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Issue 1084

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Feature

KENNETH GAMBLE & LEON HUFF; THE HISTORY BOYS

GAMBLE & HUFF
GAMBLE & HUFF Kenneth Gamble Leon Huff

A new licensing agreement between Sony BMG and Philadelphia International Records â which brings together the entire catalogue in one place for the first time - has resulted in renewed interest in the great music that was created in Philly during the â70s and 80âs and beyond as well as in PIRâs owners and founders, Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff.

As all good soul music lovers know, PIRâs vaults are full of timeless classics from some of the true legends in the world of R&B including Lou Rawls, Patti Labelle, The OâJays, Teddy Pendergrass, Jean Carn, Archie Bell & The Drells and Bunny Sigler among others.

During a recent trip to Los Angeles, Gamble & Huff sat down with B&Sâ David Nathan (who did the first B&S interview with the duo in London in 1973) to talk shop, reminisce and reflect on over forty years of music makingâ¦

B&S: Can we talk a little about the artists you worked with before you started PIR in 1972?
Letâs start with Jerry Butlerâ¦

KG: We knew Jerry because of the tremendous career he had, first with The Impressions and then as a solo artist. We used to see him at The Uptown Theater here in Philly but we really got close to him when he was playing at Peps show bar. Huff and I showed him the song 'Lost' and he liked it but it was not complete. We said, âletâs finish it togetherâ. Jerryâs very talented as a lyricist, very fluent and easy to give direction toâ¦

B&S: Dusty Springfield?

LH: We were doing some independent producing for Atlantic Records. We had been successful with Archie Bell & The Drells with âThereâs Gonna Be A Showdown.â They asked if we could do more acts for themâ¦we did The Sweet Inspirations, Wilson Pickett. Thatâs when they gave us the opportunity to work with Dusty.

B&S: Did you think of her as a British singer?

KG: Noâ¦we were looking at her as a great voice. It was a little sensitive for us since we were used to work with people like Wilson Pickett. If we had kept working with her we could have done great things. We recorded âBrand New Meâ with her and âHope We Can Get Together Soonâ which we did with Dusty before we did it with Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes. She was easy to work withâ¦

B&S: How about Laura Nyro who did the album âGonna Take A Miracleâ with you and with [the group] Labelle?

LH: She wanted to with us. It was her idea to do the album â she wanted to use the aura we had created in Philly.

KG: Laura was very talented, temperamental. You never knew what she would come with. She would come to the studio and say, âI donât know if I want to work todayâ and we would said, âBut you gotta â we have all these musicians here!â And she would cry just like that! She wanted to do the song âGonna Take A Miracle.â Of course, we knew Patti & Bluebelles. Laura had already worked out a lot of arrangements with them at the piano. It was a different kind of thing for us since we were used to writing all the songs and doing all the arrangements. I think we complemented her and helped her get what she wanted and I think she did an excellent version of [The Originalsâ song] âThe Bells.â

B&S: And how was Wilson Pickett?

LH: He had a reputation for being fiery. We were into his sound. But it wasnât complicated: we always had to be in control and we knew how to handle him. And we had success with âDonât Let The Green Grass Fool Youâ and âEngine, Engine Number Nine.â

B&S: And finally, Dee Dee Warwick. You did quite a few songs with herâ¦âIâll Be Better Off Without You,â âItâs Not Fairâ and âIâm Gonna Make You Love Me.â

KG: We were very disappointed with [what happened with] âIâm Gonna Make You Love Me.â She was with Mercury Records and they were a small company. Youâve got to promote the records and they didnât promote that record the way they should haveâ¦and then the Temptations and Supremes had an instant smash with the song. She was sweetâ¦those were good songs we had forgotten about until you mentioned themâ¦

B&S: OK, letâs talk about how some of the PIR artists came to you⦠The Jones Girls?

KG: Through Diana Ross. They used to be background singers for her and she was playing the Shubert Theater in Philly. She called and said, âI have a group for youâ¦Iâm not taking them to Motown.â I said, âIâll come over and check them out.â I thought they were really good. Huff met with them tooâ¦and we got them on the first record, âYouâre Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Elseâ.
Diana was shocked! She said, âI should have had that song!â

B&S: How about Dexter Wansel?

KG: We met Dexter through [keyboard player] Roland Chambers who had a band named Yellow Sunshine. When I met him and showed me some of his music. I thought he was very good from a technical standpoint so we started feeding him work. I think Dexter could have been the next Quincy Jonesâ¦

B&S: And Lou Rawls?

KG: [A major disc jockey and promoter] Jimmy Bishop was working with us and he called and said, âLouâs out of his contractâ. We said, âGo get him, letâs see what we can do with him.â He had the kind of voice we could work with, that baritone, raspy gospel voice. We got him on that first record (âYouâll Never Find Another Love Like Mineâ) and it brought a rejuvenation of his whole career.

B&S: The Three Degreesâ¦

LH: We worked down at Swan Records with Richard Barrett and we played on the groupâs sessions there. When their contract was over, he brought them to usâ¦

B&S: And Phyllis Hyman?

KG: I was always a fan of hers. Patti Labelle had left us and gone to MCA and we were regrouping. We took a shot with her: she was a very colorful artist, very unique and temperamental. We felt we could have done even more and we liked where we were going with herâ¦

B&S: At different times, PIR signed some interesting artists. Iâm thinking about Edwin Birdsong, Bobby Rushâ¦

KG: They were a little bit of a departure for us. Roy used to work with Roy Ayers. He was a very creative person. Sometimes youâve got to take a shot with someone who is a little left field. We had an outlet and gave him the opportunity. The album didnât sell at the time we released it. But now, Kanye West has sampled a song from there and one of the songs is being used for a commercial! I told him recently, "I knew it would pay off some time." Bobby Rush? He was a good blues singer. And then, Don Covay was another artist like that, a little different... a great writer, very talented and a funny guy. He came into the studio one day with a doctorâs uniform on! I asked him, "Are you here to do musical surgery"?!

B&S: How did the idea for MFSB come about?

KG: The band had a few names over the years, The Romeos, The Family. As a band it started to mature, it became more of an orchestra than a rhythm section. We always had the theme of family. We came up with the name 'MFSB' and some people thought it meant something else â thought it stood for profanity! That was intentional! But it meant, âMother, Father, Sister, Brother.â The idea for doing instrumental albums came through us working at the âschoolâ of Cameo-Parkway. They had a label which put out instrumental versions of Top 10 hitsâ¦so thatâs where we got the idea. Jay-Z just used one of the MFSB tracks ('Something For Nothing'). Our intention now is to go back and take the vocals off some of the tracks we did and do a whole series of albums that wayâ¦

B&S: Are there any artists you wish you had signed to PIR that you didnât?

KG: Barry White and Earth, Wind & Fire â they both came to usâ¦

LH: Prince â he sent us a tape. Back then, we were moving so fastâ¦

KG: There were a lot of people who could have signed us as producers. I remember when we were trying to get a job at Mercury and they said, âyeah, rightâ! And even Cameo-Parkwayâ¦

LH: They used to run us out of the building - they thought we were thugs because we wore these big hats!

B&S: During the â70s, you did some great concept albums at PIRâ¦âWar Of The Godsâ by Billy Paul, âShip Ahoyâ by The OâJaysâ¦.

KG: They were designed as concepts. âShip Ahoyâ â¦all the songs related to the whole experience of slaveryâ¦even âFor The Love Of Moneyâ since money was what was behind slavery in the first place⦠Those albums had a story to themâ¦we were trying to put together albums with themes, social commentary, love songs and great dance records [all in one album]..

B&S: Many people have done your songs â any favourite versions?

KG: Third World gave a whole new meaning to âNow That We Found Loveââ¦

LH: Aretha did a helluva version of âBrand New Meââ¦

B&S: When was the first time you realized your music was having international impact?

LH: With the success of The Three Degreesâ âWhen Will I See You Againââ¦

KG: And meeting you back in 1973 for our first British magazine interview! We were amazed that people [in Britain] knew so much about us and our work!

B&S: Is there anyone you would have liked to work with that you didnât?

KG: We had some good opportunities that slipped away. Miles Davis used to call all the time and he had this unique, deep voice. He would call and say, âI want to work with you guys.â I would say, âCome on down, I got a concept for youâ¦of doing an album with MFSB.â And then we wouldnât hear from him for monthsâ¦

LH: And the original Temptations. This was after the original members had left. We were so close to doing it. I remember seeing them all sitting there in Gambleâs office â Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis, Melvinâ¦everytime they came to town, we would go see them. And we were close to working with Bob Marley before he diedâ¦

B&S: Whatâs your most recorded song?

LH: âWhen Will I See You Againââ¦itâs been done in many languagesâ¦thereâs even a classical version of itâ¦

B&S: And finally what are you up to next?

KG: Weâre trying to promote the catalogue, brand the âSound Of Phillyâ. Weâre working with Sony BMG on putting out a lot of music that has been in the can â a âliveâ Patti Labelle album, whole albums on The OâJays, Lou Rawlsâ¦.

Listening to the incredible legacy of music Kenny and Leon have created is wonder enough, sitting with these two musical masters is truly as much a rewarding experience in 2008 as it was for me back in 1973. With the rejuvenation of the PIR catalogue, a whole new generation can discover what us soul music folks have known for years: the label and its owners are responsible for a phenomenal part of the rich history of contemporary rhythm and blues.
Words DAVID NATHAN

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