In tandem with his partner Leon Huff, producer and songwriter Kenny Gamble was the principal architect behind the lush and seductive Philly Soul sound, one of the most popular and influential musical developments of the 1970s. Born in Philadelphia on August 11, 1943, he first teamed with Huff during the late ’50s while a member of the harmony group the Romeos, a unit which also included another aspiring area musician named Thom Bell, who would become crucial to Gamble’s later success. “The 81,” a 1964 single by the little-known Candy & the Kisses, was the inaugural Gamble-Huff co-production, and three years later the duo scored their first Top Five pop hit with the Soul Survivors‘ “Expressway to Your Heart.” Soon recruiting the aforementioned Bell as arranger, they subsequently scored with smashes including Archie Bell & the Drells‘ “I Can’t Stop Dancing” and Jerry Butler‘s “Only the Strong Survive,” gradually forging their own distinctive sound.
Gamble and Huff’s success on labels including Atlantic and Chess – as well as their own Neptune and Gamble imprints — spurred them to contact Columbia in the hopes of opening a new affiliate company, one inspired by the continued success of Berry Gordy and Motown. Columbia agreed, and in 1970 the duo’s Philadelphia International Records was born. Given a $75,000 advance for 15 singles, with LPs budgeted at $25,000 apiece, Gamble and Huff soon exploded into the national musical consciousness, selling some ten million records in the span of nine months thanks to monster hits including Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes‘ “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” and the O’Jays‘ “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train.” Their signature aesthetic — an intoxicating combination of sweeping strings, smoky horns and insistent rhythms — emerged as the definitive soul sound of the early ’70s, also becoming the blueprint for the rise of disco during the latter half of the decade.
Under Gamble and Huff, Philadelphia International launched hit after hit from acts including the Intruders, MFSB, and the Three Degrees. The bottom fell out in 1975, however, when the label became embroiled in a payola scandal; charged with offering bribes in exchange for radio airplay, Gamble was fined $2500, although Huff was acquitted. Probably not coincidentally, the duo’s work began to suffer at much the same time, and as the decade drew to a sound their classic Philly soul sound began to grow stale and derivative. Hits became increasingly rare, although the 1979 McFadden & Whitehead single “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” was a significant return to form. Throughout the disco era Philadelphia International’s most consistent hitmaker was Teddy Pendergrass, but in the wake of the tragic 1982 car accident which left the singer paralyzed, the career of Gamble and Huff began to dissipate as well, and they rarely resurfaced on record in the years to follow.
by Jason Ankeny