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The Mighty Three Story, Part Three: Opening Doors

By Duncan Payne | 09 November 2016

A continuation of Duncan Payne's look at the early musical lives of Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell of Philadelphia soul fame.

The times were a-changing in 1964 on the US music scene. Record buyers were being wooed and wowed by the British invasion led by The Beatles and the Detroit beat of Motown appealed to all races. Soul was breaking big.

Record companies that hadn't caught on quickly were suffering. Philadelphia's own Cameo Parkway, the largest independent record company in the States had seen sales dwindle. Swan, the label which had provided an outlet for Jerry Ross & Kenny Gamble compositions, was on a slippery slope.

Cameo Parkway had been a closed shop with no access for many aspiring Philly musicians but supremo Bernie Lowe knew he needed to act. He opened doors previously shut, particularly to the Black community. Thom Bell, answering an ad for a sheet writer - a tiresome task but someone had to do it - got his feet inside the door.
 Lowe was growing tired of Motown's success and realised he needed a Black rhythm section at Cameo Parkway. He approached Bell, presumably because he couldn't see beyond his skin colour, to put together a group. Thom knew nothing about rhythm sections but he took on the task anyway. Musicians he remembered from High School and from his friendship with Kenny Gamble led to brothers Roland Chambers (guitar), Karl Chambers (drums) and Win Wilford (bass) coming on board to team up with pianist Bell. They called themselves The Romeos. Bell also got his first songwriting credit when Chubby Checker's 'The Weekend Is Here' appeared on the b-side of his 'Lovely, Lovely' single late in the year.

Meanwhile, Leon Huff was busier than ever, doing studio session work, composing and gigging. His first artist credit had come the previous year on the b-side of the Pervis Herder 'Soul City' single on Jamie, an instrumental version credited to Leon (Fingers) Huff & His Orchestra. Production team Madara-White, whose records were frequently issued on Mercury, signed him as songwriter, supposedly an exclusive deal and Huff saw some of his compositions recorded and released as singles by The Pixies Three, teen idol Dean Christie and The Three Jokers.

Huff, however, took no notice of the fact that it was meant to be an exclusive deal and began writing for others as well, including B&L Productions. These extracurricular compositions would have gone unnoticed by Madara-White until one of them hit big!

Huff played piano with a group called Patty & The Emblems and one of their songs which he wrote, 'Mixed-Up, Shook-Up, Girl', was taken to B&L Productions who got it released on the Herald label. It became a big hit in the summer of '64, reaching #13 R&B and #37 Pop. David White and John Madara weren't best pleased when they discovered what Huff had been up to and the legal outcome was that they were entitled to a sizable share of the royalties.

Apart from writing other songs for the likes of Dusty Springfield and Peggy March, a huge part of Huff's musical education had also taken place when he worked with Phil Spector. Spector's famed 'Wall of Sound' must have left a deep imprint, particularly when you hear his later work with Kenny Gamble on PIR, the multi-layered songs echoing what Spector had created in the sixties.

Gamble, meanwhile, was his busy networking self. The dying Swan and the opening doors of Cameo Parkway led to himself and his mentor Jerry Ross taking advantage of the new opportunity. Cameo's The Swans swiftly had a topical minor hit on with 'The Boy With The Beatle Hair' (co-written by Ross & Gamble) which peaked at #85.

Kenny had other reasons to set foot in Cameo Parkway, however. One of their biggest artists was Dee Dee Sharp and his feelings towards her were far from honourable. Not taking no for an answer, he eventually won her around with his promise of songs for her, one of which she recorded later in the year, 'He's No Ordinary Guy' being on the flip side of her single 'Never Pick A Pretty Boy'.

Now part of the Cameo Parkway framework, Gamble discovered The Romeos and wormed his way in to become their leader and singer, not only on sessions but also eventually at gigs including a regular spot as the house band at a popular Camden night spot.

Gamble was also learning the art of producing and arranging through Ross but his thirst for studio knowledge led to him taking things a stage further when he befriended Cameo Parkway's studio engineer Joe Tarsia. As his knowledge grew, his fondness for working with Ross diminished, particularly in the songwriting department as he was outgrowing writing bland Pop ditties and outdated R&B for The Sapphires and Barbara English. But Jerry Ross still had his uses and when he got a production deal with Columbia, he took Kenny with him. Ross knew Gamble still had dreams of being a singer and an album was recorded although it was never released. Columbia saw Gamble as a Johnny Mathis-type crooner but the truth was there was no room in the marketplace for a Black singer of this ilk. All Gamble had to show for his efforts was a 45 'You Don't Know What You Got Until You Lose It' backed with 'Our Love'. It bombed and Gamble's dreams of being a singing star weren't drawing any closer.

A pivotal moment in the Gamble & Huff story came in the late summer of '64. One of Ross and Gamble's best compositions, 'The 81', a stomping Soul tune which borrowed heavily from Detroit was recorded by Candy & The Kisses. Huff played piano on the tune and it was around this time that Gamble decided that he wanted to work with him as a fellow songwriter. With 'The 81' heading up the charts to #19 R&B and #51 Pop, it became an urban legend, perpetuated by the pair, ,that they met in an elevator at the Schubert Building (Gamble writing songs for Cameo Parkway on one floor, Huff for Madara and White on another) whereupon Kenny asked Leon if he wrote songs. Apart from the fact that Huff had appeared on several sessions recording songs that Gamble had co-written with Ross (Huff even co-wrote the b-side of 'The 81'), surely the sponge-like brain of Kenny Gamble must have known that Leon had written the big Patty & The Emblems track earlier in the year?

With his relationship with Ross almost at an end, Gamble wrote a couple of minor hits for Nella Dodds by himself but was itching to work with Huff. By the end of the year he finally got the chance when they decided to work for the local Dynodynamics production company fronted by some key figures on the Philadelphia Soul scene including Weldon McDougal, Jimmy Bishop, Luther Randolph and Johnny Stiles, at Frank Virtue's studio. The story was just beginning.

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