Backstage Pass: Gamble & Huff and ?the Philly Sound?

Our songs, basically, were like anthems.  They were not just any old kind of records — not just music — these were songs that inspired a whole generation of people with regard to civil rights and whatever messages that we had in our music.

— Kenny Gamble

As the primary architects of “the Philly Sound,” songwriter/producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff crafted sophisticated funk classics for The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blues, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls and others that ushered in the Disco Era, yet were lyrically rich and often message-oriented. 

Twenty-five years after their commercial heyday, Gamble & Huff are back in the spotlight. Their 2008 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an appearance on “American Idol” and an ongoing campaign of reissued classics from their Philly International Records label, culminating with the four-CD box set career overview Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (Sony Legacy) have made the duo high profile once again.

Our interview with poet/lyricist Kenneth Gamble and keyboardist extraordinaire Leon Huff took place in the second floor studio of Philadelphia International, the site of many of their legendary recording sessions.

Congratulations on your induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Kenny Gamble: Thrill of a lifetime.

And perhaps overdue.

Leon Huff: That’s what everybody says.

You’ve been celebrated and received countless awards. What does this honor, in particular, mean to you?

KG: It’s like the icing on the cake. It’s great just to be inducted in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, but it’s even more special because we’re the first-time recipients of the Ahmet Ertegun Award (formerly the “Non-Performer” category, reserved for writers/producers/label founders, etc.) and that makes it different, makes it more special, because of the history of Ahmet Ertegun (founder, Atlantic Records, d. 2006) and his contribution to the industry. We have a lot of respect for him.

And you did some good work for him years ago, too.

KG: Yeah, we worked with Atlantic, and we knew Ahmet, and we worked really close with Jerry Wexler (Atlantic producer, d. 2008).

It’s also an exciting time because in your new deal with Sony, you’ve sort of gone back home with the outfit that had distributed Philly International back in the ’70s, and, for once, your whole catalog is under one roof, and it really opens up opportunities to put things together and provide a complete history of the label. 

KG: It gives an opportunity to do a variety of creative things with the catalog that we haven’t done, so I think this is where we’re gonna be for the duration.

I want to jump back to the early days of the Philadelphia scene — I know you were a huge Dells fan, Kenny, and Leon, on your end of it, who was exciting you? As a keyboard player, were you big into Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and things like that?

LH: Basically Jerry Lee Lewis… Little Richard. When I was young, I listened to him because he had a hell of a band called The Upsetters, and Little Richard was rockin’ and rolling. 

Leon, you were across the river in Camden. Did you have to cross the bridge over to Philly or was there a pretty good local music scene there, too?

LH: Oh, yeah. Camden had a nice music program through the school system; I was the drummer all through elementary school and junior high school. After I graduated i

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