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.
"The major labels dismantled the independent distributors and then the majors became the distributors," says Gamble. "There was a conflict of interests. They were looking out for themselves, not trying to develop independent guys like Philly International. That's my one regret: If I had it all to do over again, I would concentrate on gathering resources to distribute ourselves."
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.
"We weren't businessmen like that," says Gamble. "We were songwriters and producers. That was our bag." It's the same reason they never pursued a distribution arm beyond CBS the first time around. "Yes, we had autonomy, but we may have thought the business would handle itself. That wasn't always the case."
They spent so much time writing song after song and pursuing perfection, they didn't stop to check themselves in the fine points of business futures and image.
"We did our own thing," says Huff. "We didn't need help with that. We weren't thinking about agents or books about us. It is only with age that looking back is a business decision."
Huff echoes some of Gamble's sentiments about the sound of The Sound of Philadelphia: "We were worried about the music. That was it. Writing five or six songs a day, working with a live piano player in the studio, a live drummer, a live violin. ... Today you push a button and you can sing as clear as a bell with a full band backing you. We might have had a little more time to handle our business if all we had to do to be autonomous was to push one button," he laughs. "We were in that studio 24/7. Happily, too."
With the old songs secure and their history rebranded, they can work on new music if they feel like it. Take Groovy People, Huff's album of jazz, rock and soul — his first solo effort since 1980's Here to Create Music. "I've been listening to this record in my house for so long, it's time to get it out there," says Huff with a smile.
"There's always a song in my heart," Huff says. "Gamble's, too, even though we aren't writing anything new at present. Thank God I hear my music every day. I could be in the market with my wife. I hear it. My music is alive and new every time I turn around. Gamble feels that, as well. Look, I turned a hobby in to a stellar career, so I can't complain."