Creating the Sound of Philadelphia

Rob Hochschild
May 13, 2010
Kenneth Gamble speaks to students in Berklee's David Friend Recital Hall.
Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff
Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, and John Kellogg, assistant chair of Berklee's Music Business/Management Department
Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble pose after receiving their honorary degrees at Berklee's 2010 commencement.
Photo by Allen Bush
Photo by Allen Bush
Photo by Allen Bush
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

In the beginning there was Motown. But when Detroit's soul music machine slowed in the 1970s, the center of the soul music cosmos headed east, to Philadelphia. That's where Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff met, started writing songs, formed a record label, and went on to create 170 recordings that have achieved gold, platinum, or multiplatinum status.

Many members of the 2010 graduating class weren't familiar with the names Gamble and Huff, but they had heard their songs and grooves. Tracks have been sampled by artists such as Jay-Z, Babyface, Nelly, OutKast, Mary J. Blige, and Kanye West and covered by Michael Bublé, Heavy D and the Boyz, and countless others.

But Gamble and Huff—who began writing hit songs together in the mid-1960s and founded Philadelphia International Records (PIR) in 1971—did much more than give the hip-hop generation fresh beats. They changed the sound of soul music and created one of the most influential movements in pop music, the Philly Sound. Their brand of soul featured a chorus of strings dueting with a thumping bass and a melody borrowed from equal parts gospel, soul, and doo-wop.

The 800-plus students who graduated last weekend had completed their coursework, but the presence of the prolific songwriting and producing duo during the past few days surely gave them plenty to think about as they began life after Berklee. Students heard Gamble and Huff music at the commencement concert and listened to them speak as the pair received honorary degrees at the commencement ceremony.

But a select group of Berklee students and Boston high school students took advantage of a more intimate opportunity on the Friday afternoon of commencement weekend, when they were invited to a casual question-and-answer session with Gamble and Huff. Also speaking during the session were Chuck Gamble, executive vice president of PIR, and John Kellogg, assistant chair of Berklee's Music Business/Management Department and moderator of the Q&A. Kellogg also served as attorney for the O'Jays, one of PIR's most popular artists. A condensed and edited transcript of the conversation follows:


On their first songwriting session in the early 1960s:

Kenny Gamble: We decided to get together at Huff's house one day. Over one weekend in Camden [New Jersey], we wrote 6-7 songs, and it was so easy. It was, 'Wow, how did that happen?'

I'm a lyricist, basically. I write lyrics. When Huff started playing, the lyrics just came out. Everything fell into place, and we've been writing ever since then.

Leon Huff: I never really heard you sing until you came over my house. This guy can really sing. So we were creating songs, and it sounded really good. That made the meeting that much better. He liked the way I played, and I knew that he could sing, so we had a little show going on in the room. Creativity was bouncing off both of us. My keyboard playing was inspiring him, and he was inspring me to keep my game up because he was doing the same thing. 

I would start grooving or something and Gamble would be like, "What's up, what's that?" and he would start freestyling off the top of his head. . . . The greatest records to me—you've got to have some spontaneity in it. Gamble is the first one I ever saw just freestyle. 

John Kellog: You not only wrote love songs, you also wrote great music that impacted the mind, uplifted and inspired the spirit of a whole generation, and really helped people move on. It was really showcased in the song, "Ain't No Stopping Us Now." How did you decide to write message music?

Gamble: Music is more than dancing and having a good time. Music is a way to send messages and to express yourself. That was part of our expression. We had a formula with our albums. Back then, you had ten songs, nine songs at the most on an album. We'd take three or four songs that would be social commentary songs, like "Love Train" or "Give the People What They Want" or "Wake Up Everybody"—those kinds of songs. Then we'd have three or four love songs, that talked about romance. Then we'd have three or four songs that were just nothing but dance, like a party record. So that when a person put that record on, they wouldn't hear just one kind of song.


On chart success and maintaining it

Gamble: We got in the habit of circling our songs when they showed up in the charts. The day when I circled ten Gamble and Huff songs in the Top 100, I knew something was happening. We had three songs in the Top Ten.

Huff: We realized we were on a roll. We wanted to take full advantage of this opportunity. We didn't want to let any foolishness get in the way of what we were doing. Nothing. We knew we had something special going on and we had the pulse of the world, and I'm talking about . . . the world. I was circling songs in Germany, Australia, the international charts, circling songs all over the world. So we just kept grinding.


On working with classical musicians

Gamble: They were retired Philadelphia Orchestra musicians and that's what gave us our sound. They had such a pure sound.

Huff: We had  an orchestra called the MFSB orchestra, and we used the same violins, cellos, horns, the same rhythm section. Sometimes you take a few new guys that came along. We used that same orchestra, so sooner or later you're going to have a chemistry, because our string players would go across the street and play Bach and Beethoven at the Academy of Music and then come over to our studio and play rhythm and blues. They loved it. I mean, they couldn't wait to come over there. It was a great violin section. They played everything.


On working as a team

Gamble: Huff and I are like one person. There's no division amongst us. We've been able to maintain our friendship. Our respect for each other has made an example of us for other writers and producers. Being able to work together and make a living together, it's just great.

Both of us did everything. I wrote lyrics; he wrote lyrics. I played the piano sometimes, and he would embellish it. We sang together.. . . All I can say is we had a ball. We had fun, and I loved every minute of it and can't wait til we do our next project.