Their sound bridged sixties soul and the arrival of funk and disco. Gamble once said someone told him they’d “put the bow tie on funk.” During the 1970s, they arguably dethroned Motown as the kings of R&B, selling millions of records, and in 2005, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“They found a way to marry the Motown machine with the Stax grit,” says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. “So you get this sound on one level that is glossy and smooth, but at the same time it kind of burns the way we think about Stax.”
Gamble admired Motown, which he calls “the greatest record company that’s ever been in the business.” He and Huff set up a house studio band, MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother), like Motown’s Funk Brothers. The band featured the rhythm section from the Romeos, a band Huff, Gamble and producer and writer Thom Bell played with on weekends, a group of horns they saw playing a local theater, and a string section composed of retirees from the Philadelphia Orchestra. MFSB’s palette was broader, more ambitious. Mono sound and a focus on hit singles had given way to stereo and the album format. “Stereo was worlds away,” Gamble says. “The music sounds so much better.”
They found seasoned artists and transformed them into national acts. The O’Jays had been around for a decade. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had been singing for 15 years. Billy Paul was a star only in the Philadelphia-New York corridor. “They knew how to package certain kinds of artists in certain ways,” Neal says. “One of their really big early hits was Billy Paul’s ‘Me and Mrs. Jones.’ What’s more mainstream than a tale about infidelity?”
Like Berry Gordy at Motown, Gamble and Huff set up competing teams of writers. Walter Williams of the O’Jays recalls going to Philadelphia to record (two albums per year in those days) and listening to 40 or 50 songs auditioning for an album. They’d narrow them to 15 or 20 to rehearse extensively and cut in the studio, and then 8, 9 or 10 would make the record.
How involved were Gamble and Huff? “Like they might have been the fourth and fifth member of the group,” Williams recalls. “If Kenny wanted it sung a certain way, he would actually sing it for you. I would always try to outdo him. I’d sing it better and put more into it.”
There was a formula to the albums, Gamble says. “We would pick three or four songs with social messages and three or four songs that were nothing but dance, party songs, then we’d have three or four that were lush ballads, love songs. We tried to write songs that people would relate to for years to come.”
While the business model was based on Motown, the message was different. “This is a black-owned company, but unlike Motown this is a black-owned company that is going to put its politics into the music,” Neal says.
The songs had titles like “For the Love of Money,” “Only the Strong Survive,” “Am I Black Enough for You,” “Wake Up Everybody” and “Love Is the Message.” Neal is partial to “Be for Real,” a Harold Melvin cut that opens with singer Teddy Pendergrass lecturing a girlfriend about her desire for empty possessions. Gamble likes “Ship Ahoy,” a tune about African captives being transported during the slave trade that opens with the sound of whips cracking. Neal says PIR’s songs and artists endure because Gamble and Huff focused on making timeless music, not just making money.
“You cannot explain how you write a song,” Gamble says. “It comes from within your soul. You just pour out your feelings, whether it’s something you personally have gone through or a friend of yours has gone through or someone you didn’t even know.”