n the words of the funky female preacher Lyn Collins - in a song that summoned responsibility in the hearts of lazy men, years before Rob Baze sampled the wise saying, she uttered “It takes two to make a thing go right...it takes two to make it out of sight.” Ironically, a ring of truth from those proverbial quotes are summoned when conjuring the power of two in the world of music. Somehow, someway, great things happen when two people, with great talent and a focused agenda, come together under the umbrella of productivity. History documents that songwriter duos have been long instrumental in the vitality of pop music. L.A. Reid & Babyface, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Thom Bell & Linda Creed, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel, David Porter & Isaac Hayes: oh, how the list just grows and grows. But none could really reach a natural high as epochal and as pristine as the songwriter duo of Gamble & Huff. Kenneth Gamble, an aspiring singer who possessed a knack of writing crossover rhythm & soul lyrics, and Leon A. Huff, a Jersey pianist who was raised on the rich traditions of blues, boogie woogie and gospel, crossed paths after journeying through a multitude of turn-downs due to the cultural ills of racism. Their union as a team helped usher in one of the greatest ambitious somersaults of music creativity and one of the strongest contingents to identify the popular R&B sound of the 1970s which would later be coined Philly soul.
With driving workmanship and determined sensibility, Gamble & Huff exploded unto the music scene as a duo when they were summoned to write a soul-inspired pop song for a blue-eyed soul/rock group in need of a smash hit called the Soul Survivors. The pair penned “Expressway To Your Heart;” shooting to number four on Billboard’s Hot 100 and number three R&B in 1967. While not as descriptive of the lush, ambient arrangements and polished production work that would later come from the Gamble/Huff chambers, the song opened up the floodgates for their work ethic and that undeniable magic touch. After proving their powers at work on the Intruders using their childhood reflective “Cowboys to Girls,” distinguished soul crooner Jerry Butler mentioned his interest in Gamble & Huff to his record label Mercury Records. “Never Give You Up,” “Hey Western Union Man” and the million-selling “Only the Strong Survive,” developed from several sessions with Gamble & Huff, were all considered career breakthroughs for the Ice Man and for Gamble & Huff’s future in music. This whirlwind of activity aroused the folks at Atlantic; later sending Dusty Springfield (“A Brand New Me”), Archie Bell & the Drells (“I Can’t Stop Dancing”) and Wilson Pickett (“Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You”) to Philadelphia. Others followed suit including Joe Simon (“Drowning In the Sea of Love”) and jazz goddess Nancy Wilson (“More Than a Woman”). While not all alone on the journey in pioneering Philly soul, considering Barbara Mason’s dreamy ballad “I’m Ready,” Eddie Holman’s “This Can’t Be True (Girl)” or even the groundbreaking music wizardry of Thom Bell (a former in-house assistant to Gamble & Huff’s work), Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff stand like tall monuments erected in the exhaustive history books of American music pioneers and are constantly acknowledged for developing the Philadelphia soul aesthetic.
With Philadelphia International Records, Gamble & Huff were in charge of introducing new music and strong talent to the world using their new breed of Motown pop, southern Stax influences and, of course, Philly sophistication. The string of hits began with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “I Miss You” and then their second single from their self-titled LP, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” With a strong supporting staff of musicians dubbed as MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother) and Gamble & Huff’s songwriter blueprint, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, along with their front man Teddy Pendergrass, celebrated a gold single with the Top 5 hit “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and a covetous Grammy nomination. The artists, along with Gamble & Huff’s production and songwriter perks, continued to soar during the ‘70s at PIR with the O’Jays (“Back Stabbers”, “Love Train”, “I Love Music” “For the Love of Money”), Billy Paul (“Me and Mrs. Jones”), the Intruders (“I’ll Always Love My Mama”), more hits from Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (“Bad Luck”) and a greater jump into instrumental soul fanfare with the Sigma Studios’ band MFSB (“TSOP,” “Love Is the Message,” “Sexy” and the Saturday Night Fever delight tucked in a remake of the Nite-Liters’ 1972 classic “K-Jee”).
Probably not as important to Gamble & Huff at the time, their regal arrangements, evoking newer techniques from the MFSB crew, became the cornerstone to disco music. In Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, Peter Shapiro validated the label’s sacrifices when session drummer Earl Young used the popular hissing hi-hat sound on Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ hit “The Love I Lost;” a sound “that has dominated dance music ever since this record was first released in September 1973.” The heartbeat found in the rhythm section, along with the serenading lush strings, thumping basslines and the gospel/funk grooves from Gamble & Huff’s support system, made the Philadelphia soul sound as prominent to R&B and pop music in the 1970s as Motown was in the 1960s. With disco emerging fast as the popular style of choice, Philadelphia International Records became a serious influence on the artists ready to parade in the disco heat including Donna Summer, the Tavares, Gloria Gaynor, KC & the Sunshine Band, the Trammps, the Salsoul Orchestra, Barry White and Chic.
Today, Gamble & Huff’s empire of music credits are just as historic and valuable as any other legendary songwriter duo. While Philadelphia International Records’ reign slowly released its grip on the R&B charts by the early ‘80s, Gamble & Huff’s musical contributions remain steadfastly rooted in the everlasting pinnacles of R&B’s catalog. There is no mistaken the intensely architectural designs of such prolific masterpieces like the bubbly disco favorite “I Love Music,” the paranoia sounds of Phyllis Hyman’s “Living All Alone” or the timeless modern Destiny’s Child-like club vibes of the Jones Girls’ “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else.” No one can deny the glamour that surrounds the adult contemporary-meets-disco vibrations of Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” the sweaty and sexy Quiet Storm passion used in Teddy Pendergrasss’s “Close the Door,” the gospel-ish ascension tucked in the O’Jays “Stairway to Heaven” or even the inspiring messages tucked in “Wake Up Everybody” and “Love Train.” Music lovers, of all walks of life, had to dig the sultry sounds of the Three Degrees on “When Will I See You Again” and the party-like atmosphere surrounding the O’Jays’ “Livin’ for the Weekend.” Under their disguise, Gamble & Huff produced newfound songwriter teams (McFadden & Whitehead, Dexter Wansel & Cynthia Biggs, Bunny Sigler & Phill Hurtt) and issued a number of hits blessed with their stamp of approval including Patti LaBelle’s “If Only You Knew” and Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love TKO.” These songs, and more, are Gamble & Huff’s pride and joy; demonstrating their best as a songwriter team and as an inspiration to Lyn Collins’ everlasting words of wisdom.
J Matthew Cobb