Johnny Mercer Award

Kenneth Gamble

Born in Philadelphia on August 11, 1943, Kenny Gamble was always surrounded by music, and spent much of his youth working in the music industry. He cut his first records at local penny arcade recording booths, brought coffee to WDAS morning radio personalities Georgie Woods and Jimmy Bishop, and operated his own record store in South Philadelphia. In the early 1960’s, his harmony group, “Kenny Gamble and the Romeos,” had a regional hit with “Ain’t It Baby, Pt.1.” The Romeos’ lineup—which included songwriter Thom Bell and guitarist Roland Chambers—would establish a decades-long association between Kenny Gamble and his songwriting/producing partner, Leon Huff.

Gamble and Huff quickly discovered their shared love of songwriting and composing. “When me and Huff first got together,” Kenny remembers, “the first time we wrote, we must have wrote ten songs. We were writing some songs for another group, the Sapphires. Ten songs in one sitting. And it’s been like that ever since.”

From that point onward, Gamble and Huff became the hottest independent R&B producing team of the late 1960’s. After some early successes with their own homemade labels, Gamble and Huff created “Philadelphia International Records” in 1971. Following a conversation with then-CBS Records president Clive Davis, PIR secured a distribution deal through America’s largest record label. Within a year of PIR first opening its doors, the O’Jays had #1 R&B and pop hits including “Backstabbers” and “Love Train”; Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes were riding high with “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”; and Billy Paul earned the label’s first Grammy with “Me and Mrs. Jones.”

During the early 1970’s, Philadelphia International Records was a dominant force in the R&B and pop music industries. By 1974, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell (the partners in PIR’s music publishing company, Mighty Three Music) placed over 25 songs on the pop and R&B charts, making Mighty Three Music the biggest-selling music publishing company of the year. Two years after its creation, Philadelphia International was the second-largest African-American-owned music company in America, just behind Motown. And CBS Records was now distributing more soul music than at any time in the company’s previous history.

One of Kenny Gamble’s proudest moments in Philadelphia International history involves a song and album he recorded with the entire PIR roster, “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto.” The project featured the vocal talents of Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul, the O’Jays, Lou Rawls, The Intruders, Dee Dee Sharp and Archie Bell. Young people were hired to pick up garbage, paint over graffiti, and sweep dirty street in their neighborhood. The successful project was initially endorsed by the mayors of Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis and Atlanta, then adopted by states throughout America. Among the proclamations the project received, one was from Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp, who reserved one week in August each year for “Clean Up The Ghetto Week.”

The “Clean Up The Ghetto” campaign evolved into the realization of a special personal dream for Kenny Gamble: the renovation of his South Philadelphia neighborhood. With his Universal Companies, Gamble gave his old neighborhood a new lease on life. He opened a successful restaurant at 15th and Christian
streets; after five years, it became a more successful bookstore. He purchased over 100 condemned and vacant properties, and provided construction jobs to local residents to fix up the properties – which are then rented to low-income and middle-income families. The area framed by Broad and 18th and Christian and South Streets is now thriving, thanks to the efforts of Kenny Gamble.

“The Universal Companies encourage economic growth that will help resurrect some of the small businesses in the area,” said Kenny in 1999. “The Universal Business Center is a place where small businesses can have a support system to help them thrive. We have the Universal Institute Charter School, which is an option to public education through the charter school system, which opened in September 1999 with 300 students. We have the Universal Community Employment Training Center,
which has programs for adults to teach them job skills and provide job placement. It’s one thing to build a house, but we’re doing substantially more than that – we’re rebuilding a neighborhood and rebuilding the people in the neighborhood, so they can sustain the neighborhood. If we know better, we do better.”

Kenny Gamble’s charitable contributions are not limited to his neighborhood. He has provided contributions and support to the T.J. Martell Leukemia Foundation and the AMC Cancer Research Center and Hospital (when the latter organization honored Gamble with their Humanitarian Award in 1980, it was the first time that their award was bestowed upon and African-American individual). He also sits on the board of directors of the Philadelphia Music Foundation, whose goal is to honor the
legacy and accomplishments of singers, songwriters and musicians from the City of Brotherly Love. Gamble and Huff and the PIR catalog have been bestowed with countless accolades and honors including the 1999 Trustees Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS & the Grammy Foundation) for their “significant contributions…to the field of recording.” As prolific songwriters for a host of artists, Gamble and Huff were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994. For their historic contributions to dance, soul and disco music, Gamble and Huff were inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in September 2005. Gamble-Huff artists and productions have received multiple awards from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. Gamble and Huff were recipients of the prestigious Ivor
Novello Award, presented in London by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, in 2006. 45 years after the duo’s very first collaborations, Gamble and Huff were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the newly-named Ahmet Ertegun Award (formerly the “non-performer category”), on March 10, 2008.

In November of 2010, Gamble and Huff were honored by the City of Philadelphia with the renaming of the block of South Broad Street they made famous to “people all over the world” as “Gamble & Huff Walk” in a special ceremony. “We are truly blessed that the City of Philadelphia, which has inspired so many of our message songs
throughout the decades, and which we are proud to say has been our home for so many years, feels we are worthy of such an honor,” said Gamble & Huff. “This is beyond our wildest dreams. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Even with all these awards and accolades, Kenneth Gamble continues to write songs everyday, collaborating both with his longtime partner, Leon Huff, and developing other writers and producers in the Philadelphia area. With his current focus to improve the lives of others through his personal multimillion dollar investment back into the African-American community, his personal decision to move his wife Faatimah, his sons Caliph and Salahdeen and his daughter Princess Idia family back into his old neighborhood, Kenneth Gamble continues to make a difference both in music and life.