Remember the Sound: An Oral History of Philadelphia International Records

Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell tell the tale of Philly soul.

by
Leon Huff, Thom Bell and Kenneth Gamble (from left) in Philadelphia in 1973. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

From scorching message songs to sexy ballads, laidback steppers to boogie joints, the catalog of Philadelphia International Records (PIR) is both unmistakably bold and warmly enticing. Spearheaded by the influential songwriting and production partnership of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, along with invaluable input from their colleague Thom Bell, a producer, arranger and musician, the label put out 15 Gold singles and 22 Gold albums, including eight Platinum LPs, during its 1970s and early ’80s heyday, and nurtured the careers of artists including Lou Rawls, Patti LaBelle, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and the O’Jays. Most important, and impressive, was how the label created a timeless signature sound — quite literally — that changed the trajectory of global popular music, from R&B to disco to hip-hop and DJ culture. As told by Gamble, Huff and Bell, all now spirited in their late 70s, this is the story of the Philadelphia sound, a.k.a. Philly soul.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the label’s founding, Legacy Recordings and Warner Chappell Music will engage in a year-long celebration that includes reissues of some of the brand’s most cherished works as well as unreleased material, new remixes of PIR classics by DJ Eric Kupper, and the premiere of a new Sonos Radio HD show, “The Sound of Philadelphia,” hosted and curated by Gamble.

TSOP

And what a glorious sound PIR created. It had the sonic heft and swinging agility of a jazz big band topped with majestic strings. On uptempo cuts, the music often pulsated with an Afro-Latin-tinged soul-funk momentum, while on ballads it sauntered with amorous splendor. Thanks to sound engineer Joe Tarsia, who owned Sigma Sound Studios in Philly, where Gamble and Huff cut most of their PIR classics, the records resonated with full-bodied clarity.

PIR teemed with talent. In addition to the label’s massive house band, called MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother), and Gamble and Huff’s superb songwriting, there were other outstanding arrangers, songwriters and producers involved, among them Bell, Bobby Martin, Bunny Sigler, Dexter Wansel, Cynthia Biggs, Jack Faith, Lenny Pakula, and Gene McFadden and John Whitehead. 

Leon Huff: I had a certain style of playing. When we first started writing, I did something to the upright piano that was in Gamble’s office. I took the top off the upright piano and then put thumbtacks behind each hammer on all 88 keys. Then, when I touched the keys and the hammer hit the strings, it wouldn’t sound like a normal piano. So Gamble and I didn’t write music on a normal piano, because I rigged it so that it would sound like a synthesizer.

Kenneth Gamble: We were building up other writers, producers and arrangers so that we could do more work. The more work that you do, the better it’s going to be.

Thom Bell: I was different from Gamble and Huff because I was a writer and an arranger. Everything just fell together. We didn’t plan for things to not fall together. It just melded together. It was one of those times in which everything was right.

Each arranger has their own flavors. Bobby [Martin] was a fantastic horn arranger. He was an older guy who came up through the big-band era. But I’m a different horn and string arranger, because I come from the classical-music end. When I hear horns, I hear it more in the classical-music stuff; I hear stuff like oboe and bassoons, because that was the world that I came up in. Bobby came up in the jazz realm. Sometimes we would both arrange things and decide who wanted the strings and who wanted the horns. We would flip a coin for it. If I had the horns, it would come out more like symphonic music.

Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios was another element of our company and sound. We made the song in writing the music, but he was the one who recorded the sound. He was a sound engineer at Philco Corporation for years before that. He was a true sound engineer. He helped create our sound. He was the one who put that sound on tape — and that’s not easy to do.

Slow Crescendo

Given the monumental stature of PIR’s catalog — such essentials as the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody” and the Jones Girls’ “Nights Over Egypt”; deeper-cut favorites like Teddy Pendergrass’ “Life Is a Circle,” People’s Choice’s “A Mellow Mood” and Dee Dee Sharp’s “Nobody Could Take Your Place”; and cherished jazz-soul LPs by Cleveland Eaton, Monk Montgomery, Michael Pedicin Jr. and Thad Jones and Mel Lewis — it’s sometimes easy to forget how much Gamble and Huff worked and struggled to transform PIR into a powerhouse.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, with Teddy Pendergrass at center, on Soul Train in 1972. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Before there was Gamble and Huff, the dynamic songwriting and producing duo, there was Kenny and Tommy, the teen singing duo. In 1961, Kenny and Tommy recorded their swooning, self-penned doo-wop ballad “Some Day (You’ll Be My Love)” for producer and songsmith Jerry Ross’ Heritage Records.

Bell: [Gamble] was [dating] my sister. They were in the same school. He came by my house with my sister; she was quote-unquote supposed to help him with his homework. And so he met me. I was taking my piano lessons. He told me that he was a songwriter and said, “Let’s get together and try to write something.”

Gamble: There were a lot of groups during those days — yeah, it brings us back to the Uptown Theater. That used to be the showplace, similar to the Apollo, where you would see all these great acts. Anybody you could think of used to come. The Motown groups would go there when they came to Philly, and we would just sit there and soak in all that music.

Bell: After Kenny and I started singing, somewhere along the lines we went in two different directions. Me being a piano player and trying to be a singer and songwriter, I wound up working with another group. Then I started writing arrangements and working with Philly Groove Records. Before that, I became a lead-sheet writer with Cameo-Parkway [Records]. Then I found the Delfonics.

From there, Gamble and Huff got together. They became songwriters together. They met in the elevator [of Philly’s Shubert Building] in 1968. I was always one step behind them. They had written the song “Cowboys to Girls” [recorded by the Intruders]. I, in turn, had “La-La — Means I Love You.”

Later, at the dawn of the 1970s, Bell would find a formidable songwriting partner in Linda Creed, with whom he would pen a string of hits for an array of artists, chief among them the Stylistics and the Spinners. Tragically, Creed died of cancer in 1986, just 37.  

Bell: Gamble and Huff were the maestros of soul. Linda Creed and I were the maestros of heart. Gamble and Huff got deep down into your soul and you’d never forget it. Our music got deep down into your heart.

Huff, who grew up in Camden, New Jersey, was a jazz-influenced aspiring pianist who was initially seeking work in New York. Eventually all three and Ross found work at Cameo-Parkway, which was trying to cash in on the commercial popularity of ’60s R&B. 

Huff: I grew up listening to Duke Ellington, and I listened to a lot of early Quincy Jones. I came from the same town as one of my favorite organ players, Richard “Groove” Holmes. I knew him. And I did sessions with [Ray Charles saxophonist] David “Fathead” Newman.

Formed as the Romeos, Cameo-Parkway’s in-house rhythm section featured Bell on piano. Gamble, who was also still striving for a singing career, became their de facto leader. 

The early 1970s were a time when more major U.S. record labels were recognizing the financial viability of the R&B market and the increased potential for Black soul artists to cross over to mainstream white America. One such company was Columbia Records, which, under the guidance of president Clive Davis, was going through a transformation. Davis sought to capture some of this rising popularity in R&B, but at the time Columbia had little intel. Enter Gamble and Huff.

Gamble had already gained a little experience with Columbia (and its subsidiary label, Epic) as a solo artist and when he was a songwriting partner to Ross. As Kenny Gamble, he released “Standing in the Shadows” and “You Don’t Know What You Got Until You Lose It” in the early 1960s. Those singles, however, weren’t the main attraction for Davis.

As an independent songwriting and producing team, Gamble and Huff were steadily demonstrating their acumen by making hit singles for the likes of Jerry Butler and the Soul Survivors.

Huff: When Gamble and I first met [in the ’60s], we wrote about five or six songs. We knew then that we had something. I remember Gamble coming over to my house; we decided to meet every week. That just kept building. Gamble writes stories. He’s a storyteller. He’s like Bob Dylan; he’s a poet. Poets can turn into songwriters. That’s why it was easy for him to become a lyricist.

I write music differently. I can take lyrics home and put music to them. That’s what I did with [the O’Jays’] “Back Stabbers.” When McFadden and Whitehead gave me the lyrics sheet to “Back Stabbers,” they didn’t have any music. They just had the words. So I took that lyrics sheet home and worked on it all night. I came up with the orchestration and music. I call it coming in through the back door.

Gamble and Huff — perhaps more significantly Gamble — also exhibited an entrepreneurial streak beyond actually making music. In fact, PIR was one of several attempts at establishing a record label to document the numerous artists for whom they were writing and producing songs. There were the imprints Excel, Gamble and Neptune that preceded PIR. Neptune was distributed through Chess Records.

Gamble: There weren’t that many African-Americans in the record business in the ’60s. There were basically a lot of [Black] entertainers, but not a lot of people in the business. Radio was the big thing back then. Radio and the disc jockey were king back then. The disc jockey had the power of the airwaves. It was a great time because the disc jockey was so entertaining.

To distribute PIR, Gamble and Huff initially approached Atlantic Records, which passed on the offer. At first Davis wanted to sign Gamble and Huff to Columbia with a straight writing-and-production staff contract. But through the negotiation efforts of record man Ron Alexenburg, they struck a deal that positioned PIR as being Columbia’s main R&B imprint.

Huff: We were swinging as a production company. We were all over the charts as a production company. I think that caught Clive Davis’ attention. We were hot as independent producers. We decided that if we can get hits for all these other labels, let’s start our own label and sign our own artists. That’s what we decided to do.

Gamble: What CBS [Columbia] had when we got there was what they called “custom label.” Philly International was called a custom label. What we were really strong in was songwriting, finding talent, production and so forth, and we had a good marriage with CBS because, at that particular time, they were the best at marketing and distribution worldwide.

So the deal that we had with CBS was perfect for us, and for them, because they really did not have that much activity in the Black music market. We gave them a position with the Black community.

PIR’s initial efforts in 1971, however, were dismal. The label’s first single, “Arkansaw Wife,” a hippie pop-rock ditty by Gideon Smith, didn’t chart. And its jangly guitar-based arrangement sounds worlds apart from what people would eventually associate with the Philadelphia sound.

Smith’s single was somewhat endemic of other first efforts from PIR, which included songs by Bobby Bennett, Dick Jensen and Johnny Williams. Gamble and Huff also released material from singers Dee Dee Sharp, Billy Paul and Bunny Sigler, three soul artists with whom they’d worked prior. The only PIR single that charted was the Ebonys’ gritty ballad “You’re the Reason Why,” while Paul’s jazz-laden Going East was the only LP to reach Billboard’s charts.

Blame for the commercial failure of PIR’s initial run could be attributed to Gamble and Huff’s songwriting and production agreements with other artists at the time — including Joe Simon, Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield — which took up a lot of their creative energy. But then there was Columbia’s in-house promotional team, which lacked critical insight in promoting R&B singles in the Black market.

To rectify the problem, Davis hired new personnel to oversee PIR’s promotion, while Columbia Records beefed up its own division dedicated to Black music with new PR hires. Columbia also commissioned Harvard University Business School to conduct a study of the burgeoning Black music market, resulting in the 1972 document “A Study of the Soul Music Environment Prepared for Columbia Records Group.”

Gamble: We were strong in marketing and having a great relationship with the African-American community. During that time, you had EBONY, Jet, Black Enterprise and all these other great magazines and so forth, and Black consciousness was just starting to happen.

We used to work with all those people, and during that time, we created something called the Black Music Association. That was an organization whose sole purpose was to bring people together, bring all of us together, and do business with one another. It worked for a little while, and then, like most things, it started to fall apart.

Hitting Its Stride

PIR didn’t really find its groove until 1972. At the label, Gamble and Huff resumed working with some of its familiar team of musicians, such as vibraphonist Vince Montana, drummer Earl Young, bassist Ronnie Baker, percussionist Larry Washington and guitarists Norman Harris and Bobby Eli, along with newcomers like pianist/organist Lenny Pakula and guitarist T.J. Tindall. Eventually this cadre of in-house musicians, paired with Don Renaldo’s strings and horns, would be called MFSB.

Gamble: Mother Father Sister Brother. It was called that because the overall promotion of our company was family. If you listen to the music, we had a theme with Philly International, and that theme was there’s a message in the music.

Huff: I became attracted to orchestrations through playing in the band. I was a drummer. In elementary school and in junior high school, I was a drummer in marching band. I became familiar with French horns, xylophones, timpani — all the instruments included in an orchestra I became in love with. Gamble did the same thing. 

So both of us were well-versed in orchestration. We agreed to incorporate the orchestra into some of our productions. The way that we wrote songs, they need the orchestra. We heard violins, violas, cellos, xylophones and Hammond organs. Tommy Bell, it was the same thing. We all fell in love with big orchestrations. We didn’t think just rhythm section.

PIR’s brilliant house band, MFSB, in the early 1970s. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Gamble also signed MFSB as a PIR recording act. But even more critically, the label signed the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, two acts Gamble and Huff had worked with elsewhere. And with those two, PIR scored some its first bona fide hits: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ soul ballads “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” and “I Miss You,” from their PIR debut; and the O’Jays’ “Love Train” and “Back Stabbers,” from their LP Back Stabbers. “Love Train” became PIR’s first No. 1 hit on Billboard’s pop and R&B charts, and charted in England.

Gamble and Huff also struck gold with Paul’s sophomore PIR LP, 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, thanks to the then-scandalous ballad “Me and Mrs. Jones,” a story of an extramarital affair, written by Gamble, Huff and Cary Grant Gilbert. The song won Paul a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 1973.

Huff: “Me and Mrs. Jones” — we saw that play out in real life. That song was based on a real story. Gamble and I used to eat lunch at this restaurant down underneath the building that we occupied. I knew the couple; I knew the situation. Every time they’d meet up, they would go to the jukebox and play the same song, and they would sit at the same place. That’s the way Gamble wrote the song. And boy did it relate to the people.

PIR gained more commercial and critical recognition in England after the massive success of the Three Degrees’ torch song “When Will I See You Again.”

Huff: We had great distribution over there; they put out our records overseas. Then we had a tour with the O’Jays, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Three Degrees — we all toured Europe. After that tour, things just blew up.

But even before that happened, Columbia Records had an international music convention in San Francisco. They had a Philly night. Columbia paid for the whole Philadelphia orchestra — MFSB — and the whole roster to fly out and perform in front of the Columbia promotional people. I played in the orchestra. Don Cornelius was the emcee of the show. We had everybody on top of tables dancing by the time we finished. They’d never seen a show like that in their whole careers. After we did that showcase night, that’s when we started selling records all over the world.

The Mighty Three

Similar to how Berry Gordy established Jobete Music to publish much of Motown’s music written by its in-house staff of songwriters, Gamble and Huff and Thom Bell had formed Mighty Three Music Group in 1973. It arrived with the eye-catching insignia of three elephants.

Bell: I came up with the name, Mighty Three Music. I said, “What is the biggest animal on earth? Not in the water. I’m talking about on earth.” It’s an elephant. Then I asked, “What is an elephant known for besides having a trunk and being big?” The elephant never forgets. Right. So that was our catchphrase: You’ll never forget our tunes.

According to Bell, the agreement among the trio for Mighty Three Music was that all of them would participate in crafting songs for PIR artists. However, Bell would also use the BMI publishing company to work with musicians who were not on the label, such as the Spinners, the Stylistics, Johnny Mathis and Elton John. Gamble also tried several times to convince Bell to formally join in the PIR business, but Bell gracefully declined the offer. Nevertheless, in 1970 he did invest in PIR’s building at 309 South Broad Street in Philly. Sadly, in 2010 that site was badly damaged by arson.

Bell: We put our money together. I remember hocking everything except the braces on my kids’ teeth. We bought the building where Cameo-Parkway Records used to be.

Still, the Mighty Three did work on some of the same songs, sometimes with Huff and Bell flipping coins to decide who would play piano and who would play organ.

Bell: We had a rule: Whoever comes up with an idea, if the majority of us wants to go with the idea, we will go. But if the majority of us did not want to go, we won’t. And we won’t squabble or question it. We very rarely went against one another.

Gamble: Our whole thing was to figure out how we could just make music every day. That was our dream. Finally, it happened. It was a beautiful experience.

A Hard Pass on Blaxploitation

Black films — more pointedly Blaxploitation films — were attracting plenty of cultural attention in the early to mid-1970s, and with them came incredible soundtracks by the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Willie Hutch.

Given that PIR came with the infrastructure to create evocative, gritty orchestral score music and infectious soul classics, PIR’s extensive catalog is conspicuously absent from movie soundtracks. It’s not that filmmakers didn’t come to Gamble and Huff with the idea. For 1973’s Shaft in Africa, for example, the movie’s producers wanted Gamble and Huff to create music.

Gamble: When we saw [the movie], it looked pretty good. But it didn’t seem like it fit with what we were doing.

Huff: Gamble and I were also busy doing a lot of albums. We weren’t really concentrating on doing any soundtracks. We weren’t even thinking along those lines. But we had the opportunity to do Shaft in Africa, and I didn’t like the script.

But some of the early music that Gamble and Huff conceived when they were brainstorming a score for Shaft in Africa became part of the O’Jays’ powerful 1973 concept album Ship Ahoy, a canonical R&B record. The LP’s artwork depicts the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade. The album boasted such rousing sociopolitical classics as “For the Love of Money,” “Don’t Call Me Brother” and “Put Your Hands Together.”

Soul Train

Just as PIR was making significant inroads into mainstream American pop culture, TV personality and producer Don Cornelius was making strides on television with Soul Train, which began airing in syndication in 1971. The show’s original theme song was King Curtis’ “Hot Potato,” which was reimagined by the Rimshots as “Soul Train, Part 1 and 2.” For a theme-song upgrade, Cornelius sought out Gamble and Huff.

Huff: Gamble told Don to come to Philadelphia to see what we can come up with. Don came to Philadelphia on a Friday night; we went into the studio that night and nothing came up. Sometimes when you go into the studio, nothing happens.

Don got frustrated and said, “Alright, you guys. I’m going back to Chicago.” Gamble asked Don to stay over one more night. After the sessions were over, Gamble and I went back to our offices, and I went back to the piano. We started working on dut-dut-dut-de-de-de-da-dut-dut. We went back into the studio and nailed it. That became the theme song to Soul Train.

Thanks also to Bobby Martin’s jazzy arrangement and the Three Degrees’ sassy vocal accompaniment, Soul Train’s theme song, 1974’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” became MFSB’s first and only No. 1 hit. MFSB also won a Grammy for the song, for Best R&B Instrumental Performance.

The mid-’70s also saw PIR recruit two major acts that would help raise the label’s profile — the Jacksons and Lou Rawls.

Huff: Working with the Jacksons was the highlight of my career, really. Ronald Alexenburg was instrumental in making that happen when they were preparing to leave Motown. Columbia signed them to Epic. Ronald suggested to Michael and his brothers to work with Gamble and Huff. They jumped at the idea. We were excited about it. They came to Philadelphia; it was a great project.

Under Gamble and Huff’s production oversight, the rebranded “Jacksons” — Jermaine Jackson remained with Motown, and Berry Gordy forbade the group from using the Jackson 5 moniker — released in 1976 their eponymous Gold-certified LP, which contained the perennial hits “Enjoy Yourself” and “Show You the Way to Go.” The 1977 follow-up, Goin’ Places, didnt fare nearly as well, motivating the Jacksons to handle their own songwriting and production efforts, and ending their association with PIR.

PIR gave Rawls’ declining popularity a boost, beginning with 1976’s All Things in Time, which contained the hits “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and “Groovy People.” He released five more LPs during the latter half of the ’70s, and won a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for Unmistakably Lou in 1978.

Patti LaBelle signs with PIR c. 1980. Credit: Echoes/Redferns.

Blaze & Burnout

PIR continued to become a world-renowned music and entrepreneurial force even after such setbacks as the FBI’s crackdown on payola that implicated the label; the rift between PIR and some of the core original members of MFSB, which led to their reforming in the Salsoul Orchestra; and the fallout of Teddy Pendergrass leaving Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. The label thrived throughout the tail of the 1970s and into the early 1980s.

Gamble and Huff managed to make hits particularly with Pendergrass, who emerged as a commanding solo artist with a sizzling sex appeal that rivaled that of Marvin Gaye. Artists like the Jones Girls and the O’Jays continued climbing the charts as well.

Pendergrass’ tragic car accident in 1982, which left him severely disabled, almost signaled a major turning point for PIR. At the time he was PIR’s major star, having yielded four Platinum albums. Patti LaBelle also emerged as PIR’s shining star, albeit relatively briefly. Still establishing her solo career after the vocal group Labelle disbanded, she released I’m in Love Again, her second PIR LP, in 1983. It contained “If Only You Knew” and “Love, Need and Want You,” two songs that would prove crucial to her breaking through as a solo artist. In the end, LaBelle released only three PIR LPs before moving to MCA, the organization that really catapulted her into the stratosphere.

PIR’s distribution contract with Columbia/CBS ended in 1984. EMI/Capitol soon picked up the deal, allowing PIR to release a handful of hits for Phyllis Hyman and Shirley Jones, but that arrangement lasted only until 1987, which basically marked the end of the label’s historic run. In 1990, Warner Chappell Music purchased the Mighty Three publishing company for around $15 million, which illustrated just how financially viable Black American popular music had become.

Huff and Gamble, co-chairmen of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, speak at the organization’s annual induction ceremony in New York in 2018. Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall of Fame.

When asked to cite their favorite PIR albums and artists, the Mighty Three understandably grappled with their answers, given the enormity of that catalog.

Gamble: It’s hard to even say it, but the O’Jays were a favorite artist for us to work with. They did a lot of our message songs. Lou Rawls — he was great. Teddy Pendergrass was absolutely unbelievable as a singer and as an artist. Patti LaBelle is just a monster. Then you have someone like Dee Dee Sharp [Gamble’s former spouse], who started out with us way back in the ’60s.

Huff: I love the O’Jays’ So Full of Love album; I love Billy Paul’s Going East album. That’s a hard question. That’s like asking me, “Who is your favorite kid?” I love the Unmistakably Lou album, and the first album we put out with Teddy Pendergrass.

Bell: There were a few. Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, the O’Jays and Phyllis Hyman. Each one had a distinct sound. As an arranger, you try to complement their sound. Once they sing something, you have to make sure that whatever you write has to be in the same lane as what they are singing. Their sound is the most important. I can change your style, but I can’t change your sound.

I want people to remember the events that came with that music. I’ve had people tell me that they got married to one of my songs. Those types of things are what makes us feel good. Each song is like an event to me, an event in a certain period in time. I want our music to bring back good feelings. I want you to never forget our tunes — like the three elephants.

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