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The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff & the Story of Brotherly Love (1966-1976)

(Epic/Legacy)

By Aaron Cohen

Toward the end of the "Make It Funky" episode of the PBS rock 'n' roll history series, as dancers in widely unbuttoned shirts and skimpy gowns gyrate across a mid-70s club floor to Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' forlorn "The Love I Lost," the narrator neatly sums up Philadelphia soul as the sound track for the sexual revolution and the spark that ignited disco. But a new three-CD box set, The Philly Sound, reminds us that some of the most enduring soul music of the 70s was more than a bridge between Parliament's "Mothership Connection" and Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff," and that the influence of the sound's primary engineers, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, shot through disco right up into the present.

Gamble and Huff rose from freelance songwriters to record-industry heavies in the early 70s. As a teenager in Philadelphia in the mid-50s, Gamble would visit the home of jazz arranger Bobby Martin because he was fascinated by his ability to design tricky countermelodies; ten years later, he and pianist Huff were trying to do the same. By the late 60s, they'd penned campy hits for such groups as Soul Survivors ("Expressway to Your Heart") and Archie Bell & the Drells ("I Can't Stop Dancing"), and had broken their first group, the Intruders, on the independent Gamble label.

These endeavors alone might not have scored Gamble and Huff the major-label distribution deal they wanted. But their timing couldn't have been better. After the success of Motown and the social upheaval of the 60s, several African-American musicians had built cottage industries, including Curtis Mayfield's Curtom label in Chicago. As Carol Cooper writes in one of the box set's numerous liner essays, "Because key elements of the Black community had decided not to let their resources be exploited without adequate compensation, CBS, RCA, Atlantic, and other major distributors were suddenly putting Black promotion and A&R executives on the payroll, sometimes hiring whole departments of Black people to work on Black music. So when Gamble and Huff contacted Columbia in '70 about a possible label deal, the climate was right."

Columbia agreed to launch their Philadelphia International Records with a $75,000 advance for 15 singles and $25,000 apiece for fewer albums. The label recouped almost immediately through Billy Paul's 1972 gold record "Me and Mrs. Jones." Bobby Martin, whom PIR hired as an arranger, won't discuss that song today because he's a Jehovah's Witness and condemns adultery, but it's an exception to what became the norm at the label. The label's leading vocal groups, the Intruders and the O'Jays, and even Paul sang about family, romantic maturity, and community, while the 42-piece house orchestra, MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother), reinvented the lush strings and mercurial beats of Motown and Mayfield. The resulting songs were embraced in gay and African-American dance clubs long before right-wingers exploited similar ideas.

The Intruders started as street-corner doo-wop singers in a tough part of northern Philadelphia in 1961, and unlike many pop vocal combos, they never shed this identity--a famous publicity photo featured them hanging out at a neighborhood barbershop. At times their tender interpretations of Gamble and Huff's lyrics recall the stories of Pennsylvania author John Edgar Wideman, whose writing about the African-American experience has been shaped by several family tragedies. The best example on the set is "I'll Always Love My Mama," which the Intruders recorded in 1973. The six-minute track begins and ends with a catchy call and response based on the song's title, but the heart of the tune is a startlingly casual spoken interlude in which the band members anticipate rap, trading refrains about how in the absence of their fathers it was up to their mothers to steer them clear of crime.

When the Intruders broke up in 1975, the O'Jays picked up as PIR's main vocal group, and they differed sharply from their predecessors. The Intruders' sweet voices masked painful truths; the O'Jays were much more forceful and explicit, and The Philly Sound includes not just their recently co-opted world-peace rallying cry, "Love Train," but also many of their less heralded denunciations of society's ills. "For the Love of Money" attacks greed, and "Back Stabbers" presages Chuck D's "Every brother ain't a brother." "Rich Get Richer" is particularly elaborate, outlining a system by which 16 families controlled the world's wealth and even naming them.

As if to challenge such inequities, Gamble and Huff built a cross-cultural musical community within PIR's Sigma Sound studios. Patti LaBelle sang with Laura Nyro; members of the Philadelphia Orchestra collaborated with jazz musicians like saxophonist Sam Reed and vibist Vince Montana, funk drummer Earl Young, and rock guitarist T.J. Tindall; strings and brass created space for funk fills and congas--all to propel the word from Philly's streets and churches into the larger world.

The PIR empire crumbled mostly as a result of the bottoming out of the dance-music industry in the early 80s (though a mid-70s payola scandal the liner notes don't mention couldn't have helped). But its influence survived the short-lived disco era. Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Svengalis to a slew of R & B stars, credit Gamble and Huff as their models. The contemporary soul singers Boyz II Men say they were inspired mainly by the harmonies that were recorded in their native Philadelphia--even their name reflects a theme the Intruders introduced in their 1968 hit "Cowboys to Girls."

Perhaps the most interesting legacy of the Philly sound can be traced through the records of Public Enemy, and not just in Chuck D's lyrics. The group's sound can be seen as a digitalized version of the Philly approach, its dense, groundbreaking sampled instrumentation an update of the orchestral innovations of PIR. In the box set liner notes, Chuck D calls Gamble and Huff the "forefathers of hip-hop," and considering what hip-hop has wrought, that's no insignificant epitaph.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited O'Jays/ Leon Huff, Kenny Gable photos.

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