in our heads ever since we saw that Me & Mrs. Jones musical at the Prince Music Theater," says Huff of the 2001-02 play starring Lou Rawls and featuring songs from the PIR catalog. "After we saw the reaction of the audience at the sold-out shows, we knew that our music would make it on Broadway at the right time with the right people. Books, too. We knew we should be writing one."
So why didn't they? How is that after all this time, they never bothered to do that book, write that musical, hire an agent to do their bidding? Separately, both men answer similarly.