Just as Detroit, thanks mostly to Motown Record Corporation, came to be known for more than cars, Philadelphia gained a reputation for music, thanks primarily to Philadelphia International, the record company started by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
Before that, the City of Brotherly Love (and “Sisterly Affection,” as one songstress from Philly put it) was most closely associated with historical events and sites, such as Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
It is also where “American Bandstand” was introduced, a highly influential show on many levels.
But before we examine Philadelphia International, it must be noted that before its creation there was another prominent record company in Phiadelphia, Cameo-Parkway, that was a powerhouse, especially in the early 1960s.
Although many of the artists who recorded for Cameo-Parkway were Black, the label always had a pop slant. The hitmakers there included Chubby Checker, the Orlons, Bobby Rydell, the Dovells and Dee Dee Sharp. Later came Eddie Holman, Bob Seger, the Tymes and others.
Interestingly, in 1967 Dee Dee Sharp married record producer Kenny Gamble and in the ’70s recorded for Philadelphia International as Dee Dee Sharp Gamble.
LIKE MOTOWN, Philadelphia International had a stellar group of musicians, songwriters and producers. The musicians, comprising a full orchestra, developed a lush, distinctive sound, augmented by a trio of ladies often identified as the Sweethearts of Sigma. (The company recorded at Sigma Sound Studios.)
The Sweethearts were comparable to Motown’s Andantes, Atlantic Records’ Sweeet Inspirations and, on the West Coast, the Blossoms.
A number of the Philadelphia International musicians worked together as MFSB. In the spring of 1974 they had a No. 1 hit with “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).” This song was used as the theme music for “Soul Train” for several years. The group also reached No. 2 with “Sexy.”
Philadelphia International’s producers and writers included Gene McFadden, John Whitehead (who topped the charts as a duo with “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”), Thom Bell, Linda Creed, Dexter Wansel, Bunny Sigler and Norman Harris as well as Huff and Gamble.
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, as a production team, landed their first hit 1967 with “Expressway to Your Heart” by the Soul Survivors. They also wrote and produced for a number of other artists for various labels, including Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield, the Intruders and, most notably, Jerry Butler.
That was very nice, but it wasn’t as the same as having their own record label, something they envisioned early on. Philadelphia International was formed in 1971. Clive Davis, then head of CBS Records, knew a good thing when he heard it.
A DEAL WAS worked out for CBS to distribute Philadelphia International product. It proved to be a very smart (and, of course, lucrative) move, as the hits tumbled out by an impressive roster of artists, including the O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Three Degrees, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul, Lou Rawls, Jean Carne and Detroit’s own Jones Girls.
The long string of superhits and hits includes…
The O’Jays: “Back Stabbers,” “Love Train,” “Use Ta Be My Girl,” “For the Love of Money,” “Livin’ For the Weekend,” “I Love Music,” “Put Your Hands Together,” “Let Me Make Love to You.”
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Bad Luck,” “I Miss You,” “The Love I Lost,” “Wake Up Everybody,” “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” (featuring Sharon Paige).
The Three Degrees: “When Will I See You Again?” They also did the background vocals on MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).”
Teddy Pendergrass: “Close the Door,” “Love T.K.O.,” “Turn Off the Lights,” “You’re the Latest, My Greatest Inspiration,” “Come Go With Me,” “I Don’t Love You Anymore.”
Billy Paul: “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Let’s Make a Baby,” “Thanks For Saving My Life.”
Lou Rawls: “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” “See You When Get There,” “Lady Love,” “Groovy People,” “Sit Down and Talk to Me.”
Jean Carne: “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head,” “Free Love.”
Archie Bell & the Drells: “Let’s Groove.”
The Jones Girls: “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else,” “I Just Love the Man” and “Nights Over Egypt” as well as Shirley Jones’ “Do You Get Enough Love?”
Demonstrating their concern for the African-American community, it was arranged for a group of Philadelphia International artists to make a community service record.
“Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” climbed into the Top 10 in the summer of 1977. Identified for this project as the Philadelphia International All Stars, the record featured Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, the O’Jays, Archie Bell and Dee Dee Sharp Gamble.
Most of the artists on the Philadelphia International roster had recorded elsewhere previously, but for most it was a huge step forward.
For example, the O’Jays had been with a number of companies, having big hits sporadically, such as “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today),” “One Night Affair” and “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette).”
Lou Rawls was already a firmly established hitmaker, most notably with “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing,” “Dead End Street,” “Tobacco Road” and “A Natural Man.”
Archie Bell & the Drells had a No. 1 smash in 1968 with “Tighten Up,” returning to the Top 10 with “I Can’t Stop Dancing” and “There’s Gonna Be a Showdown.”
Dee Dee Sharp Gamble was famous for “Mashed Potato Time” (as Dee Dee Sharp).
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff also produced hits apart from their own record company, such as Joe Simon (“Drowning in the Sea of Love”) and the Jacksons (“Show You the Way to Go”).
Thanks largely to Gamble and Huff, Philadelphia stands tall musically, with a “sound” and tradition, alongside Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Miami and Nashville.