NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three years after The O’Jays were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the two men who wrote and produced their biggest hit, “Love Train,” will be joining them on Monday.
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the architects of the Philly Soul sound of the 1970’s, will be the first recipients of the Ahmet Ertegun Award, in memory of the late co-founder of Atlantic Records.
“It’s a dream come true for me because I always wanted to become a songwriter,” Huff said in a recent interview with Reuters.
Performers like the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Intruders, the Three Degrees, Jerry Butler, Lou Rawls and Dee Dee Sharp recorded Gamble and Huff songs and made Philadelphia the capital of soul after Motown left Detroit and Memphis’ Stax Records withered.
Along with “Love Train,” their biggest hits were Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” the theme for the television dance show “Soul Train,” “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” Simply Red’s version of which earned Gamble and Huff the Best R&B Song Grammy.
The two are responsible for 70 No. 1 pop and R&B singles, 175 gold, platinum and multi-platinum records, five Grammys and more than 3,500 songs to date.
“I have seen the power of music and it is real,” Gamble said. “A great song’s got to make people feel good. When all the elements come together and you say, ‘Turn that up a little bit.’
“Some songs might have hardly any words like ‘shoo-bop, shoo-bop’ with a good groove and be number one.”
For Huff, a good song can also pull the heartstrings. “I’ve been at parties and one of our songs came on and I watched this girl crying. It was ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by the O’Jays,” he said.
“It’s a powerful force — to stir up someone’s inner emotions,” Gamble said. “You write a song that makes them reflect back to a break-up or whatever. There’s some gospel songs that will make you get up and run around the church.”
The pair, both 64, originally got together 45 years ago, in a band, The Romeos, playing clubs in Philadelphia.
“We performed everything,” Gamble said. “All the Top 10 records — Marvin Gaye, Chuck Jackson, The Temptations, anything. Anybody had a hit, we did it. But we would rearrange them.
“We had a comedian, dancers, go-go girls. And the band was so good that The Intruders used to come over, the Delfonics, Bunny Sigler, Harold Melvin. You’d have local artists come by just to hear us and they would ask: ‘Can we do a number?”‘
When the band broke up, the pair had the connections to move onto writing and producing. “Writing was spontaneous,” Huff said. “We came up with five or six songs in that first sitting. We was rattlin’ them off just like that!
“Titles can come out of conversation. I might get them out of books or papers or I might hear someone say something.”
“Most of all we write specifically for an artist,” Gamble said. “You would have that artist in your mind when you write.”
One of their biggest songs came about when they were playing a restaurant and noticed an older man coming in regularly with a younger woman. “I knew the man and I knew this woman was not the woman he was supposed to be with,” Huff said.
“And Gamble said, ‘He was in here yesterday with the same woman,’ that must be Mr. and Mrs. Jones.”
“Love Train” meanwhile, was just a catchy title that came out at a time of the Vietnam War and the peace movement. “Gamble was dancing on his seat when I played it,” Huff said.
“That song is relevant today because it’s the same people we got in that song still doing the same crazy stuff,” Gamble said.
Editing by Michelle Nichols and Bill Trott