By Chris M. Junior
Any serious discussion about Philadelphia International Records has to include songwriters/producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, the label’s founders.
But they had plenty of help in making PIR, which marks its 40th anniversary in 2011, a hotbed of string-laden, sophisticated soul during its peak years. Here’s a look at three key PIR individuals and how they contributed to what’s known worldwide as “The Sound of Philadelphia.”
Singer Walter “Bunny” Sigler was a regular club performer in South Jersey during the 1960s when he says Huff, who hailed from Camden, caught his act one night at the Red Hill Inn in nearby Pennsauken.
Sigler would eventually join Huff in Philadelphia at the Schubert Building, where both Huff and Gamble did work for the Cameo-Parkway record company. Huff co-produced the Sigler single “Let the Good Times Roll & Feel So Good” for the Parkway label, and the song reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967.
When Gamble and Huff got Philadelphia International up and running in 1971, Sigler became one of its most versatile talents. Nudged by Gamble to try his hand at songwriting, Sigler had a hand in composing “Sunshine” and other tunes for The O’Jays. He also chipped in backing vocals on such Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes hits as “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “The Love I Lost” and “Bad Luck.”
Some of Sigler’s favorite PIR memories involve the excited musicians rushing into the control room after they cut a track.
“Everybody would lean over the board with the track being played back,” Sigler remembers, “and one guy would say, ‘Man, I think we can do it better.’ ”
Sigler is working on a pilot for a TV variety show that he plans to shop to Philadelphia-area stations.
To the masses, suave singer Billy Paul became an overnight sensation in late 1972 with the sensual Gamble/Huff production “Me and Mrs. Jones.” But Paul’s music career began many years before that song became his signature hit.
Born Paul Williams in Philadelphia, Paul recalls being 16 years old when Charlie Parker discovered him. He sang with Parker and later did gigs with fellow jazz sax legend John Coltrane, but Paul says he never recorded with either of them.
In his early 20s, Paul recorded a song called “Why I Am” for the Jubilee label. While stationed in Germany with the army, he formed a band with Gary Crosby, Bing Crosby’s son, and says fellow officer Elvis Presley passed on participating “because he wanted to be a jeep driver.”
Years later, Gamble checked out Paul’s regular show at the Sahara club in Philadelphia and offered to sign him. The jazz-flavored “Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club” was released in 1968 on Gamble Records, and that was followed by “Ebony Woman” on Neptune, another Gamble/Huff label.
“360 Degrees of Billy Paul” (1972), Paul’s second album for Philadelphia International, included “Me and Mrs. Jones.” He recalls liking it upon first listen but thought it needed a hook.
So Paul and his wife went to St. Thomas, where he “studied the song” for a few weeks and came up with the drawn-out, dramatic way he sings the title when the music stops.
In December 1972, “Me and Mrs. Jones” became Philadelphia International’s first-ever song to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Paul is seeking distribution in the United States for the documentary “Am I Black Enough for You,” and he’s working on a new album that he hopes to release this year.
When drummer Earl Young talks about the recordings he did for Gamble, Huff and Philadelphia International, he’s quick to mention bassist Ronald Baker and guitarist Norman Harris.
They had been a session team for years, cutting such hits in the 1960s as Barbara Mason’s “Yes I’m Ready” and Eddie Holman’s “Hey There Lonely Girl,” before becoming part of MFSB, the house band for PIR.
“If you called one of us, you could get all three of us,” Young says. “You didn’t have to go around making calls looking for a rhythm section. If you called me, you also got Norman and Ronnie.”
During PIR recording sessions, Young says Gamble was the man in command.
“He would sit on a stool in front of us,” Young recalls, “and if he heard something, he would tell us, ‘Look, let’s play this in there’ … and he might stop you in the middle of a song while recording and make a change.”
One of Young’s most notable drumming performances for PIR is “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. During that song Young plays what he calls a “skip beat,” and the way in which he focused on the hi-hat quickly became the template for the disco drumbeat.
Speaking of disco, Young also achieved great success as a member of The Trammps, best known for “Disco Inferno.” In recent years he’s played disco-themed concerts around the country under the billing The Trammps featuring Earl Young.
On March 19 in Austin, Texas, Goldmine contributing editor Chris M. Junior will moderate the SXSW panel TSOP: Celebrating Gamble, Huff and Philadelphia International Records.
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