Sitting in on the interaction between Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff is much like witnessing the give-and-take of an old married couple—or better yet, having a conversation with two uncles. On one hand, you have Uncle Leon, reserved but articulate, reminiscing on memories of yesteryear with the ease and casual elegance of a tenured Ivy League professor. And then you have Uncle Kenny with his golden tongue and man-about-town cool, evidence—in the good sense—that you can take the boy out of the streets, but you can’t take the streets out of the boy. In the companion booklet to the Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia box set, longtime collaborator Thom Bell said of the trio that included himself, “One can talk, one doesn’t talk, one shouldn’t talk! [laughs] Kenny can talk, and he should, because he has a brilliant mind.”
What Gamble and Huff accomplished independent of one another and as a team, both before and after their formation of Philadelphia International Records (PIR), was not just the result of brilliance, but surrounding themselves with the right individuals and learning to take advantage of any and every opportunity. Each possessed a grand vision, made even more powerful by their union, but to hear many of their peers tell it, not all was harmonious under the PIR roof. Stories of dissent, questionable business practices, and unfair distribution of royalties are plentiful among those who worked for and with the duo, told in great detail in John A. Jackson’s A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul. Jackson explains how much has been made over the treatment of Black artists at the hands of White record company owners, but it’s not so much an issue of race as it is of power, as he cites Berry Gordy and Motown as an example that Gamble, Huff, and Bell may have inexplicably followed.
But what is just as important to remember is that many PIR artists and associates may have never reached great heights without the efforts of these three men. PIR was it throughout the ’70s, and there was a wealth of talent in and around the Philadelphia area during this time that called the label home. “All of our artists were different,” Gamble explains. “And we styled them different. None of their music sounds the same. The O’Jays didn’t sound like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and Archie Bell didn’t sound like the Intruders, and Lou [Rawls] didn’t sound like Teddy [Pendergrass]. Patti [LaBelle] didn’t sound like Phyllis Hyman. We had a great stable and collection of artists.” And PIR made it all work in a rapidly changing musical climate—a fertile time for Black music independence, when Gamble and Huff were among the most independent of them all.
On a humid morning last June, I sat down with the pair at the PIR building on the corner of Broad and Cypress along Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts. We started out talking about the music of their youth—Frankie Lymon, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Flamingos, Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows, and Marvin Junior, Chuck Barksdale, and the Dells. “WDAS here in Philadelphia used to play all of the new music,” Gamble recalls. “I was pretty much engrossed in music as a young guy.”
“I was basically the same,” says Huff. “WDAS beamed into where I grew up in Camden [New Jersey], and not a day went by when WDAS wasn’t in the house.” WDAS disc jockeys Georgie Woods, Douglas “Jocko” Henderson, and, in particular, Jimmy Bishop would become instrumental in helping the young entrepreneurs learn the business and garner airplay for their artists. Prior to starting their own labels in Excel, Gamble, and Neptune, the two had met while working in Philadelphia’s Schubert Building—Huff as a songwriter for Johnny Madara and Dave White, and Gamble under record producer Jerry Ross and his partner Murray Wecht.
You have a lot of successful—commercially successful—pairings of singers and songwriters, and producers and arrangers, who can’t stand one another. How did you know that this partnership might work, and how were you able to get along and maintain success?
Leon Huff: Well, this is really different, because somehow we started to talk on the elevator. I had never seen Gamble, and he had never seen me. And that’s the weird part about the whole thing. We started talking, and that communication led to me playing on a recording session that Gamble was producing. He invited me to play on that session, and I think that was the first time we had seen each other’s participation in what we were doing. I was just a studio musician then, but I was dabbling around in songwriting.
What was the session?
Huff: “The 81,” by a group called Candy and the Kisses. I hear that record sometimes. That record was swinging. It was a session that I really enjoyed playing [on], and I think that was the first time we saw each other in action and really got a bird’s-eye view of what we were into. I was seriously into my keyboard playing, Gamble was the writer and producer, and through him, I met some of the greatest Philadelphia musicians that I ever played with. Wasn’t Roland [Chambers] on that session?
Kenny Gamble: Yeah, Roland and Karl Chambers. That was an exciting time, because we were just getting our feet wet. It was hard for us to even get into the studio, so Jerry Ross was a good outlet. And one of the things about Jerry was that I started out with him as a vocalist—me and Tommy Bell. Me and Thom Bell were like Kenny and Tommy, like Don and Juan. But Tommy went off to work, and I just kept coming down to the Schubert Building and developed a relationship with Jerry. Then I met Huff.
But you know, when you said, “How did we know this was going to work?” We didn’t know. We didn’t know because we were, like, strangers. But the music is what pulled us together. All we talked about at first was music. And then as we got to know each other, we started talking about everything—world affairs, life, everything.
Huff: You know what else I think is important? After I graduated from high school, I was ready to meet new people, new horizons. I had gotten the most out of Camden through the music program and playing in the high school band. After I graduated in 1960, Camden became a little small to me, because there was nothing there, really, to take me into recording what I wanted to do. Philly had all the studios and all the record companies. When I met Gamble, it was like a new world, but you’ve got to like a person, straight up—especially with me. I took to Gamble as a person, just laughing and having fun with him. Plus, he took me to different clubs in Philly that I got to know, so it was like a growth to me, meeting Gamble. It was opening my mind up to Philadelphia. The only time I came to Philadelphia [before that] was to buy clothes. You’ve got to like a person first before it starts to grow into anything else. And that has lasted all these years.
Gamble: The first time we sat down and started writing over at Huff’s house in Camden, man, it was so easy. That’s the only way I can explain it. We were popping songs out just like that. [snaps fingers] I was trying to write songs, but he had written songs before he met me and had hits working with people.
Why not go the performer route?
Huff: That’s a different thing. I fight with that now, because I’m not an “entertainer.” I know who I am. People try and make you into something else, but I’m not an entertainer who’s going to get up on the stage and communicate with people. I’m not good at that. I’m good at sitting down at that piano. But as far as being a virtuoso, I’m not saying that I can’t do it, but I feel more comfortable with a band.
Gamble, what about you—you were a singer, so why not stay out front?
Gamble: Well, we did all of that. We had a great band called the Romeos, and it turned out to be our studio band. I often think back on those days, but I kind of feel like Huff as it relates to being a performer. I never really did like coming out onstage and the audience is waiting for you to do a somersault or something. [laughs] I felt more comfortable writing lyrics and writing songs, and I think my heart took me towards writing. People like Marvin Gaye—a great singer—and people like Smokey Robinson, and Levi [Stubbs] of the Four Tops, and Chuck Jackson, these guys were naturally gifted singers. I didn’t look at myself like that. Although I could sing, that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to write songs for Chuck Jackson, and write songs for Marvin Gaye, or whomever.
I never really did like coming out onstage and the audience is waiting for you to do a somersault or something. I felt more comfortable writing lyrics and writing songs, and I think my heart took me towards writing.Kenny Gamble
Plus, songwriters retain control of their work.
Gamble: That’s true. As a producer or a songwriter, if you can get to where we were eventually able to work ourselves to, we had a creative independence. I think the number one thing a songwriter and a producer must have is an outlet to get your music out there—to find out how the public receives it. You could have a thousand songs, but if you can’t get them out there, you don’t know whether they’re good or not. But once me and Huff were able to get our songs out, and the responses told us that we’re on the right track, that’s when we were on the right track.
You did a lot of work for many different labels, but what was the first company you were affiliated with as a duo, and in what capacity?
Huff: As independent producers?
Gamble: It probably was…[to Huff] What was the name of that label? With the swans…with Gene and them?
Huff: Larry Uttal…
Gamble: With Larry Uttal and Bell Records, we had a record. I forget the name of it. But it was a good one. One was called “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Hurt?” [featuring the Mellow Moods]. [to Huff] Remember that one?
Huff: Yeah, I remember that.
Gamble: And we had a song called “Tell Love Hello (If You See Him).” Now that’s a great song. Someone needs to do that today. And that was Excel Records. Then we met Benny Krass from Krass Brothers clothing store and we started Gamble Records, and what else was there…
Excel Records didn’t last very long, did it?
Gamble: We couldn’t use that name because it was already registered.
What did you do for Cameo-Parkway?
Gamble: Candy and the Kisses were on Cameo-Parkway.
Huff: But you know what, going back to that, that Candy and the Kisses session laid the groundwork for a lot of talent.
Gamble: You wrote the other side of that too—“Two Happy People.” [both start to sing “Two happy people…” ] That was a good one, man.
Huff: Yeah, that was a good session. It was a session that had a hell of a groove to it, the way the song [“The 81”] was structured. [sings start of song]
Gamble: Like a Motown sound. [sings, picking up where Huff leaves off ]
Huff: It’s not easy to get a hit with a shuffle groove, unless you’ve got the right ingredients.
Gamble: I don’t know where those girls are, Candy and the Kisses, but they were a nice, young group, and beautiful singers.
Huff: They were from Brooklyn. Wasn’t that a top twenty record?
Gamble: Yeah. Once you get a record like that, you knew you had something. Huff had a record called “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl” [performed by Patty and the Emblems] that was cracking those charts and got up there.
Huff: We were confident.
Gamble: Yeah, it started building our confidence, and you’re looking to get that big one.
Huff: My feeling was, when “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl” started getting international recognition, because Leroy [Lovett] had sold the masters to Heritage Records—that’s when people were selling masters—and I heard that record on [W]DAS for the first time, I said, “Boy, to write a song that goes top twenty, if I could write one that goes that far, I could write a hit.” That was my mind-set. If I could do that, then I could do something bigger, and that’s what happened. If you can get one, then you can get another one.
Gamble: In the midst of all of this that we’re talking about, with me and Huff, our number one thing was, “How can we make a living off all of this here?” Because I was working—I had a job working at Jefferson Hospital—and I was saying that I’d like to wake up every day and do nothing but write music. I was coming over to the Schubert Building after work, and then working with the band on weekends and all that kind of stuff. But that was our number one thing—how do we get into the business of this whole thing? How do we figure this out? And during that time, Jerry Ross had gotten quite a few hits…
Huff: He was hot.
Gamble: Yeah, he was doing good, so he moved to New York, and me and Huff merged together. We had to start eliminating people and joining forces as a business. It wasn’t just the music, but how do we get the business of this thing together?
Huff: Even joining forces wasn’t easy.
Gamble: No, it wasn’t easy.
Why is that?
Huff: We had to make certain business moves when we came together, but that was our goal to do that.
What moves, in particular?
Huff: Well, I was a signed writer. Gamble was always independent, so I had to make a decision about Madara/White.
Gamble: Who were good people, but it was time for us to get moving. Because, we, at that particular time, I think we were just as strong as them, or stronger. Plus, we had a lot of connections. Our connections were at radio and our relationships with the artists in this community, so negotiating and making sure all of that stuff was taken care of so Huff could be independent—so we were both independent—that was the number one goal at that time. We wanted to get moving so that we could work together every day, and that’s what we were able to do. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.
Huff: You talk about hard decisions, but you’ve got to be able to do that—to make a hard decision and then build on it.
Gamble: You’ve got to take the risk—take the chance—and we took the chance, and it worked out well.
When you started Philadelphia International, it was the early ’70s. How did you see the music at that time, and how did that impact what you were doing?
Gamble: I think the music at that time was on fire. The Motown era left a tremendous impression on me, not only the music but the business, and how these African Americans were able to work together and build an institution. And during that time, you had the change from AM to FM in music, and I think that’s what really did it for us, because AM was basically all mono. When music started going to FM, then stereo came in. That was the big thing, stereo, because the music sounded totally different.
Especially your sound.
Gamble: Yeah, yeah, because we had a whole orchestra. We had orchestrations, beautiful strings, and horns, and all kinds of sounds. We needed FM, and so I think the industry kind of leaned toward us and our kind of music. And that played a real big part.
Plus, the whole industry was changing. We had been through the ’60s with the independents—independent distributors and independent record companies. The key was, during the late ’60s and early ’70s, the major companies bought up all the independents. There was no more independent distribution, so when we made our arrangement with Columbia Records, it was a good move for both of us. It would have been better if it had been through the independents, but there weren’t any. And so joining up with CBS, we not only had national distribution, we had international distribution, and we were also able to work out arrangements with them so that we could get the resources we needed, financially, in order to expand. And that helped us out a lot.
I think that the most eventful thing in Black people’s history that woke Black people up was James Brown’s ’Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.’Kenny Gamble
And outside of the music, you had what was going on, politically. The Black Panthers were fading, Martin Luther King Jr. was gone, Malcolm X was gone, but through their work, Blacks still felt empowered. How did you see things for brothers and sisters, culturally?
Gamble: I just say one thing—I think that the most eventful thing in Black people’s history that woke Black people up was James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” When that record came out, it confirmed everything, between Martin Luther King, and James Brown, and Malcolm X, and Motown, and everything…and television. See, television exposed. In Philly, and I can only speak for myself, I never knew that much about the racial discrimination [elsewhere], because it was never even talked about in the Black community that much. Basically, all we were doing was listening to the radio and listening to music. Then Georgie Woods and the WDAS disc jockeys started [putting on the] “Freedom Shows,” the NAACP was starting to become more aggressive, and I think in the late ’50s, early ’60s, we got a television, and I said, “Wow.” I come home one day, and my brother Charles was looking at TV, and they had the news on and the riots and the dogs biting people and everything. I never even heard of anything like that. I said, “What’s going on?” We never had any problem with White people. It probably was like that, but we never had any problems. Or I should say, I never had any problems with any Caucasian people, because they never even came around our neighborhood, period.
You’re from South Philly?
Gamble: South Philly—and they never came to our neighborhood, so I didn’t have any problems.
Huff: It was a little different where I was brought up in Camden. Where I lived on Ferry Avenue, when I was a kid, my mother and father always used to tell me and my sister, “Stay out of Woodlynne. Stay out of Gloucester. Stay out of Collingswood, and Fairview,” where my sister now lives. “If you go there, you’re going to get beat up. And don’t go by yourself.” My parents always told us where not to go or we’d get hurt. Even if you have your boys with you, you’re still going to get confronted.
But to me, there’s one thing that Blacks did during that time that I think scared White people. This. [makes a fist and extends right arm] That changed the whole game.
Gamble: Black Power—that was as powerful as…who was the guy that ran the race when Adolf Hitler was there?
Huff: Jesse Owens.
Gamble: Jesse Owens! That was just as powerful, because Adolf Hitler couldn’t believe that a Black man could run that fast! [laughs] But the music, the music started to reflect the times. And we used to write songs based on that, but we took a new twist with it. We had a lot of songs that had social comments to them that kind of pictured that era. James Brown and “I’m Black and I’m Proud”—that was the big moment in Black America that helped unlock that final lock on Black people. I remember a time, going to school, that if somebody called you Black, it was time for a fight. They weren’t proud of being Black. So the world had changed.
And by the ’70s, Black was beautiful.
Gamble: Black was beautiful. It still is! [laughs] But that was the slogan. And the thing that people of African descent didn’t really realize is that the whole world admires African American people, because we don’t see ourselves like the world sees us. The four hundred years that it took for us to get to where we are, it has taken other groups of people who have been in less [oppressive] situations thousands of years to gain their mental freedom and make a place for themselves. But a lot of it has to do with the structure of the United States of America and the government and the laws in this land.
How did you ensure long-term success?
Gamble: Well, we were conservative. We’re still conservative. We invested. We made some good moves and some bad moves, but we were able to survive everything. From a business standpoint, I think the investments that we made in real estate, and owning our own masters and publishing, that gave us our strength. And saving money, because money is the hardest thing to get, so that should be the last thing you waste. It’s like an old guy Sam Evans used to tell me. He’d say, “Gamble, a fool and his money will soon be parted.” [laughs] And he was right. He lived to be 105.
Huff: And Benny Krass—“It ain’t how rich you are, [in unison with Gamble] it’s how long you stay that way.”
Who was Benny Krass?
Gamble: Benny Krass was a legend here in Philly. He had Krass Brothers clothing stores years and years ago. It used to be the store to the stars. All the groups that were playing the Uptown Theater used to come down and buy their uniforms from there. My mother used to take me down to South Street to buy my clothes, so I was going there since I was a little kid. And Benny wanted to sing, so me and Roland Chambers, we went over to his house one day and started rehearsing with him. He had some songs he had written, so he says, “I want you to record me.” So we made a deal with him. We said, “Okay, we’ll record you, but we want you to invest in some of these groups that we got.” That’s how we were able to get the whole thing going with Excel Records and the Intruders and all the other stuff.
Benny Krass was an astute businessman and a great marketing person. He used to have a slogan, “If you go, go in a Krass Brothers suit.”
Huff: [laughs] Then he’d lay down in the casket.
Gamble: His big one was, “If you didn’t buy your clothes from Krass Brothers, you been robbed.”
How did you stay so prolific?
Gamble: That’s the $64,000 question. I guess you have to be inspired. And your antennas have to be out, so that you’re watching everything and listening to everything people say. Then you write about it.
Let’s talk about some of your collaborators. I’ll start with Thom Bell.
Gamble: Tommy Bell, his sister Barbara was in my class at West Philly High School. She used to tell me about her brother, because I was always singing. I used to walk her home and everything, and when we got to the house, they had a piano in there. And we started writing some songs. I guess I was about sixteen. His family had a fish market, so Tommy couldn’t write songs all the time, because he had to work in that fish market cutting fish. But he trained himself. He trained himself and learned how to arrange, and he studied. He was a big asset to us with his arrangements and stuff like that. He and Linda [Creed] had their own career. We put them together.
Huff: Linda Creed, she’d say, “Come on, Leon, let’s write some stuff,” and I’d say, “I got to go in here with Gamble; I can’t do any writing today.” Linda was just floating around, but eventually Gamble got her to Tommy, and that worked.
Gamble: Me and Huff had signed Linda to a songwriter contract, so she was working with us. Tommy was like an independent when he first started working with us, but he needed somebody to write with. He was a good arranger and everything, but he needed somebody who could write lyrics, and Linda was the perfect person.
It’s funny, because there are a lot of people who can write music, but there aren’t a lot of people who can hear music.Leon Huff
Talk about Bobby Martin.
Huff: Bobby was from the big band era. He was doing arrangements for a lot of people, a lot of independent producers, but I really got to know him when we started doing our thing. I think Gamble knew him before I did.
Gamble: I met Bobby Martin up in West Philly. I was walking down Locust Street, about Fifty-fourth and Locust, and I heard a group in this house, singing. I just stood outside the house and said, “Damn, these cats sound good.” I went up and knocked on the door, and it was Bobby Martin’s house. [laughs] I think they were called the Dolls. That was the first time I met him. I told him I had some songs or whatever, and that’s how the relationship started. He and Morris Bailey and Leon Mitchell had a little office down here on Broad Street. Morris Bailey, he was talented too. He was a little abstract, but he was good.
Huff: During that era, everybody was trying to write songs and get into groups. Philly was just saturated with music and musicians. It was unique.
Gamble: And we had the right arrangers. Those arrangements were developed from the piano. We used to sit right in here and put a tape recorder on, and with Bobby Martin or whoever else was arranging our stuff, we would hum out the parts.
Huff: Gamble would sit right there and hum out every part.
Gamble: Every part, because I knew what was going on in the track. I knew the parts that me and Huff had already thought about when we were writing the songs. Man, I used to listen to those tracks a million times. I knew every little note in them.
Huff: And when it would come time for the session, if it was wrong, we’d correct it on the spot.
Gamble: Many times—we’d take the whole arrangement and just start from scratch.
Huff: From the head—we didn’t go to no Julliard or nothing.
Can you write music?
Huff: I don’t know anything about it. I know chords, but note for note, no. It’s funny, because there are a lot of people who can write music, but there aren’t a lot of people who can hear music. We were the ones who could hear the music and the sound that we wanted, and the melodies that we wanted to put into the tracks.
Huff: He was the technician. Joe was the man.
Gamble: He worked just as hard as we worked to make sure the fidelity of the music was what we wanted, because we would be on him. After working together for so many years, it became second nature, because he knew exactly what to do. It was hard for us to work with another engineer, because we would have to tell them we wanted a certain drum sound, a certain bass sound…
Huff: Joe to us was like a Bruce Swedien was to Quincy Jones. He was the only engineer we ever used, unless we went to California and did some recording.
Gamble: Which was uncomfortable—to be honest with you—going to other studios. It was uncomfortable. We were more comfortable when we were in our studio.
Huff: That was the best thing to ever happen to us, I think. The time that we were allowed to work at our own pace and didn’t have to look at the clock…you talk about a blessing? We had autonomy over our own creativity. In New York, you know, you had to do four songs in three hours.
Gamble: They’d say, “You got ten minutes!” And we’d have one more song to do. When we cut Jerry Butler up there, the first session we cut with him was “Lost.” I forget the other song, but we had three songs we wanted to do, and we only got two of them done. What was the guy’s name, Artie Butler?
Huff: Artie Kaplan.
Gamble: Artie Kaplan, there you go. Artie Kaplan was the contractor, and he said, “Man, these guys got another session.” Those musicians would give you three hours, and then they would go into another session.
Huff: They started packing up their cords, and packing up their stuff, and we’re still working!
Gamble: [laughs] We weren’t finished! But here, we were more relaxed, and the musicians got paid well, so they wanted it just as bad as we wanted it. We were secure in all of our own futures by getting hits, so everybody played hard.
Huff: I’m telling you, it was music heaven for a musician to come to a recording studio every day and play music that you really like. And you hear it in the music. Playing together every day, with the same musicians, you’re going to create a formula and certain sounds. We had the same rhythms except for a few drummers. The guitar players were basically the same…
Gamble: We had four guitar players—Roland Chambers, Norman Harris, Bobby Eli, and T. J. Tindall. All of them were different. They all had different sounds and different approaches. I think Norman and Roland were pretty much the closest, but Roland was a great rhythm guitar player, and Norman played the octaves, like the jazz octaves. He was the best at doing that. Bobby Eli, he always had a new gadget for a sound.
Huff: I remember he put the wah-wah in there.
Gamble: Yeah, he put the wah-wah in there! And we loved it. And T.J. was like a rock guitar player. He had that real hard-rock sound, which we used on quite a few things. T.J. was great.
Huff: And we had a real good organ player—Lenny Pakula. He knew the organ. It’s not like me sitting down to play the organ, because I’m a piano player. Lenny knew the stops and everything on that organ. He knew how to get the sound out of it. And we had vibes with Vince Montana, who was an authentic vibes player.
Gamble: Vince was percussion and vibes—he had all that stuff over there.
Huff: Earl Young on the drums. Earl was a killer drummer. We had Charles Collins…
Gamble: Ronnie Baker!
Huff: Ronnie Baker on bass. And a couple of outsiders used to come to Philadelphia and play too, like Anthony Jackson, this bass player from New York. He used to love to come down here and play. I think he was the bass player on [the O’Jays’] “For the Love of Money.”
Drum machines, they’re not as flexible as having a drummer. I think the new music is missing the human element.Kenneth Gamble
Gamble: And Larry Washington, who played the congas, he was great. Huff used to be on him all the time. [laughs] Hey, Huff, he used to hate to see you coming! [imitates Huff] “That’s the wrong pattern!”
Huff: I know! [laughs] “You’re playing too much, man!”
Gamble: But once he got it…
Huff: Oh yeah. He was a trooper though. Larry, he’s resting in peace now, but I think that was the brightest part of his whole career.
Gamble: All of them, man…everybody.
When Philly International had its roster of greats, you had Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Barry White, and many others among your peers. What has changed? Is there just not enough talent out there?
Gamble: I think the music changed.
Huff: Yeah, the music has changed a lot. You know where I mostly hear a lot of good singers? In the choirs in these churches. Sometimes, I’ll be channel-chasing on Sunday mornings and put on Bobby Jones on BET. Some of the singers in those groups? You talk about quality singing, it’s in the choir. When you’re talking about a female singer on the level of a Gladys Knight, that’s where I see them.
And they’re happy singing in the church and becoming better singers. In the music business, you’re expected to make money. Labels don’t spend time developing artists—taking good artists and making them better.
Gamble: That’s over. The artist development aspect is over. That was Motown’s thing—grooming artists—and that was our thing also. We had almost a twenty-five-year run with the O’Jays, and other artists too, who were with us for years. But today, it’s these big corporations, and what they’re looking for is immediate gratification. You either sell records, or they’re dropping you. There’s only one strike now. Ain’t no “three strikes and you’re out.” You either get a hit, or you get dropped.
The industry trapped itself into that. You know why? These corporations spend so much money, and they’re trapped in an economic policy where it costs so much to market and promote and record these acts and do all these things with these videos. There are huge budgets to put one of these artists out, so if you miss on an artist, you miss big. You might miss a couple of million dollars. So, do you take another shot with them? No—you get somebody new. Even though there was a lot of risk when we were doing things, I think that it was the songs that made the difference. We were song-focused, and I think that’s the best route in the industry, to be song-focused more than anything else. If you have a great song, that song is going to be around forever.
Huff: And music is the foundation of the songs. I always said that after the Motown era and the Philly International era, something powerful had to come behind that—especially after Philly International. So here come the machines, because we killed them with acoustics. You couldn’t top that. Nobody could top that, with all due respect, but they had to come up with something. So here comes the modern age of technology.
Gamble: What’s that movie about the machines coming, with Laurence Fishburne?
Gamble: [laughs] The Matrix! Drum machines, they’re not as flexible as having a drummer. I think the new music is missing the human element. The human element is sweat, the mistakes, the tempo fluctuations. A drum machine, you could just put it on, and we could travel to England, come back, and it’s still playing the same thing.
Huff: The dramatics, the high and the lows, as Gamble was saying, is the human element. That affected the day’s songs.
But sampling is evidence that a relationship between how the two can work. Look at what Kanye West did with Harold Melvin’s “Miss You” for Jay-Z’s “This Can’t Be Life”—both beautiful tracks.
Gamble: Yeah, that was great. We really like all those guys. I like the science of the hip-hop thing…
Huff: Like the root of a new flower.
Gamble: They took a lot of our music and sampled it. The hip-hop movement has been great to us, and it’s all good, because each generation has their own music, and that’s the music of today. I’m just glad that they pulled us into it by sampling our music. It just keeps us current.
Huff: And some of today’s production tries to make the human element and the machine compatible, make them be friendly to make music, which is good.
Gamble: The digital sound is great because it lends itself to the machines. Digital is just starting to improve itself from years ago, soundwise, and so it’s really starting to be able to record acoustic instruments as well as analog. A lot of people cut in analog and master in digital, just to get that spread on the sound.
All that you’ve accomplished for nearly the past fifty years has represented genres—blues, soul, jazz, funk, hip-hop—and both African American and music business culture. It’s unlikely that anyone will duplicate what people like you, Quincy, and Berry Gordy have done, but what would you say to someone who is ambitious enough to try?
Huff: You’ve got to be focused. And don’t be intimidated by hard work. We put in a lot of hours. We completely forgot about the outside world when we came into this building, and that studio. Today, if you really want to be great at what you do, you’ve got to put everything into perspective. Partying and all that, there’s a time for everything, but if you’re trying to focus on a career—especially music—you’ve got to be focused, and be willing to sacrifice time. That studio was working 24/7 every day, and we worked all night. You had to love it. Michael Jordan would have never won those championships if he hadn’t practiced. Michael Jordan didn’t party, he didn’t hang out, when he was in championship mode. Muhammad Ali wasn’t hanging out when he was on the road to becoming a champion. Discipline. We partied or whatever, don’t get me wrong, but we were in the studio that next morning at ten o’clock, no matter how late you stayed out. If you stay out late, when you come into the studio, you are automatically reenergized. And then we’d do it all over again. So I would say, total focus.
Gamble: And another thing I tell ’em—save your money. And get a job until you can make some money! Don’t be begging people for no money.
Huff: [laughs] I tell you, man, me and Gamble, we were very serious about our songwriting and producing. We weren’t thinking about getting rich, which they do today. They want to get rich overnight. That’s not it. We rehearsed dramatically. Getting tired? What was that? We didn’t even think about that. Responsibility came into play, and it all worked.