Gamble & Huff head to the Rock Hall

March 7, 2008 3:22:00 PM PST
If Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff hadn't reached out their hands to introduce themselves in a Philadelphia elevator 45 years ago, the music world may have been denied one of its richest partnerships. The production and songwriting team was the architect of the "sound of Philadelphia" and a rich vein of pop-soul hits in the 1970s. The two men are being inducted Monday into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, part of a class with Madonna, John Mellencamp, Leonard Cohen, the Ventures, the Dave Clark Five and Little Walter.

Madonna and Mellencamp may be the bigger names, but it's a safe bet the two were making out as teenagers (not with each other, mind you) at parties as Gamble and Huff's music played.

Their melodic, luxurious sound - perfect for a world switching from mono to stereo - was consistent no matter which artist they produced.

"Some people had bands," Huff recalled. "We had a whole orchestra - violins, violas, cellos - a whole orchestra at our disposal. That made our sound that much bigger."

During a peak nine-month period in 1972-73, they sold more than 10 million records with Billy Paul's "Me & Mrs. Jones," the O'Jays' "Backstabbers" and "Love Train," Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and the Intruders' "I'll Always Love My Mama."

Phew! Huff almost gets tired thinking of the all-night recording sessions at Philadelphia International Records.

They sought to reflect universal emotions with titles everybody could understand: "When Will I See You Again" or "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" or "The Love I Lost" or "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now."

"We wanted the songs to last a long time," Gamble said. "Did we know that they would? No, we didn't. But that was our intention."

Their favorite work? "Love Train."

"I think it kind of sums up everything we tried to say and do," Gamble, 64, said.

When their music was featured three years ago during a special "sound of Philadelphia" night on "American Idol," it opened the floodgates for a re-appreciation, Huff, 65, said.

They spent time putting together two collections that are out this month. "The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff's Greatest Hits" features work by the O'Jays, Melvin, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls, Patti Labelle, Paul, MFSB and McFadden & Whitehead. "Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records" includes artists and songs that never quite made it, offered up for a re-appreciation.

Their work has been sampled in a staggering number of songs - 69 at last count - by artists from A-plus to Yo Gotti. Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez, Daft Punk, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige and Usher are among them.

The catalog is also a consistent moneymaker with songs licensed for commercials.

Aside from managing that catalog, their work in music is infrequent now; Gamble started getting into real estate in 1978 and works to develop affordable housing in his hometown. A few weeks ago they got together in a studio to try out some writing, convincing Huff that "we've still got it."

It was a good payoff to the introduction in the Shubert Building, the Philly equivalent to New York's Brill Building for songwriters. They had to work fast: Huff was only going to the second floor.

"It wasn't all peaches and cream," Huff said. "But the music was the most important thing. We built the relationship on respect and trust. We always talked about keeping the dignity in the relationship."


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