Black Music Month: Of Love and Philly International by Michael A. Gonzales and Dyana Williams

Black Music Month: Of Love and Philly International
by Michael A. Gonzales and Dyana Williams

Note: Since 1979, the month of June has been acknowledged as Black Music Month. The month-long observance was first declared in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter, with the encouragement of legendary songwriter-producer Kenny Gamble, broadcaster Ed Wright and media maven Dyana Williams. Over the years, Williams, herself a respected Philadelphia-based broadcaster and current president of the Philadelphia chapter of The Recording Academy of Arts & Sciences (as well as the ex-wife of Kenny Gamble), has kept the torch of Black Music Month lit and in the minds of the masses. It is with great pleasure that I collaborated with Ms. Williams on this article.

Love. It’s one of those words that has always been, ironically, overused and not used enough. It’s a word that can be applied towards the morning kiss from a mother, the midnight embrace from a lover or simply spending quality time with a real friend. It was also love, according to Kenny Gamble, co-founder and co-sonic architect of the majestic “Philly Sound,” that has always inspired his life and work. Love, being a many-splendored thing, was indeed one of the primary motivations behind the music and magic he and partner Leon Huff put down at Philadelphia International Records.

Kenny Gamble Interview:

While so many of today’s songs can be freak nasty to the point of being crude and rude, the aural erotica heard on TSOP tracks were sharp and cool. All of their artists spoke the language of love, but they could also drop a lot of carnal knowledge. It is those lush ballads, those love songs that raised the bar on romance and continue to slow dance in our minds and hearts so many years later.

Founded in 1971 in the city of brotherly love, the label would go on to dominate not only the Billboard charts, but also the consciousness of the millions who picked up on the message being transmitted through the lush string arrangements, stirring melodies, pristine harmonies and glorious vocals that made the songs stand-outs from others blaring through the radio. Gamble, along with business partners and fellow production innovators Leon Huff and Thom Bell, established a roster of talented artists that included Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, The Three Degrees, Teddy Pendergrass and, of course, The O’Jays defined the decade of the ‘70s. Some were dancing songs, some were thinking songs and others were lovemaking songs, but they were all strong, everlasting songs that we are still playing more than forty years later.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes – “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”:

Patti LaBelle – “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”:

The O’Jays were one of the first groups to sign with Philly International. A year after the label was established, that mighty trio, fronted by singer Eddie Levert, recorded the Gamble and Huff instant classic “Love Train,” an upbeat song that, according to Kenny Gamble, “defines the concept” that inspired the men and women who shared their dream of making the label great.

In an interview done in 2012, the year a massive CD box-set was released to celebrate the label’s fortieth anniversary, Gamble said that out of his hundreds of compositions, “Love Train,” which was composed on a beat-up piano in his office and recorded at their personal music factory known as Sigma Sound Studios, “Represented what Philadelphia International Records was all about. Love was what we stood for.”

For many of us, their splendid soul sound defined our lives and loves through the years. From getting dressed for school in the morning while the radio played in the background to getting dressed for that first date to that midnight kiss after the prom to walking to the altar, Philly International was often the main soundtrack. Through the good times and bad, the make-ups and the break-ups, the smiles and the tears, Philly International was there.

However, it was the love songs, the passionate pull of our hearts that Gamble and Huff wrote, mostly together, but sometimes utilizing other collaborators, that created a template for romance that continues to this day via covers and sampled songs. Love was that emotion that hovered like a ghost in the studio as the singers wailed, the band played and the producers did their thing. Be it Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes crying in their beer over the love they lost, the Three Degrees aching as they wondered if they will ever see you again, Jean Carn talking about “Free Love” or MFSB’s influential “Love is the Message,” that ardor was perfectly captured in the grooves.

Jean Carne – “Free Love”:

Jean Carne – “My Love Don’t Come Easy”:

When the Intruders whispered, “I wanna know your name,” many women felt a tickle in their ear; when Lou Rawls proclaimed that “you never find, another one like” his, we almost felt guilty. “You’ll never find the rhythm, the rhyme all the magic we shared, just us two,” he continued as tears welled in your eyes, simultaneously aroused and ashamed that you let such a “good man” get away. Many young men learned how to rap, treat and pleasure a woman from listening to Teddy sexily saying, “Close the door/Let me rub your back where you say it’s sore.” Closing your eyes as Teddy sang, many women imagined those strong hands on their back, those strong fingers making their way down the thigh and massaging those sore feet.

Teddy Pendergrass – “Close the Door” (Live):

Teddy Pendergrass – “Close the Door” (Video):

Later, they learned the art of seduction and love-making when that same man declared on “Turn Off the Lights”—“Let’s take a shower, shower together, I’ll wash your body and you’ll wash mine, yeah Rub me down in some hot oils, baby, yeah, And I’ll do the same thing to you.” One could almost see the soapy water sliding down the contour of his lover’s back as she anticipated the next few moments. In 1981, when Patti LaBelle sang “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” one could feel the fire of burning desire in her voice. “Baby when we’re together say I’m alright and you’re alright it’s like paradise I just want you to know how I feel.”

The Three Degrees – “When Will I See You Again”:

However, as we all know, whether we’re talking about a parent, a partner or a pal, the ingredients of love include time, patience, work and, perhaps most of all, sacrifice. It was all of that, with a little something special, that Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell, arrangers Bobby Martin, Vince Montana and Norman Harris, recording engineer Joe Tarsia, and the collective of studio musicians known as MFSB put into every single and album they recorded.

For all involved in the making of these hits, it was the brotherly and sisterly love of their home base and, for some, their hometown, of Philadelphia that was another factor in their greatness. Back in the early ‘70s, when many music entrepreneurs thought the road to success meant relocating to New York or Los Angeles, these folks refused to budge from Broad Street.

Billy Paul -“Me & Mrs. Jones”:

Living, working and striving in the brotherly love city, Gamble & Huff were “brothers from other mothers” who met by chance in an elevator inside the Schubert Building and began collaborating that same night, spearheaded the eternal music that would later become known as “The Sound of Philadelphia,” or TSOP for short.

Their first major hit “Expressway to Your Love,” recorded by the Soul Survivors on Crimson Records in 1967, was just the beginning of the long road of success that they travelled. The duo soon furthered their track record by composing successful songs, including Jerry Butler’s “Never Going to Give You Up” and “Only The Strong Survive,” Dusty Springfield’s “A Brand New Me,” Joe Simon’s “Drowning in the Sea of Love” and “I’m Going to Make You Love Me” by The Supremes featuring Diana Ross, who were signed to Motown, to name just a few. “We composed three songs together the first day we met and we just never stopped,” Huff once said.

Although the aforementioned hit tunes, love songs all, kept Gamble and Huff busy, the rising up the ladder songwriters/producers were experiencing the industry from both the creative and business side, which primed them for the eventual major label distribution deal they struck with CBS Records under the auspices of Clive Davis. Modeling their label after the hit factory that was Motown, a Black record company with a huge pop presence, Philadelphia International was born. Much like their Detroit inspiration, Gamble and Huff’s sound blew up like a balloon and soon went pop.

The Intruders – “I’ll Always Love My Mama”:

While Clive Davis and CBS Records might’ve thought they were merely signing artists whose material could be contained in the genre cage of soul, R&B or disco, their songs “Love Train” by the O’Jays, “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” by Lou Rawls and “Close the Door” by Teddy Pendergrass, the former drummer whose baritone growl turned him into a lover-man superstar, not only crossed-over, but also went global. People all over the world, to quote one of the company’s early print advertisements, were ready to “get down with the Philly sound.”

Back in those early years, Davis, who’d worked with a slew of successful artists that included Carlos Santana, Sly Stone and Janis Joplin, was surprised by the out-the-box success of TSOP as well as the proficiency of talented men and women that made the label great. A “custom label” within the CBS structure, Davis would use the same business model twenty years later at Arista Records when helping to launch LaFace and Bad Boy Records.

While there are countless talented artists that hailed from Philadelphia including John Coltrane and Hall & Oates, none represented the city in the way that Gamble and Huff, together with their interracial posse of musicians, technicians and artists that went helped perfect that sound, did. As Gamble once said, “You start off with the songs…but, it takes a combination of a lot of elements to make things successful.” Master mixer Tom Moulton, the man who really invented the remix with “Love is the Message,” has said that TSOP had so much soul, because, “The music was alive…the combination of the guys playing together, the tempo and feel, was magic.”

MFSB – “Love is the Message”:

Although, with TSOP making hits during America’s post-civil rights era, not every track was about love. Gamble and Huff wrote the theme song for a popular show featuring The Three Degrees and MFSB, and also started developing reputations for using the music to raise consciousness and foster positive changes in inner city neighborhoods across America. With songs such as “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” by the Philadelphia International All Stars, Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough For You” and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody,” they were sharing a different kind of love, a love for the communities.

According to Kenny Gamble, he and Huff had a formula they used for their releases: “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.” Without a doubt, I would say they succeeded.

Michael_Gonzales-dreamMichael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Check out some of his work for soulhead.


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