Gamble-Huff, Thom Bell and the Philly Groove By Pete Wingfield
Originally published in "Let It Rock"
Date of publication: January 1973
On a balmy night in the late summer of ’67, while the world was wearing flowers in its hair, I was sinking into my seat, trying to look inconspicuous amid hordes of black schoolkids and young mums in the middle of the stalls at the Uptown Theatre, Philadelphia Pa., two hours from the Big Apple by the mighty Greyhound. Philly, Doo Wop City: and the four young guys slithered around the stage, processes glistening as bright as their patent leathers, wearing orange suits with navel-length jackets and tapered bottoms so superthin that, embarrassingly, their underwear showed through and ominous dark patches were appearing in the armpit region. They were direct descendants of those early, unwitting acapella pioneers, and were second on the bill (the Tempts were on top), riding high on a national hit with ‘Cowboys To Girls’ — I think — and they were singing it unerringly at the Uptown five times a day, seven days a week. The group was called the Intruders. In winter of ’72, the wheel has turned full circle. The Intruders have created another monster, ‘She’s A Winner’, and it’s on the same label, Gamble. Both songs, and all the hits in between, were produced and composed by two men, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, at one studio, Sigma Sound, 212 N.12th St. Now, some forty million singles since they kicked off together, the duo and their associates have made the City of Brotherly Love shine stronger than ever before on the musical map. Not that it’s ever been exactly dim. In ’56, local entrepreneur Dick Clark started a lip-sync TV show, soon networked through A.B.C., which enjoyed a heyday in the late fifties/early sixties, allowing Philly talent a golden opportunity for nationwide exposure, offering Dick Clark a golden opportunity for managers’ backhanders, and ensuring that the city was always represented in force on the Hot 100 — at least until the English takeover in ‘64/’65. (Amazingly, American Bandstand survives to this day).
The situation spawned outfits like Bob Marcucci’s dreaded Chancellor Records, happily inflicting handsome non-talents like Fabian and Frankie Avalon on an eager public; such influential D.J.s as Jerry Blovat ‘the creator with the heater’, and Georgie Woods, ‘the guy with the goods’; and the vastly successful Cameo-Parkway label, home of the dance crazes, whose boss Bernie Loewe gave us Ernest Jenkins, alias Chubby Checker (did he really marry a Miss World?), the Orlons, (‘South Street’, ‘Don’t Hang Up’), the Dovells (‘Bristol Stomp’), Bobby Rydell (‘We Got Love; ‘Wild One’), all of whom had some measure of chart action in the U.K., and Dee Dee Sharp, (‘Mashed Potato Time’, ‘Gravy’). Dee Dee, born Dionne LaRue, is Mrs. Kenny Gamble now; he’d written and produced a song or two for her on Cameo in 1960. Leon Huff, a pianist from across the bridge in Camden, New Jersey, with work for Quincy Jones in N.Y. and a one-off national hit by home-town group Patti and the Emblems under his belt, met Gamble, from South Philly, when the latter was working on and off for renowned shrewd operator Jerry Ross (recently of Bill Deal and the Rhondells fame). Pooling their experience and hope, Gamble and Huff set about going for themselves. Kenny had already laid a foundation for success to come by forming a group, Kenny and the Romeos; himself on vocals, Roland Chambers, from Marvin Gaye’s band, on guitar, session organist Thom Bell and Earl Young, who’d played drums for Stevie Wonder.
It’s these very guys that now form the backbone of the city’s music industry, for they and a few others take care of the vital rhythm track on virtually every Philly-made hit. The Intruders (naturally!) sang on the first independent Gamble-Huff creation, ‘Gonna Be Strong’ on Excel, but the G-H sound really dates from their second, the same group’s ‘United’, Gamble Records’ initial release. It was a respectable hit — even came out here, on London — with a trendsetting production, unusual for its time, employing swirling strings, cascading harps, and above all, vibes. As bells are to Spector, so are vibes (usually handled by one Vince Montana) to Gamble and Huff. Since then, the sound has been polished to a fine art, but the seeds were right there in ‘United’. Later, less successful singles bore no resemblance to all this — the Madmen (Gamble 212) had an obscure goodie with lunatic sax on ‘African Twist’ and Bobby Marchan, of all people, lead singer on the classic Huey Smith New Orleans rockers, did a comical funky rap about the make-up — ‘Ain’t No Reason For Girls To Be Lonely’ (Gamble 216); but G-H’s trump card lay with the Intruders trite but endearing odes to city teenery: ‘Me Tarzan, You Jane’… ‘Love Is Like A Baseball Game’... ‘Who’s Your Favourite Candidate’. The titles speak for themselves.
As well as taking care of Gamble Records, the duo was working on a production company basis for major labels. Atlantic, hot with a master from Houston by Archie Bell and the Drells, forestalled the group’s certain destiny as one-hit wonders by handing them over to Gamble and Huff, who obliged with a near-unbroken string of hits over the ’67-’69 period (one of their oldies is, even as I write, in the British Twenty!); and Mercury got 2 1/2 albums’ worth from G-H’s collaboration with "the Iceman", Jerry Butler: gems like ‘Only The Strong Survive’, ‘Never Give You Up’, and ‘Brand New Me’, just kept on a-coming, till Gamble and Huff got to carping over royalty percentages. For many, the Butler material marks a creative peak in G-H’s output thus far. Floundering after the demise of his previous label, Vee-Jay, and sliding reluctantly into a second-rate supperclub act, Jerry found the ideal complement for his relaxed vocals in the duo’s sparkling production, and sophisticated yet hip arrangements furnished by regulars Bobby Martin and Thom Bell. Such was the success of the team who, like Motown, relied on staff writers for strong original material, that a set of sessions at Sigma Sound became a kind of refresher course for artists in a musical or commercial rut. Atlantic sent Wilson Pickett (whose first G-H single, ‘Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You’, earned his first certified gold disc), the Sweet Inspirations, even Dusty Springfield.
With the Intruders and Gamble Records temporarily quiet in ’69, G-H launched a new logo, Neptune, distributed through Chess and the GRT corporation, which before collapsing the following year put out some great sides by Sigler, the Vibrations, and the oft-recorded O’Jays — as well as a couple of killers by the late Linda Jones with George Kerr producing. Annoyed at Neptune’s relative failure, and sure that the music was all there in the grooves, Gamble and Huff started yet another company, Philadelphia International, this time through CBS/Columbia, which, with good distribution, scored straight off with the Ebonys’ ‘You’re The Reason Why’ and hasn’t looked back since. The past year has brought two million-sellers ‘Back Stabbers’, from the O’Jays, returning to the G-H fold, and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes’ ‘I Miss You’. So what’s the secret? After all, Sigma Sound has no special assets. The sleeve notes to the Neptune LP O’Jays In Philadelphia describe it as ‘unhiplooking’ and the horn and strings are invariably local union dads. No, its’ the rhythm section — the erstwhile Romeos, plus Ronnia Baker on bass, Leon Huff himself of piano, additional guitarist Bobby Eli and Norman Harris, and sometimes Len Pakula on organ, that have the magic musically. Earl Young, for instance, will often lay off everything but hi-hat pedal and bass-drum till the first ‘hook’ chorus, say a third of the way through a track, giving it a characteristic lift when he finally bursts in. Huff has an interesting percussive style with a tasty line in boogie left hand (check out the O’Jays’ ‘Looky Looky’). Roland Chambers, if indeed it is him, leans on light, octave-based, Wes Montgomery-esque lines to convey an impression of effortless swing. Meanwhile back in the control room, Kenny G. and engineer Joe Tarsia put their individual touch on what’s coming through the monitors: punchy horns against smooth strings, imaginative percussion — claves, woodblocks, etc. — to beef things up, and that great drum sound, copiously spiced with echo. (And hell, a good gimmick always comes in useful — like the traffic noises that herald the Soul Survivors’ ‘Expressway To Your Heart’, or the race track effects at the start of the new Intruders, ‘She’s A Winner’). What comes out of all this is an airy, bouncy kind of a sound; tight, but not in the sense of clean and compact, as one might apply the word to Southern funk from Memphis or Muscle Shoals. And, like Motown again, custom-made for car radios.
Way down the bill that night in ’67 at the Uptown was a local trio, lisping slightly and resplendent in rose pink, the high-voiced lead singer mildly camping it up, to the audience’s delight. By a year after that show, the Delfonics were Philly’s hottest act. This was largely thanks to one man — composer, arranger, and producer for the group Thom (Tommy) Bell, the third of the mighty triumvirate that now rules Philadelphia. While still working often for G-H and associates as arranger (he did those absurd ‘Back Stabbers’ charts), Bell created his own label, Philly Groove, distributed (confusingly) through Bell Records, exclusively for the Delfonics, notching up a run of hits that only stopped a few months ago when the group split with him, lamely carrying on under his partner, manager Stan Watson. Thom’s songs are intricate and satisfying. He often will plant rich, moody intros only to change to a different key and tempo when the song comes in; or lay out the verse in an unrelated key to the chorus. ‘I’m Sorry’, ‘Break Your Promise’, ‘Ready Or Not, Here I Come’, ‘You Get Yours And I’ll Get Mine’, and for my money the best record of its type ever to emerge from Philly — the cataclysmic ‘Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time’. Every one was a short but grandiose epic, hugely commercial but at the same time ambitious and unarguably solid in musical conception. William Hart, lead singer with the group, would come up with the lyrics. Slight and unimportant in themselves, it was the soulful whine he delivered them in that mattered. But Thom Bell took care of biz on everything else: panoramic arrangements leaning heavily on instruments traditionally not used in R&B, like shimmering celli and Wagnerian French horns.
A lost LP track — ‘How Could You’ on the Didn’t I album, is surely one of T.B.’s great moments. Beautiful, spinetingling self-indulgence as a series of changes is repeated hypnotically, with increasing intensity, for five minutes, electric sitar in the lead over a hefty backbeat, with the voices coming in, softly, on the fourth minute. In 1971, on the Delfonics departure, Thom Bell didn’t blink an eyelid. Guided by Hugo and Luigi’s Avco Records to a local Philly group, the Stylistics, just off a minor hit on a small label with ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’, he moved to even greater heights both artistically and in terms of success proportionate to product, for the Stylistics’ album yielded no less than four single gold records. It was the Delfonics revisited, and more. Russell Thompkins Jnr., lead singer, has perhaps an even finer falsetto than Hart (this time out one Linda Creed does the words): he explained to me on a recent U.K. visit that Thom Bell goes through each song round a piano with the group, sketching out harmonics and topline, cuts a basic track with rhythm section, brings the group into the studio briefly for a few hours to add the vocal, then gets to work himself on the ‘sweetening’. Next thing the Stylistics themselves know, the record is out! One could well criticize such a process, on grounds of ‘conveyor-belt soul’. But Lord, I’m not about to complain when the end result is so exquisite. Bell’s work on his own songs has the edge for me over the Gamble-Huff stuff. He goes for a different sound. Though using the same musicians, studio, and engineer, he somehow contrives to make the final mix more integrated, with less sense of overdubbing and a greater corporate identity. He’s as capable at the board as with the baton, churning out ingenious, even moving arrangements that are creamy but never sickly. Totally committed until recently to the fly-by-night 3-minute single, designed for saturation AM airplay and swift obscurity, men like Gamble, Huff and Bell have turned handicap to advantage by making almost every master a complete, concise statement in itself. But up to the last few months G-H and cohorts remained to the rock consumer remote, unfashionable figures. Happily, though, all three men are riding their current crest of a wave on singles without compromise.
Bell’s output with the Stylistics (he’s also started to work with the Spinners) has got to be his best ever, track for track, whilst the O’Jays and H. Melvin smashes are among the most soulful sides put together by Gamble and Huff. No way are any of them flagging. (An attempt by G-H in 1970 to broaden their market via a 5th-Dimension type ‘class’ group, the New Direction, was a dismal flop. Similarly, for example, Stax’s pop product is notoriously unsuccessful. Moral: do what you do do good!). You won’t find any blues, not much country either, in Philadelphia; but it’s the acknowledged center for Northern black gospel and birthplace with N.Y., of corner-boy vocal groups. So it annoys me when rock experts seeking ‘roots’ should dismiss the things coming out of Sigma Sound as being too ephemeral and superficial, when the Philly men’s respect for an inspiration from these origins is undoubted. Why the Intruders had a hit in ’69 with a faithful revival of the Dreamlovers’ ‘We’re Gonna Get Married’! Outsiders, unfamiliar with the idiom, can bypass it as not "hard" enough, or laugh at the piercing falsetto, originated by the old ‘bird’ groups like the Flamingoes and used by artists like Hart and Thompkins. But it is part of a living tradition, adopted without self-consciousness and as absorbing as anything in blues or country music. The records stand up by any contemporary standard in pop as a whole. To my mind at least, today’s lush backdrops and technologically perfect productions extend, rather than smother, that tradition. I know, in these enlightened times, the black original still remains unnoticed until and unless copied in the white market — how else are the Osmonds as big as the Jackson Five?
But the dwindling mass of punters who still wear blinkers making them blind to uptown soul, are missing the point, and a lot of wonderful music.
© Pete Wingfield, 1973