By April Anderson
The soul of “The Philadelphia Sound” was in the house last night at NYU Steinhardt’s Provincetown Playhouse for the latest in the series of Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions at NYU. Songwriters Hall of Fame Inductees and Johnny Mercer Awardees Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff took the stage after SHOF SVP/BMI President/CEO Mike O’Neill gave a glowing introduction, making references to the tremendous impact Gamble and Huff have had on the world of popular music.
Then, led in conversation by Phil Galdston, NYU Faculty Songwriter-in-Residence and Master Teacher in Songwriting, Gamble and Huff proceeded to take the enchanted audience (of all ages) on a trip down a memory lane consisting of songs from their own personal soundtracks.
Kenneth Gamble began as a singer, and was discovered and managed by songwriter/producer Jerry Ross when Gamble was only 17 years old. They collaborated on the hit song “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” originally recorded by Jay & The Techniques, and later covered by Dee Dee Warwick, Diana Ross & The Supremes and The Temptations.
Leon Huff began playing piano at an early age. He spoke of taking a bus from Camden to New York City, walking to the Brill Building and being introduced to several resident songwriters, including SHOF Inductee Phil Spector, who brought Huff in to play on the classic hit “Baby I Love You,” recorded by The Ronettes.
Gamble and Huff spoke of meeting fortuitously in an elevator in the 60’s and wound up writing six or seven songs the first time they got together. Gamble said they “both had the same goals” and wanted to “quit their jobs.”
They wove through the massive history of their collaborations, including “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” covered by Diana Ross & the Supremes and The Temptations, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers” and “Love Train,” T.S.O.P.” (“The Sound of Philadelphia” and the theme song for the television show Soul Train), and Lou Rawls’, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”
“In order to get the songs right, we would produce them,” they said.
Galdston played a multi-track of Billy Paul’s “Me & Mrs. Jones,” and Gamble and Huff described how they used to frequent a pub in the neighborhood, where they saw a man they knew meeting a woman who was not his wife on several occasions. Gamble said he and Huff “looked at each other” and went off to write what became one of their biggest hits. “You’ve got to be careful what you say and do around songwriters,” he said, “because we listen to everything and it sticks to us.” Huff then told of trying to find a name with one syllable for the woman in the story, and going through the local telephone book searching for one. He said “Smith didn’t cut it…we liked the feel of Jones.”
In 1971, Gamble and Huff had founded Philadelphia International Records (PIR) with their stable of Philly-based talent, including Patti LaBelle, Archie Bell & the Drells, Jerry Butler, the Ebonys, the Intruders, the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, MFSB, the Three Degrees, Teddy Pendergrass, and Lou Rawls. Speaking of their influences in songwriting and production, Gamble and Huff agreed that “Motown was the greatest inspiration there was.” They had that “Motown drum sound that was like no other.”
They went on speaking about their creative processes. When asked what came first, they said that they write the titles first, and each title has a story. “You’re writing a song but you’re thinking about the whole world-wide message,” said Gamble.
“A song’s like a flower,” said Huff. “Somewhere in that song, the flower’s got to open up.”
About having been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1995, Gamble and Huff said being honored that way was the “most important thing, because we are songwriters first.” They went on to say, receiving “the Johnny Mercer Award puts us in an exclusive setting. It was good to get that accolade.”
Imparting wisdom and advice to the aspiring songwriters who were hanging on their every word that evening, they said “work hard and believe in yourself,” and “you can’t force creativity…it has to come to you.”
As some of their iconic hits were played in the house last night, and the richness and soul of the songs washed over everyone, mouths were moving in tandem all over the room.
It has been reported that one of Gamble and Huff’s songs is played on the radio somewhere in the world every 13.5 minutes. I submit that that just isn’t enough. Last night’s room may have been humble in size, but the immense stature of this powerhouse duo of song was felt in every corner and beyond walls.
Also in attendance were Songwriters Hall of Fame President/CEO Linda Moran, SHOF Board Members Robbin Ahrold, Charlie Feldman, John Titta, Karen Sherry, Linda Lorence Critelli, SHOF Counsel Robert Epstein and BMI’s SVP, Writer/Publisher Relations Phil Graham.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions program at NYU is a major component of the SHOF educational outreach. Stay tuned to songhall.org for news of the next Master Session coming soon!