Forty Years of Philadelphia Sound | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
After minor chart success, the O'Jays had considered calling it quits before Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble revived their career with chart-topping hits. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Forty Years of Philadelphia Sound

Songwriters Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble composed tunes with political messages for chart-toppers like the O’Jays and Billy Paul

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When Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble would huddle to write songs, they’d each bring a long, yellow legal pad of potential titles, sometimes 200 or 300 each. Huff would sit at the upright piano in his office with a tape recorder rolling. He would start playing and Gamble would riff lyrics. “Sometimes [the songs] would take 15 minutes to write and sometimes they’d take all day,” Gamble recalls. “The best ones came in ten, fifteen minutes.”

The two first ran into each other in an elevator in Philadelphia’s Schubert Building, where they were working as songwriters on separate floors. Soon after, they met at Huff’s Camden, New Jersey home on a Saturday and wrote six or seven songs the first day. “It was an easy, easy fit,” Gamble recalls.

During the 60s, they had moderate success with hits like “Expressway to Your Heart” by the Soul Survivors, “Cowboys to Girls” by the Intruders and “Only the Strong Survive” by Jerry Butler.

But they wanted to be more than writers and producers of regional hits who occasionally made a national mark. The opportunity came 40 years ago in 1971 when Columbia Records, hoping to finally break into the black music market, gave them a $75,000 advance to record singles and another $25,000 for a small number of albums. With the money, Gamble and Huff opened their own label, Philadelphia International Records (PIR).

As they sat down to compose following the deal, the Vietnam War raged on, conflicts over desegregation spread across the country and civil war ravaged Pakistan. “We were talking about the world and why people really can’t work together. All this confusion going on in the world,” Gamble says. “So we were talking about how you need something to bring people together.”

One of the titles on a legal pad had promise: “Love Train.” Huff fingered the piano. Gamble, the words guy, began singing, “People all over the world, join hands, form a love train.”

Within 15 minutes, he recalls, they had a song for the O’Jays, a group from Canton, Ohio, that had considered calling it quits after a couple of minor chart successes. Gamble and Huff had spotted them three years earlier opening a show at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. While Eddie Levert had been singing lead for the trio, they liked the interplay between Levert and Walter Williams they saw onstage. So for the first singles on PIR, they wrote songs featuring the two trading vocals. “I knew once we put our leads on Back Stabbers it had the potential to be something special, but I didn’t know to what magnitude,” Williams says.

“Love Train” was the third single released from their album Back Stabbers, issued in August 1972. By January 1973, the song was number one on the Pop and R&B charts and on the way to selling a million singles, just the kind of crossover hit Columbia envisioned when it invested in Gamble and Huff.

A little more than a year after forming PIR, they also had produced hits with Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” Clive Davis, then chief operating officer of Columbia, wrote in his memoir that Gamble and Huff sold ten million singles. Just as important, they were Columbia’s foray into the market for albums by black artists. Back Stabbers sold more than 700,000 copies that first year.

They’d created the Sound of Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love joined Detroit, the home of Motown, and Memphis, the home of Stax Records, as sanctuaries of soul.

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Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison is a freelance writer whose stories, reported from two dozen countries, have appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and National Wildlife.

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