Phone interview recorded January 11, 2012
The name 'Leon Huff ' has appeared on literally hundreds and hundreds of records since the late '60s - as either songwriter or producer and in many, many cases as both. Even before that, Leon's work as a pianist could be heard on dozens of hit records made in New York before he and Kenny Gamble teamed up to become the architects of Philadelphia International, creating countless classics that have stood the test of time. Indeed, somewhere in the world, a Philly International track is being played almost every minute. It's an amazing legacy but Leon Huff isn't content to rest on his laurels as David Nathan discovers...
David Nathan: It’s my real pleasure today to welcome to SoulMusic.com a gentleman who truly has made an incredible mark on soul music, on contemporary music in general and is part of really a legendary movement in music that started in the '60s and really made its mark in the '70s and beyond. When people talk about the Sound of Philadelphia there’s usually three names that come up most prominently: those names are Kenny Gamble, Thom Bell and the gentleman I’m about to introduce, Mr. Leon Huff, who is absolutely one of the architects of that sound which has made a global impact over the last four decades—I guess nearly five decades, thinking about it. So it’s really, really an honour and a privilege and a pleasure to welcome a gentleman who I’ve interviewed before and who I’m happy to be interviewing again today. Welcome to SoulMusic.com, Mr. Leon Huff.
Leon Huff: Hello, hello. I’m glad to talk to you again.
DN: You too, absolutely. Well, let’s start with what you’re up to most recently; I know you have a new album coming out and I know you have a single that’s been out called “Groovy People”. And for those who know their Philadelphia music, they know that this isn’t your first album and that back in the day, as we say, you did an album called… now let me get the title right. Here to Make Music?
LH: HERE TO CREATE MUSIC.
DN: ... Now that was quite a long time ago, and am I correct that this is only your second solo album?
LH: Yes. You know, I create music when the mood presents itself. I always did go into the studio and record instrumental music ideas that I’d come up with. When me and Gamble were not working together in the studio, I’d usually be in there producing instrumentals… because I play piano; because I was a musician first before I became a songwriter. And I always did that. So when I don’t go in the studio, I’ll be at home creating—I’ve got a favourite room at home where my computers and my keyboards are, and I love to hear myself play. So when I would be playing I’d have the tape recorder on, and I have all this music I’ve recorded over the years. So now I’ve decided I’m going to share it with the world and release it. And this is the project that David Still—he’s coproducer on the album—we compiled a bunch of songs to put together, and decided on the title GROOVY PEOPLE because “Groovy People” is a song that, if you remember, that Gamble and I wrote for Lou Rawls.
DN: Absolutely, absolutely—I remember it very vividly. In fact, as soon as I saw the title I thought, “That must be the same ‘Groovy People’ that Lou Rawls did”—absolutely.
LH: Yes, because that track was so swinging. I remember me and Gamble was producing the track that was a swinging session, and Lou Rawls did a magnificent job on the vocals. So I decided to do an instrumental of it. I got my friend Roy Richardson, who blows the sax, on the album and he just killed it. And it’s got that bop groove, that dancing groove. And if you can remember back in my album HERE TO CREATE MUSIC it had a cut on that album called “I Ain’t Jivin’, I’m Jammin’ ”.
DN: Absolutely, absolutely—I remember it very well.
LH: That song is still packing them on the dance-floor today.: It was an underground giant of a hit, because it took a life of its own. During the time Columbia Records was distributing and promoting it, I don’t think they knew what they had. So basically the song took a life of its own, and you can go to any club round here in the Philly area or anywhere, bop club, and they’ll tell you that “I Ain’t Jivin’, I’m Jammin’ ” is still alive and kicking through all these years.
DN: That’s amazing—that’s really amazing.
LH: Right. So I decided to stay in that dance groove with “Groovy People”.
DN: Well, let me ask you—obviously I think anyone knowing that you had done that album back then would ask you—why did it take you so long to do this one?
LH: I don’t really have no specific reason. I take the moment as it comes. But when I didn’t have an outlet… even when the era of Gamble and Huff and Columbia was winding down, that didn’t mean I stopped. I would stay in the studio—I got my bunch of guys in the studio and we jammed anyway—but the music… since we didn’t have an outlet, I stockpiled it till I got an opportunity to have another outlet. I didn’t care how long it took. But over the years I’ve been grooving with this music, people been wondering what station I had on when they hear me stop at this stoplight and I got my window down and they hearing some music they never heard before, and they’re asking me, “What station…?”
... So now, 2011 is when “Groovy People” came out through Climax Entertainment… I’m going to be channeling some great music, and I want the people to be aware that this music, I’m going to be sharing it.
DN: Well let me ask you, since you have a stockpile: how many tracks did you have to choose from?
LH: Well, the tracks that we chose from was just maybe a third of what I have, really, of about maybe two or three thousand tracks.
DN: How many?
LH: I got a lot of music.
DN: Did you say two or three thousand?
LH: Yeah, could be up in that area. Because I play every day—every day I pray, “God give me the strength to play.” I play every day, most of the days. I don’t play as much as I used to, but I still play. I started playing piano when I was about five, six years old, because my mother played the piano for the church, and that’s how that piano got in the house. So I took to that piano very early, and I’ve been playing that piano ever since. That piano took me through a long and winding road, through New York doing record dates; I was a studio musician at first playing on some great records coming out of New York: Leiber and Stoller, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Phil Spector… I was all up in that era as a studio musician, so that dream was fulfilled until I really started to connect with my songwriting and record-producing. That’s when I met Gamble. When I met Gamble, the whole thing changed. So I’ve been on a musical journey for a long time, and I’m still vibrant with the music today and now I’m in a position to really—
DN: That’s great. So it’s almost like full circle.
LH: Yeah, right… exactly what it is. But the most important part of my career right now is I’m still having fun. I still love to make music, so that’s what I’ll be doing.
DN: Well, it’s really incredible: the only person I can ever think of that I’ve ever heard talk in terms of thousands—and he probably might be close but I doubt it—is Stevie Wonder. Because back in the seventies in particular, Stevie Wonder was renowned for making hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tracks that no one ever heard.
LH: [Laughs] That’s right, I got plenty of ’em.
DN: So in other words there’s an unlimited supply of Leon Huff music.
LH: It just keeps coming. Stevie’s a music machine, and it’s fine-tuned and it’s vibrant. I had a chance to work in Stevie’s studio in California, me and Gamble, and Stevie is a musical spirit. And I really define myself in that nature, because music is my lifeblood.
DN: Wow. Amazing, amazing. Well, tell us a little bit about the album. You mentioned—is it Roy Richardson that is playing saxophone?
DN: Do you have any vocalists on the album, or is it completely instrumental?
LH: Yes, in fact I think there’s three cuts on the GROOVY PEOPLE album that this group is performing, and the group is called Ju-Taun: J-u dash T-a-u-n, and they perform some great songs on the album. It’s three guys, and they’re very handsome guys, very talented. And one of the songs that I did on the album was a Philadelphia classic that was first recorded by Eddie Holman, a song called “Hey There Lonely Girl”.
DN: Oh, wonderful song—wonderful song.
LH: Yes, they do a great version of that. And I did another version of a song that was written by Smokey Robinson called “The Way You Do the Things You Do”.
DN: Oh yeah, absolutely.
LH: By one of my all-time favourite groups, The Temptations. So I did a remake with Ju-Taun and they put a different spin on it, a little bit bluesy. But Smokey’s one of my favourite writers and that song is one of the most clever songs I’ve ever heard, so I decided to do it again. Take a listen on how the way they do it.
DN: And what prompted you to do the Eddie Holman song?
LH: I always loved that song.
DN: It’s a great song… it is a great song.
LH: Yeah, it’s a classic. And I never really heard covers of it. I said, “I’m gonna do that song one day.”
DN: Great, great. Now the rest of the album is instrumental, correct?
LH: Yeah, except the last cut’s called “I Got the Bad Weather Blues” and I’m singing.
DN: Oh, okay… Now if I remember correctly, you sing also on HERE TO CREATE MUSIC too, right?
LH: Mostly background parts. Because that’s what me and Gamble did during the very early part of our careers; we got paid to do background vocals on a lot of records.
LH: Oh, yeah. So a lot of records that we produced, me and Gamble sang backgrounds for a lot of those songs.
DN: I didn’t know that.
LH: Oh yeah, me and Gamble was the background vocals on “The Latest, Greatest Inspiration” with Teddy Pendergrass, and when we had Archie Bell, we was The Drells.
DN: You’re kidding?
LH: Yeah, we sang some great cuts on the Harold Melvin and Bluenotes albums that me and Gamble did - [we did] a lot of backgrounds on.
DN: Wow. I don’t think people know that… well, those who have studied your discography probably know that, but I actually didn’t know that.
LH: Now you know. That’s why me and Gamble’s in the process of writing a book—we’re trying to put that together, and then you’ll hear a lot of stuff. People don’t know how deeply involved me and Gamble was in the records, even before we started Philly International.
But Philadelphia was very vibrant at that time. Of course the music was all over the place… record companies everywhere. Hey listen, I tell you what too—there used to be dance records come out in that era with The Orlons with “South Street”, with The Dovells and “Bristol Stomp”. So during that time me and Gamble used to hang around the studios, and any of the producers would say, “You guys wanna make fifteen dollars? Come on up here and foot stomp.” We used to handclap for ten dollars… it was like that during that time, so me and Gamble was doing a lot of work round Philadelphia before we even started record companies.
DN: Well now, in terms of doing background singing what was the first hit that you sang on that you can remember doing backgrounds?
LH: Jerry Butler, “Never Going to Give You Up” and “Only the Strong Survive”—we did all Jerry’s. Well, two of the songs, me, Jerry and Gamble sang background on.
DN: Wow. Amazing, amazing. So we are going to hear some background singing on GROOVY PEOPLE album too, right?
LH: Yeah, let’s see... well, just “Bad Weather Blues”; I did most of the vocals on that.
DN: Now are people who are not aware of HERE TO CREATE MUSIC, are they surprised to hear of you as a recording artist?
LH: Yeah. I’ll be in there having fun, I just be in the studio doing every little thing, so I decided one day, “I’m going in and sing. Everybody else [is] singing.” I always did love to sing—I always did love to sing, but I never thought of myself as a lead singer. I would always sing in the background. But I said, “Well, everybody else singing—let me sing.” So I wrote that song “Bad Weather Blues” that’s in the GROOVY PEOPLE album.
DN: Now is this the beginning of a whole new part of your career? In other words, you did this album; are you going to continue to make albums? Obviously if you have two to three thousand tracks to pull from you could be putting out a lot of music in the next few years.
LH: Yeah, I’m going to be putting out music periodically, but they got the Internet system now. I come up through a whole different era of music; a whole other way of presenting music to the world than this Internet system now. So it’s going to be like a pipeline.
DN: A whole new world, yes.
LH: I’m going to try to have some fun doing it that way.
DN: Well, I have to ask you, because obviously we couldn’t do an interview without me asking you a few questions about the impact of Philadelphia International and the impact of the music that you and Kenny Gamble have made over the years. Did you have any idea, when you first started working together and when you first started Philadelphia International, that it would have the kind of impact and longevity that it has had?
LH: Well, I can only base it on the first day that Gamble came over to my house over in Camden, New Jersey, because that’s where I’m originally from. I’ve always been a Jersey boy, but I traveled to Philadelphia to Philly International, which is only twenty minutes away across the Ben Franklin Bridge. So Gamble came over to my house, and the very first time we had a ball. We must have wrote about five or six songs, just messing around—just brainstorming. And so that day we had so much fun we wanted to do it again. So he came over to my house that next week. And then we felt something that the chemistry was there, then; because I could play pretty good, so we was coming up with some nice ideas. So we had a group called The Intruders after that, after me and Gamble found out that we was really a good collaborating team, so we started writing songs for The Intruders. And when we came up with “Cowboys to Girls” I said, “Let’s go for it.” So we decided to form a production company, Gamble and Huff Productions, and we was doing work for all the majors. We did a lot of work for Atlantic Records, and we started with Archie Bell, then we went to Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield, and then we did an album on The Sweet Inspirations.
DN: One of my favourite albums, yeah.
LH: So we had a great time. And we did Jerry Butler for Mercury Records, and we had a ball working with Nancy Wilson at Capitol. And we was really active as a production team. So all our activity on the charts, on all the national charts, [came to the] attention [of] Clive Davis, and that’s when he offered us a record deal with CBS Records and that’s when Philly International was born. As Clive Davis said, six months into the deal Gamble and Huff was on a creative rampage, because we had maybe six records out there that was released, starting with “Backstabbers” with The O’Jays. So we got off to a great start and it lasted for twenty years. And it’s been wonderful.
DN: And did you expect that it would still be resonating today? Because the fact is, yes, that was that period of time—which of course I was around through and I remember very vividly the launch of Philadelphia International Records here in the UK; of course hits with The Three Degrees, you mentioned The O’Jays, Howard Melvin and the Bluenotes… all of that. But did you have any idea that the music would last as long as it has?
LH: Well, I could say it all started with how serious the focus was and how serious we were about our songs, the quality of the songs. If you’re going to strive for greatness you’re going to have to work at it. So me and Gamble always were very critical about our songs. They had to have great stories, great melodies, and we had a wonderful array of musicians that we used to play on our records, and a great orchestra, the MFSB orchestra. So me and Gamble had our army and we supplied the ammunition, because me and Gamble was coming up with all those songs, one after another. I remember at one time, me and Gamble had ten records in the Top Twenty. That’s when I knew that me and Gamble was on a roll and ready to conquer the world. We got into The O’Jays and we started writing songs like “Backstabbers”. Then we got into the love era—love the females and writIng songs for the females—and we had the perfect artist to do it: that was Teddy Pendergrass. We had a wonderful array of artists, [like] The Three Degrees… I call Three Degrees my royalty artist.
LH: Yeah, they were royalty over there in Europe.
DN: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.
LH: That “When Will I See You Again” took them to places they never dreamed of. That was a huge song over there.
DN: Of all the songs that the two of you wrote, which has been the one that has...I guess the only way to say this is the way I want to say it: what’s the one that’s generated the most money for you of all the songs you’ve ever written?
LH: Well, we got the award for songs for how many times they’ve been played on the radio. I got awards on my wall for songs like four million airplays, five million airplays…Songs like “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul and “Love Train” by The O’Jays and “When Will I See You Again” by The Three Degrees and “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”, Lou Rawls. Those were really huge. And I can’t leave out “For the Love of Money”, The O’Jays.
DN: Right, absolutely. Absolutely. Of course when we started the era of rap and hip-hop, I think it’s probably true to say that Gamble and Huff were among the most sampled songwriters of all time. Is that correct?
LH: Well, I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I still love to listen… I hear my music every day. Even when me and my wife is walking through the grocery store something’s going to come through that—before I walk out of the grocery store I’m going to hear one of those songs. If I’m in the doctor’s office… I don’t care what I’m doing—the TV, the commercials, the movies; a lot of movies—the Gamble and Huff songs are all over the place. And I still get a kick out of hearing my music, when I listen to the professional quality of that music and the songs. And we had some very, very talented singers, and I can’t leave out my friend Michael Jackson. Him and his brothers, we did two albums with them, and it was a wonderful experience. He asked us once, “Gamble, Huff, what’s your favourite song?” It was hard because me and Gamble used to tell him a different one every time. So we started to say, “Well, let’s pick one.” So we picked “Love Train”, The O’Jays.
DN: Really? Now why did you pick that?
LH: Well, it’s such a universal song and it’s a song for peace in the way Gamble wrote the lyrics: “People all over this world/join hands”. And that’s the mode we was in then. It’s one of my favourite songs still.
DN: Well, I have to ask you, when you mentioned about being in the grocery store or in the doctor’s office: so when one of your songs comes on, how do you feel?
LH: I just listen to it… I enjoy it. But my wife enjoys it more than me, because she says, “Leon, one of your songs!” My wife is very, very, very excited it’s me in that music.
DN: The thing that’s probably funniest is if you’re in the grocery store or in the doctor’s office or wherever you are and you hear one of those songs, it’s probably true to say that nobody knows that the man in the grocery store is the one who cowrote the songs.
LH: Yeah, I’ll be tickled... I’ll be walking up the aisle and Lou Rawls will come on [sings in deep voice]: “You’ll never find…”
DN: That’s really great. Well, let me ask you a couple more questions. Firstly, we mentioned about the impact of the music. Obviously you called the record company Philadelphia International. By calling it that, was it your intention that the music in fact reach the world? Was that part of the reason for calling it Philadelphia International?
LH: That idea came from… well, we were based in Philly. That’s where we made our base, Philadelphia, and we wanted to make music for the world so we called it International—Philadelphia International Records. But me and Gamble didn’t have any idea to what heights this music would take us, we were just having fun writing and producing. We was in such a zone, it was just a one-time moment. And we just came up with some great music surrounded with some great writers with us: Thom Bell, Linda Creed, McFadden and Whitehead, Jefferson and Hawes… we had a lot of young writers surrounded by us, and musicians and arrangers. So we had a whole building full of talented people, sort of similar to Hitsville in Detroit—Motown.
DN: Was there any rivalry between you at all, would you say? Between Motown and Philadelphia International?
DN: Yeah, was there any competition?
LH: No, we never thought in that way. The word we liked to use… we were inspired by Motown. And after me and Gamble spent three days out there, we got invited to come to Hitsville in Detroit, and I got a chance to go inside that building when they were really young. And I started to vibe. When you got a building full of talented people, ain’t no telling what might happen.
DN: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, we’ve talked about the past a little bit and we’ve talked a little bit about the present, so let’s talk about what’s immediately in front of you. Obviously you have the album coming out. I assume you’re going to be doing whatever it takes to promote that and let people know about it.
LH: Right at this point at my life right now, my main focus is I want to keep healthy—stay healthy. Without health you can’t be focused.
DN: That’s very true… that’s very true.
LH: I’ve got a wife and kids, that helps keep me on track with that. But I’m going to be still creating music as long as I possibly can.
DN: So do you still play piano every day?
LH: Yeah, most of the time. I get an idea or something, I sit down and play. Sometimes I don’t usually have ideas, I just sit down and I just start playing. That’s why I always have the tape recorder on. Gamble will tell you, every time I used to come in his office first thing he’d do is get that tape recorder, sit down and I start messing around. Gamble would holler, “What’s that you playing?” I said, “Oh, nothing… just something I made up.”
DN: And out of all those things you made up, obviously there’ve been many, many classic hits.
LH: Oh man, me and Gamble was in such a zone that it still amazes us to this day.
DN: Right, right. Do you still write songs together?
LH: We gotta be inspired to do that together, because me and Gamble done worked with some of the most talented voices that ever came through this music. Me and Gamble, we have to be inspired to do something like that. What I’m getting a kick out of right now is hearing my music every day. And basically, that’s the groove I’m in is creating more music for myself.
DN: Do you have any plans to produce anyone else in the near future?
LH: Yeah, in fact I’m working on one now.
DN: Great, okay. So you’re still keeping your production chops up by working with other people, stuff like that?
LH: Yeah, I love to work with people like Ju-Taun, this group we talked about, and perhaps some other new artists. I always get a kick out of working with other artists, singers—I always did get a kick out of that… something different. I don’t really have anything to prove. Basically I’m just having fun working with new artists that’s trying to go down that path I’ve been down. So I get a kick out of helping young musicians.
DN: Is there anyone that you haven’t worked with yet that you would still like to work with? I’m talking about obviously established or legendary artists—anyone that you haven’t been in the studio with that you would like to still do that with?
LH: One of my old artists that I had?
DN: No, anyone that you’ve never produced or never worked with that you still would like to. Is there anyone in particular?
LH: Well, me and Gamble, when we were able to get around to sit and talk, we always talked about that, but we never came up with nobody, really.
DN: Really? Okay.
LH: We and Tyrese, we talking about music, because Tyrese was very close friends with Teddy Pendergrass and we talked about working some things out together musically. But if it happens, it’ll happen. If not, I’ll just keep enjoying—
DN: Keep doing what you’re doing. Well, let me ask you one final question, which is when you look at the music scene today, what are your thoughts about contemporary music and the kind of music that you hear on the radio now?
LH: Well, every generation presents itself with new ways to sell it to people. The music today… it’s great. You got new geniuses, new ways of producing records; but I’ll stick with the old, basic way of making records. I like to go in the studio with live musicians. Basically it’s a whole different world today musically, but I’m enjoying it. My hat’s off to all the writers and producers of today; like baby geniuses they come up with new ways of making music. Because music is all forms.
DN: Yes, absolutely. Well listen; it’s really great, really great speaking with you. We’re excited about your brand-new album—and the album is called GROOVY PEOPLE?
DN: Good. And is it actually out yet or is it going to be out shortly?
LH: No, it’s been out. You can go on YouTube, iTunes.
DN: Okay, good; so it’s out and available so people can check it out.
LH: Yeah, check it out.
DN: Fantastic. Well Mr. Huff, it’s really a pleasure speaking to you, as always. I’ve been doing interviews with you, as I said, since 1973, when you and Mr. Gamble first came to London and launched Philadelphia International. So we do go back a little while and it’s really great to welcome you to SoulMusic.com, and we thank you for sharing with us about what you’re up to.
LH: My pleasure.
DN: Okay, take care now.
LH: You too.
DN: Thanks, bye-bye.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.