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Interview: Kenneth Gamble – Songwriter, Entrepreneur and Humanitarian

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Kenneth Gamble is one-half of the legendary Philadelphia International songwriting team, Gamble & Huff. Along with Leon Huff, Gamble has written and produced over 170 gold and platinum records – including timeless hits from The O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti Labelle and the Jacksons. In honor of their tremendous catalog, which boasts more than 3,000 original compositions, the duo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – becoming the first recipients of the Ahmet Ertegun Award.

More recently, on May 8, 2010, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were presented with honorary doctorates by Berklee College of Music. As the two songwriters near the 50th anniversary of their musical partnership, Kenneth Gamble managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on radio’s transition from AM to FM, Philadelphia International’s comparisons to Motown, and contemporary samples of Gamble & Huff’s work.

This past May, you received an honorary doctorate degree from Berklee College of Music. So how does it feel to be called “Dr. Gamble”? [laughing]

Oh, it sounds good! [laughing] I like it! [laughing continues] It was exciting.

After listening to your commencement address, I pulled a few quotes that I wanted to relate, not just to that particular moment, but also to your musical legacy in general.

Okay.

In your address, you pressed the graduates to become ambassadors of love through their music. And over the course of your career, you have always had a desire to connect positive messages to your music. How did this philosophy become the core of your life’s work?

Well, growing up listening to the radio in Philadelphia with Georgie Woods and Jimmy Bishop, the disc jockeys, and Jocko Henderson and Butterball and all these guys, they used to play records by Curtis Mayfield, like “People Get Ready” and “It’s Alright.” It was an era filled with message songs and songs with positive meaning to them. James Brown probably had the most significant song for the African-American community when he recorded, “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” And so these are the kind of songs that caught my interest early on. And so when Huff and I used to write, we used to write a diverse range of songs. That was part of the consciousness of the sound of Philadelphia. We even took on a slogan called “The Message in the Music.” Year after year, as you grow up, you start learning a whole lot more. One of the highlights is a song that Huff and I wrote called “Ship Ahoy” – performed by The O’Jays. That was a big production. So I think that my early years of listening to the radio, and listening to people like James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, inspired me to write songs with social meaning.

As you talk about the early influence radio had upon you, I stumbled across an interesting factoid: one of your songs is played on the radio – somewhere in the world – every thirteen-and-a-half minutes. Looking back at the early history of Philadelphia International Records (PIR), a lot of black music stations were transitioning to FM. From a business standpoint, how instrumental was this transition to your early success?

We came along at a time when AM radio, or mono, was being taken over by stereo, which gave us an additional edge, because there’s really no comparison between mono and stereo. And AM radio had pretty much been the norm for all of those years. Along came Gamble and Huff. The Motown era was basically mono, mono with AM radio. And in the late sixties, then the FM stations started to play rhythm and blues music. And two things happened. Not only was the sound greater, because we had an orchestra, and separate layers, but I mean the music just sounded better on the stereo FM side. But also the FM stations, compared to the AM stations had a wider wattage. Like here in Philadelphia, you got WDAS AM which was maybe like 1000 watt, 1500 watt station, but then when they shifted over to the FM, WDAS FM, you had like a 50000 watt station that covered so much territory that it really took the place of a lot of the pop stations, because it used to be rhythm and blues and pop stations. The real reason to try and get your record on some of the pop stations was because they had such tremendous coverage, wattage. And so, it was very hard to get your records on those pop stations during our time. So when the FM stations came into play, it really helped us to reach a lot more people.

Depending on whom you ask, some people look at the rise of PIR as the passing (or taking) of the baton from Motown. In retrospect, do you feel that there was a friendly competition between Motown and PIR?

Motown, in my view, was the greatest record company that ever existed. They were the blueprint for Philly International. They inspired us tremendously. As a matter of fact, they had their own sound, the Motown sound. And we had the Memphis sound. And so then we said, well let’s create the Philly sound. So we were like, I guess, protégés of Motown. Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland and Norman Whitfield and Berry Gordy. These guys were extremely talented people. I remember we couldn’t wait to hear the next Motown record. In fact, Huff and I, we went to Motown once, like in 1968, we went over there, trying to see whether or not we could get a job over there. We went there. It was so far away and there were so many people there. On our way back from Detroit we said hey, let’s try and do it in Philadelphia and thank God we were able to create something that was comparative to Motown.

In your commencement address, you made it a point to quote songwriter Linda Creed, who wanted people to stop, look and listen to their heart and hear what it’s saying. Looking out into the world, if you were to come out with a song today, what would your heart be singing about right now?

Well, right now the world is in such confusion. So many of the songs that we recorded before, like “Love Train,” “Give the People What They Want” and “Wake Up Everybody,” I think these songs are songs for all times. The people really know what they want. I think it’s just bad leadership or something. There’s just too much going on for the average person to try to deal with. I mean, say for instance with Motown, they had the song, “War (What is it Good For?)” I don’t understand the violence that’s in the world. Now, I would probably write a song about that, about the way people treat one another.

As you prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of PIR, you are also set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of your partnership with Leon Huff. When you look at your early deal with CBS, in what ways was it the perfect marriage? How did it all come together?

Well, timing, is pretty much everything. And you never really know. You never really know. Destiny plays a big part in all of this stuff. And me and Huff meeting one another was a blessing in disguise. There were so many people throughout our lives that were mentors and gave us information when we first started out. I think the disc jockeys like Jimmy Bishop and Georgie Woods and guys all over the country, like in Chicago, Rodney Jones. Without radio, we would have never been able to do what we’ve been able to do. And so, radio is not the same any more like it was then. Because you had independent disc jockeys who could play pretty much anything they wanted to play, and most of those radio stations were independent radio stations. But today, you have these big conglomerates that own all of these stations and you maybe have one person who’s programming ninety or a hundred stations. So it’s a little bit harder, in some ways, to get your music exposed on a local level. And I think that’s the most important thing, is to be able to start out on a local and regional level and have that growth pattern. That’s what we were able to do. We started a record out from Philadelphia and then maybe in Baltimore and then New York and Newark and then Chicago. It was that kind of transition. But today, you can’t really do that because of the way radio is situated. And plus, too, it’s the audiovisual world today. It’s not just music, sound. I mean, you’ve got to have videos and the Internet. So it’s got its pros and cons. I think the business is much better today than it was then because you have so many options to expose yourself.

Many young listeners have become familiar with the samples of your original work. Is there a particular sample that shocked, intrigued or impressed you? Or maybe a combination of the three? [laughing]

Well, I must say that there’s a couple that comes to mind. Like Nelly & Kelly [Rowland] – with “Dilemma.” That was Patti LaBelle’s song that we recorded. The name of it was called “Love, Need and Want You”. And so I was really impressed with the way that they took that song and incorporated it into a rap song. And in addition to that one, not only Jay-Z, but I think Biggie Smalls used it and quite a few of the rappers used it, was a song we did with MFSB. It was called “Something for Nothing.” And it was instrumental, but it was a vocal first, because we did it with Dusty Springfield. We did that song with Dusty Springfield in like 1960 something. When I hear these guys using those songs, and especially Kanye West, he used Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby” in “Stronger,” which also sampled a French group called Daft Punk. I am really impressed with the skills that the young producers have.

With their support, your music continues to inspire younger generations.

Yeah, yeah. It’s beautiful, man, I love it.

Along with Leon Huff, you have more than 3,000 songs in your music catalog? Is there a particular era in which you felt the most productive?

I think during the seventies. During the seventies. I think once we got our first hit record, you know, like “Expressway” and then right after that we got “Cowboys to Girls”. I think we had got our finger on the pulse of the consumer, and also radio. The disc jockeys loved to play our music. So I think during the seventies, that was our most productive time, from right then. And along came Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Teddy Pendergrass. We had a great variety of artists to work with. Great songs and great voices. The voices were such a challenge for us because the bottom line of it, these guys were so unique, like just to mention one, Lou Rawls, for an example. God bless him, man. This guy’s voice was magic. And so, that was a challenge for me and Huff to come up with “You’ll Never Find”. We got him on the first record. Got a No. 1 record on him on the first record. So I think that was our most productive time, during the seventies.

Coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, a period of time that you have noted that many blacks used their creativity to fill in the holes in their ancestry, what additional comments do you have on those thoughts?

Well, with songs like “Ship Ahoy,” we talked about the African-American experience. In school you don’t learn much about the history and the journey of people of African descent. But after you get out of school, you start to read more and you start to hear more about people like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, different people who are telling the story of the black man in America. And so, I think that the life and times of people of African descent here in America was something that we wanted to write about in our music, because that was another way to get the message out. We have a lot of books about the journey of African people, but not a lot of music about it. And even during my search for a lot of different things, I found out that you’ve got so many songs from way back in the days of slavery, and whatever, that the slaves used to communicate with each other. So we tried to continue that legacy with our music.

Why do you think music is such a powerful medium? Even though there is plenty of literature that has stood the test of time, why do you think music is better able to pull at people’s heartstrings?

Well, when you think about it, your body is the first musical instrument. I mean the body is a musical instrument. Your heart beats rhythm, like your eyes blink. I mean, you can’t stop your eyes from blinking.

Even if you tried… [laughing]

Right! [laughing] You can’t do it. You know what I mean? So your body is nothing but total rhythm, and it’s an electronic instrument, the body. And so, I think that music kind of coincides with the body. I mean, you can take your voice and you can probably imitate just about any instrument that you can think of. And so, I think music, especially when the rhythm and the melodies and all of those things sort of harmonize with the rhythm of the body, I think it’s easier to consume a great melody than it is to read a 200 or 300 page book. So the music has played a tremendous emotional and social part for people who listen to it and can understand what the writer is saying through that music.

With your recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, many of your songs have become permanent fixtures in the American music canon. Now that you’ve had some time to digest that, what emotions do you feel about your legacy and contribution to music in general?

Well, first of all, I’m thankful for all that has happened for Huff and myself. And I think that by getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s like an actor getting an Oscar, or a baseball player, when he is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It sort of puts you on a different level. It’s your peers’ appreciation for your work, and it helps with your legacy, because there will always be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We had the same feeling when we were inducted in the Songwriters Hall. That was just as important.

As a journalist, I firmly believe in the power of words. And I noticed that you started your Berklee speech with the word “peace”. You eventually went on to say that sometimes you have to fight for peace in order to keep your peace.

That’s true.

When you think about that quote, is there a particular moment in your personal or professional experience that comes to mind when you think of fighting to keep your peace?

Well, you know, I grew up in South Philadelphia. And during the time when I grew up, there was an organization called Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement. It was right around the corner from us, and this was during the fifties and late forties, 1940s. And I was a young guy. And people were not doing so good, but this Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, he really was a person who helped a lot of people. They gave food away. They gave haircuts to people, and they really were community activists, to try to help people out of those days, right out of the Depression era. And so, I remember them saying peace all the time. I mean, every time you would go in there, they would say peace. And so, that stuck with me all these years. So I think that peace is something that everybody strives for. You want peace in your home …

Definitely!

You want peace on the streets. You want peace in your soul. So I try to spread that as a salutation, the same way that they did, and to make it a reality, because if you use it, then it can become a reality for you.

As part of your philanthropic community work, you started Universal Companies. At what point did you realize that you needed to step outside the music world and actually start the organization?

Well, Universal Companies was something that I always thought about it, like a universal community where people of all different nationalities, different cultures, that they would be able to work together and to create an environment that is productive. I used to travel all over the country when we were promoting our records. And everywhere I used to go, when we finished going to radio stations or whatever we were doing, I would get a car, and I would say, look, take me to where the African-American community was so I could see how other cities were doing compared to Philadelphia. And then I tell you, every place I went there was nothing but devastation. And so, in being community minded, I would always hear people say, you know we need to do this and we need to that, and we should do this and we should do that. I said, “Well, who’s going to do it? Let’s get it done.” You know what I mean? So, I looked back at my old neighborhood and saw how devastated it was. And so, during the seventies I started to buy many of the abandoned houses and vacant lots in that neighborhood. One thing led to another. My wife and I would say, “Well, let’s go back and let’s do something. Let’s make it happen.” Because we used to say all the time, well somebody got to do something. So my wife used to tell me, “Well, why don’t you look in the mirror? Why don’t you do something?” So that’s how it started. We put a group of people together. People came from everywhere. We had a wonderful team of people working together. And so, our mission statement was basically education reform. We are heavily involved in education. We have an education management company where we have charter schools, and we manage public schools. And in addition to managing these schools, we create blight-free areas around those schools instead of just going to the school. Any vacant properties, any abandoned homes, any blight that’s in that area, we have cleaned it all up. So that was the whole thing. If you remember a long time ago, we had a song called “Clean Up the Ghetto”. I don’t know if you remember that or not, that was like in, I think, ’77 or ’78. And Philly International Allstars, we had all of our artists pretty much at that time to record this song. And that’s pretty much what the idea was, to live the music out instead of just talking about it, but to actually do something about the condition in the African-American community.

Before we wrap up this interview, my mother would be disappointed if I didn’t ask you about this one particular song.

Which one?

“Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”

Wow, that’s a good one! [laughing]

Do you have any special memories attached to that song?

It’s funny: McFadden and Whitehead were songwriters, but they were singers first, before they came with us. They wrote that song. And when they first wrote it and brought it to me, I said, “Wow, we should let the O’Jays sing this song.” And, boy, they went crazy. They had a group called The Epsilons, and they said: “No, no, we want to sing this one. We want to sing this one.” I said: “Well, go ahead. Go ahead and do it.” But I saw in them tremendous creative power. And so we went in the studio. I’m really glad that they did sing it now, because it’s their legacy and God bless them. Both of them have passed, but that song became an anthem all around the world for people who were trying to accomplish something. And so it really, really is one of the songs in our catalog that really stands out.

For more information on Gamble & Huff, visit the duo’s official website.

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About Clayton Perry

  • micchael mcgehee

    the vibrations were one great act they were really outstanding performers on any stage.why wasnt their music played on local radio,still puzzles me to this day?this group the vibrations has never gotten their fair recognition in the music world.the vibrations had many hits that many people dont know about.for instance watusi,cindy, stranded in the jungle,so blue, surprise party for baby,misty,make it last.the list goes on,and the same things still continues to happen to this group they get over-looked again.for a group that gave so much is given so little in return. the vibrations are group,that was very much underated and never given any credit for what they have done is truly a shame. sincerely yours,michael mcgehee