LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It didn’t seem prescient when they wrote the song 40 years ago, but “Only the Strong Survive” summarizes the career of soul-music luminaries Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.
The duo took over where Motown left off, dominating the pop charts during the 1970s with hit songs they wrote and produced for the likes of the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, the Intruders and the Stylistics
Gamble and Huff, as they are professionally known, helped popularize the “Philly Soul” sound of the decade through their label Philadelphia International Records, which is based to this day in the City of Brotherly Love.
They wrote or co-wrote about 3,000 songs during their heyday, still own the masters and copyrights, and keep busy licensing the tunes for use in movies, TV and commercials.
“Every time I turn around, my wife is hollerin’ ‘One of your songs is in the movies,’” Huff, 67, said in a recent interview with Reuters, sitting alongside Gamble.
One would have to try pretty hard to go through a week without hearing a Gamble and Huff tune on the radio or the screen. The catalog includes “Love Train” by the O’Jays, “When Will I See You Again” by the Three Degrees, Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” and Jerry Butler’s “Only the Strong Survive” (which Butler co-wrote).
And then there are the covers, whether it be Simply Red’s take on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” for which Gamble and Huff won a songwriting Grammy; Third World’s update of the O’Jays’ “Now That We’ve Found Love”; or the Rolling Stones performing “Love Train” during their recent tour.
Gamble and Huff also are taking time to receive industry accolades. They were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. They will on Tuesday receive the Icon Award for lifetime achievement from BMI, a performing rights group that collects royalties on behalf of songwriters and publishers.
Among the guests at the black-tie dinner will be Motown founder Berry Gordy. Gamble said the two labels were “complementary” rather than rivals. Indeed Motown act Thelma Houston had a big disco hit in 1976 with “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” which had been recorded the year before by the O’Jays.
“We were both amazed and inspired (by Motown),” said Gamble, 65. “We used the Motown blueprint. Whether they knew it or not they had a business model. We used that business model in order to structure Philly International.”
The key difference was that Motown was an independent label, whereas Philadelphia International had a lucrative marketing and distribution deal with CBS Records, now Sony Music. Sony last year released a four-disc Gamble and Huff boxed set, “Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia.”
“Motown drove the industry crazy, trying to get the drum sound, and the sound of their records,” added Huff. “We weren’t really into that. We always were confident in our creativity.”
What was the Gamble & Huff formula?
“We were looking at standard classic music that you would hear 30 years later,” Huff said. “The quality was what we were into. The artists that we signed had to have a certain quality of voice and talent.”
The duo’s emphasis was on the arrangement of songs, establishing an undeniable rhythm with lots of strings and horns. They helped lay the foundation for disco.
For all their success, Gamble and Huff are just happy that they’re still friends.
“We still can sit in a room and laugh and talk,” said Huff. “We outlasted a lot of teams.”
“Plus, we’re amazed at the growth of the world,” added Gamble. “Some people, they’re in the world but they don’t really see the world. A songwriter, he’s in the world. He’s watching everything that happens, whether it be large or small. He can make a song out if it, he can make a story out of it.”
Editing by Jill Serjeant