Getting on “The Love Train” with Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff

1995 SHOF inductees, 2014 Johnny Mercer Award honorees and past SHOF Chairmen (2015-2018) Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were on board the Zoom stage for an inspiring Master Session Pop Forum at USC on November 4, moderated by SHOF Board member and USC’s Chair, Popular Music Program, Patrice Rushen.

Rushen welcomed everyone to the session, introducing SHOF Board Member and West Coast Committee chair Mary Jo Mennella, who said, “It’s an absolute honor and privilege to have these esteemed guests. It is a special day for the SHOF, celebrating going into the second decade of partnership with USC, along with the 50th anniversary of Gamble & Huff.” She thanked West Coast vice chair Barbara Cane for coordinating these sessions.

Mennella went on to introduce SHOF President & CEO Linda Moran who said she had invited guests from the Songwriting department at a university where future SHOF master sessions are being planned, so they can hopefully emulate the success of the  SHOF/USC Master Sessions which have become the SHOF’s flagship program.

Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff’s award-winning partnership has generated more than 3,500 songs, including 50 chart pop and R&B hit singles and 75 RIAA gold, platinum and multi-platinum certifications. Their catalog includes hits such as The Supremes’ “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” recorded by both Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Thelma Houston, Jerry Butler’s “Only The Strong Survive,” which was later recorded by Elvis Presley, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” earned the songwriting duo its first Grammy® for Simply Red’s rendition, the O’Jay’s “For The Love Of Money,” and countless others, including “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” and the theme song for Soul Train, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).” The pair has won five GRAMMY’s® for their songwriting and collected 86 BMI Pop and R&B Awards.

Rushen explored their process and the social climate that created the “Philly Sound” and “Philly Soul” for which they are credited with founding in the 1970s. She said the duo has had 175 gold and platinum records and has been sampled 1400 times.

Gamble & Huff talked about their first meeting in the elevator of the Schubert building in New York City in the 1960s and how this chance encounter led to them sitting down and spontaneously writing 5 or 6 songs in one day. “There was a special chemistry that connected us from the beginning,” Gamble said. “We were a team like a few others that really worked and had that metaphysical connection on an almost supernatural level, and we could do it again if you put us in a room together today.”  “Our songs came from personal experience and we recognized what we had…that's the aspect of music and creation that is something incredible,” said Huff.

Both Gamble & Huff told stories about how Clive Davis had the foresight to sign them to Columbia Records, and about Jack the Rapper, a DJ with a tip sheet who gave them access to other DJs all over the country to get their songs on the air. Gamble said, “The whole structure of the industry was different then,” and Huff said he created a new sound on his stripped down upright piano. “I put thumbtacks on each hammer giving it a unique sound and I used the pedal as a backbeat.”

Rushen asked if Motown was an influence on their music, and they agreed SHOF inductee Berry Gordy and Motown were inspirational during that time.

Rushen asked about their collaborations with SHOF inductee Tom Bell, and Gamble said, “When Tom started playing it was almost classical writing.” He said he began writing songs with him and had one of those “Supernatural days coming out of nowhere…he was great arranger.”

Rushen shared a number of photos of Gamble & Huff from their early days and they went into detail about each one. They spoke of their connection to musicians and musicianship as a part of the evolution of your sound. Huff said, “When you play with me you have to know what you're doing cause I’m rocking!"

Rushen said, “If something magical happens, you recognize it and make it a part of the song.” She went on to explore the ways Gamble & Huff came up with some of their unique sounds and more of the “magic” moments that led to them working with some of the best musicians, performers and writers of that era. "We've had a heck of a life with this music," said Gamble and Rushen said, “Great music sounds relevant forever.”

Rushen also spoke about their sense of community, as both Gamble & Huff are known for giving back to their communities. Gamble said, “I trying to teach people what I've learned and use whatever influence I have had. I try to do good things because I've been very fortunate and  I feel good about it… music makes the world go around.” Huff agreed, saying “Music soothes the savage beast, and I feel good about my contributions.”

After a Q&A where students were able to ask questions of the duo, Rushen played a special recording of a heartfelt tribute medley by students of Gamble & Huff classics like Backstabbers, Don’t Treat Me This Way, Love Train, If You Don’t Know Me By Now, For The Love Of Money and more. The tribute literally brought the Zoom house down, and this was followed by individual sincere thank-you’s by participating students.

** Rushen closed by asking Gamble & Huff, “What would you tell yourself if you were sitting in the student seats at this point?” Huff answered, “Master your instrument and have the courage to follow your dreams.” Gamble said, “Let your spirit move you and take you where you need to go.” **

Also in attendance with Mennella, Cane and Moran were SHOF West Coast Committee members Joel Flatow, Tuff Morgan, Michael Pizzuto and Mike Todd.

The SHOF/USC Master Sessions have hosted events featuring David Foster, Billy Steinberg, Benny Blanco, Graham Nash, Donovan and Ralph Peer, Bill Withers, Linda Perry, Desmond Child, Lamont Dozier, Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds and Evan Lamberg, Carole Bayer Sager, Irving Burgie, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Paul Williams, Steve Dorff, Jason Mraz, Allee Willis, Jackie DeShannon, Michael Bolton, Ne-Yo, John Oates and Paul Anka.