Anyone who believes the 1970s were a musical wasteland clearly didn't have their ears turned toward Philadelphia.
From the O'Jays ("Love Train," "Back Stabbers") to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes ("The Love I Lost," "If You Don't Know Me by Now") in the era of Watergate and platform shoes, no region created more passionate, vital, and soulful music than the City of Brotherly Love. If Motown was the self-proclaimed "Sound of Young America" in the 1960s, then Philadelphia fashioned the sound of urban America. Its architects -- Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell -- created what author John A. Jackson calls "a multilayered, bottom-heavy brand of sophistication and glossy urban rhythm and blues, characterized by crisp, melodious harmonies backed by lush, string-laden orchestrations and a hard-driving rhythm section.
In other words, to borrow a famous line from another Philadelphia-born institution -- "American Bandstand" -- it had a great beat, and you could dance to it.
Yet as Jackson concludes in his well-researched book, "A House on Fire," the music mostly produced by Philadelphia International Records also represented "pop music's last great independent 'hit factory.' "
Neither Gamble nor Huff consented to interviews. Still, Jackson more than compensates with interviews from dozens of other key players, including Bell, who worked as an independent producer with such groups as the Spinners ("I'll Be Around") and Stylistics ("Betcha By Golly, Wow"). Trained as a classical pianist, Bell met the Philadelphia-born Gamble in high school, and soon the two were writing songs together, and dreaming of careers in music, though Gamble imagined he would make it as a singer.
Huff taught himself to play piano. After high school, he began traveling to New York to work as a session player. But it was back in Philadelphia where he impressed Gamble with what Jackson describes as a "rollicking, staccato-like boogie-woogie piano groove."
In between the stories of these three men, Jackson considers the broader tale of African-American ambitions and aspirations in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Gamble, Huff, and Bell entered the music industry. The trio "used their black inner-city neighborhood as a metaphor for the struggle for human dignity and developed a black-owned empire," he writes. With Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. as a blueprint, they succeeded in creating music with crossover appeal that found favor with both pop and R&B audiences.
Unfortunately, they may have followed Gordy's path a little too closely. Gamble and Huff were hard-driving taskmasters whose perfectionism drove some of their employees -- session musicians, background singers, and engineers -- to the brink of physical collapse. And, of course, there were money problems, as Gamble and Huff were often accused of shortchanging their artists. Perhaps no story here is as poignant as that of singer Teddy Pendergrass. First as the lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and later as the label's biggest solo star, Pendergrass made millions for the company. Yet not long after he was paralyzed in a 1982 car accident, Gamble and Huff terminated the singer's contract.
"Coming when it did, Gamble and Huff's decision to cut loose the artist at the time of his greatest need, particularly after he had single-handedly kept them in business the last few years, seemed particularly heartless," Jackson writes. Unfortunately, the only statements from Pendergrass are taken from his autobiography, since he did not respond to Jackson's requests for an interview.
Jackson subtitled his book, "The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul," and the decline of Philadelphia International was predictably ignominious, undone by egos, competition, and the disco backlash, which swept away a number of black musicians who weren't really disco artists at all. Still, though the label ceased to be a hit-making powerhouse in the 1980s, its musical and cultural influence remains profound. Nelly sampled Patti LaBelle's "Love, Need, and Want You," cowritten by Gamble, for his 2002 hit, "Dilemma," with Kelly Rowland. "The Rubberband Man," a huge hit for the Spinners cowritten by Bell, has been featured in a TV ad for an office supply chain. And The O'Jays "For the Love of Money," cowritten by Gamble and Huff, is the opening theme for NBC's "The Apprentice."
In recent years, the city has also enjoyed a musical renaissance through such artists as Jill Scott, the Roots, and Musiq. But Philadelphia will always be best remembered for the brief but mighty reign of Gamble, Huff, and Bell, who for a time in the 1970s, Jackson writes, were able to use their music "to overcome the country's racial divisions and make skin color irrelevant."