How Philadelphia International Records revolutionized Black music

As Blacks in 1960s America fought for equitable space in society, Black culture followed in kind—particularly Black music.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, there was a renaissance of Black artists in the mainstream coming from labels marked with their own distinctive sound. Stax Records out of Memphis had a lock on Southern gospel, funk, and blues with Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Motown reigned supreme with Berry Gordy’s effortless blend of pop and soul shepherded by titans, such as The Supremes, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Jacksons, and Stevie Wonder.

Then there was Philadelphia International Records, which pioneered the lush orchestration of rhythm and blues that became known as Philly Soul. Within PIR’s groundbreaking sound, there was also a larger mission of elevating the Black community—all of which deserves a closer look during the label’s 50th anniversary this year.

Philadelphia International Records was founded in 1971 by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. What started as a scrappy outfit out of Philly turned into a powerhouse after the label inked a distribution deal with Columbia/CBS Records. During the course of its run, PIR churned out culture-defining records such as Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,”  The O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers,” and Patti LaBelle’s “If Only You Knew.”

What’s more, Gamble and Huff were adamant in amplifying their catalog of crowdpleasers with more message-driven anthems—something Gordy at Motown purposefully sidestepped as a way to curry favor with white audiences.

Gamble & Huff [Photo: courtesy of Philadelphia International Records]

“I want to say this and be very tactful: Motown is low-hanging fruit—everybody knows Motown,” says Philadelphia-native producer DJ Jazzy Jeff. “Everybody knows PIR, but they don’t know that they do. I feel like Philly International doesn’t get the recognition that they should, but then I have to back off of that because you get the recognition from who is most important. I don’t really know too many music heads that don’t know Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their contributions to everything.”

All the Black music scenes of 50 years ago made their mark in some way and served as vehicles for advancing Black artists and culture, whether it be Motown or Stax. But it’s worth unpacking what made PIR a truly radical and progressive force for the Black community and Black music—and how that still resonates today.

Philadelphia freedom

PIR formed under the auspicious collision of talent and cultural timing.

Gamble and Huff met by chance on an elevator while they were both working in Philly’s Shubert Building, writing songs for local production companies. The two clicked and soon became an inseparable creative force.

“It was like a magical moment,” Gamble says. “He and I both had the same vision about being able to express ourselves. That was the number one thing, that we saw the world the same way. When we started writing songs, it was so easy.”

“So when I sat down at the piano,” Huff adds, “the way Gamble was coming up with lyrics off the top of his head, that became a powerful connection and that collaboration just grew. We wrote every day.”

In the run-up to launching PIR in 1971, Philly’s music scene was undergoing an evolution that created a favorable atmosphere for the label to thrive.

Dick Clark’s American Bandstand launched in Philadelphia in 1956 and became highly influential, in that it catered specifically to teenagers at the advent of rock ‘n’ roll—specifically, white teenagers.

“Black musicians and artists in Philly in the early sixties were trying to break into the business, and they couldn’t get through the door, literally,” says John A. Jackson, author of A House On Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul. “Dick Clark didn’t want anything to do with R&B. He was getting rich on the white pop stuff.”

In later interviews, Clark painted a rosier picture of American Bandstand‘s efforts at integration. Professor and author Matthew F. Delmont challenged that notion in his book The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, detailing the ways in which Black teenagers weren’t wholly welcomed as dancers on the show. Although there were a smattering of Black artists on American Bandstand in its early years, there wasn’t an earnest effort to spotlight R&B and soul until the R&B-focused music and dance show Soul Train began dominating the airwaves in 1971. American Bandstand decamped Philly for Los Angeles in 1964, and in 1973 launched the short-lived program Soul Unlimited to compete with Soul Train.

“When Clark left Philly, he left a vacuum,” Jackson says. “The young Black talent that couldn’t get into a music studio, they could go anywhere they wanted because it was wide open.”

American Bandstand leaving Philly may have eased PIR’s path toward success, but Jackson notes, “That talent had to come out somewhere, even if Clark had stayed,” he says. “It couldn’t have been kept under wraps forever.”

Gamble, Huff, and their third collaborative partner, arranger and producer Thom Bell, gained traction in the music industry writing and producing hits for artists, such as The Intruders (“We’ll Be United,” “Cowboys to Girls”), Jerry Butler (“Only The Strong Survive,” “What’s The Use Of Breaking Up”), and The Soul Survivors (“Expressway To Your Heart”). By the time they formed PIR, they already had a notable track record that caught the eye of music industry mogul Clive Davis, who was president of Columbia/CBS Records at the time.

“Columbia was looking to get into Black music, because they could see it was becoming popular, and there was money to be made there—and of course, they didn’t know anything about R&B,” Jackson says. “They had the money. Gamble, Huff, and Bell had the talent.”

After a year under Columbia/CBS Records, PIR began to produce an avalanche of hits.

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ album I Miss You yielded “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” the group’s seminal ballad with Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals, aching for a course correction in a wayward relationship. The song, which was famously covered by Simply Red in 1989, hit No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B charts and peaked at No. 3 on The Hot 100.

The title track for The O’Jays’ album Back Stabbers needs only 40 seconds to show Philly Soul in its full glory: A brooding trill on the piano kicks into a smooth baseline stacked with guitar and percussion, which all crescendos into sweeping strings and horns before that familiar opening line, “What they do?” The O’Jays’ cautionary tale also reached No. 1 on the soul charts and No. 3 on The Hot 100.

And only Billy Paul’s velvet-coated crooning could take a record of blatant infidelity in “Me and Mrs. Jones” to No. 1 on both The Hot 100 and the R&B charts.

“We didn’t shy away from world events.”

Gamble and Huff knew how to create songs with mass appeal. But they also didn’t shy away from incorporating social and political discourse in their music.

“We made our songs relevant,” Gamble says. “You just can’t keep writing a bunch of steamy love songs. Why don’t you write a couple of songs that’s talking about the way the world is?”

On the same album as his breakout hit “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Paul was also straightforward in asking “Am I Black Enough For You?” and minced no words about the prison industrial complex in “I’m Just a Prisoner”:

What am I doing here?
I’ve been serving time for five long years
Got no trial in sight
This justice they all talk about just ain’t right
Has everybody forgotten about me?
Will I ever, ever, ever be free?

The O’Jays’ album Ship Ahoy (1973) featured tracks including “Don’t Call Me Brother,” the anti-capitalist bop “For the Love of Money,” and the title track “Ship Ahoy” that immediately opens with the grim aural experience of the transatlantic slave trade—the rushing water of the ocean, the creaking wood of the boat, thunderstorms rumbling in the distance, and an incessant cracking whip with a target no one need wonder about.

Of course, PIR’s stance on making socially conscious music wasn’t without risk. History has shown that music that holds a mirror up to society and the government doesn’t always yield the most favorable results, particularly for Black artists.

“When you look back at Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ they took the hit for artists to have a freedom to sing [about] what they wanted to say in the 1970s,” says Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University. “There’s no question about that.”

“Strange Fruit” and “Mississippi Goddam” were highly effective rallying anthems for the Civil Rights Movement but created lasting damage for the singers themselves. Holiday became a target of the FBI, while Simone was largely blacklisted from mainstream radio and certain states altogether.

“I think about Curtis Mayfield, who also had success in the early 1960s doing these uplift songs,” says Neal, “but when he released ‘We’re a Winner’ in 1968, which had a different kind of tone to it, even Black radio stations wouldn’t play it.”

But Neal points out that Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 was a catalyst for breaking down any reservations that labels and artists may have had. Mostly. At Motown, Gordy famously at first refused to release what would become arguably one of Marvin Gaye’s most important records—1971’s “What’s Going On?”—out of fear of it being too political.

Gamble and Huff didn’t have the same concern for PIR and its artists.

“We were writing about the human condition,” Gamble says. “How people treat one another and also how you could do it better. You could get sweetness out of life, if you’d be a good person.”

“We went to the bone,” adds Huff. “We’d talk about the slaves coming over here. We went there. We didn’t shy away from world events.”

“The music of an emerging Black middle class.”

PIR also didn’t shy away from innovating new sounds.

“Well, the famous quote is, ‘It’s Black music in a tuxedo,’” says Max Ochester, Philly music historian and owner of the label Dogtown Records, as well as the record store Brewerytown Beats. “They really went for this huge, lush orchestration.”

Gamble, Huff, and Bell pioneered what became known as Philly soul. Motown soul leaned more in the direction of pop; while Stax, especially in the 70s, keyed in on Blaxploitation soundtracks. PIR opted for full orchestras, led by its lauded in-house band MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother).

“They sweetened R&B,” says author John A. Jackson. “They had a sound of their own that I would say everybody else copied. Gamble, Huff, and Bell’s style of music expanded to the entire city. That’s basically how their sound became the Philly sound.”

Part of what made the Philly soul sound unique was PIR’s longtime engineer Joe Tarsia, founder of the iconic Sigma Sound Studios, and an early adopter of more advanced multi-track recording (i.e., being able to record separate sounds for better mixing and editing). Three-track recorders in the early 1960s gave way to four-track a few years later. But Tarsia was thinking bigger.

“Joe has told me personally that he looked toward the movie industry,” Ochester says. “They were the only ones that were effectively using 24-track recording techniques, and he wanted to be a part of that. So he actually bought the machine and brought it to the East Coast, and he was an innovator of the multi-layered sound. There was a lot of experimentation with that sound back then.”

That innovation bled into many recordings, including “Me and Mrs. Jones” and McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” In addition, PIR had a less regimented approach to their recording sessions, which, to mixer and producer Tom Moulton, gave the music more of a soul. “[With] Motown, it’s very tight, very precise. There’s no room for musicians being a musician,” Moulton said in an interview for the documentary Get Down With The Philly Sound. “The Philadelphia sessions are loose. It’s like a living thing that’s constantly moving and twisting. It’s something you feel. And people are like, ‘Oh man, that Philadelphia sound, there’s a soul to it.’ Of course there’s a soul to it, because it’s alive. It’s not metered. And I don’t know any other place that has that magic.”

That sound, in professor Neal’s opinion, represented something aspirational for the Black community.

“Berry Gordy’s strategy [at Motown], it’s not the sound of Black America—it’s a sound of young America. He’s pitching his music to crossover [to white listeners],” he says. “For Gamble and Huff, it’s a different story. It is really the music of an emerging Black middle class. It sounds like that: It’s upscale, it’s urban made.”

“It was Black aspiration,” Neal continues. “That’s the only way to describe it. Black folks having music and artists who had a look that suggests that the Civil Rights struggle was over, and there’s all this opportunity on the other side.”

For all of Tarsia’s more complex productions, Gamble and Huff also weren’t opposed to low-tech solutions either.

In some recordings, Huff used to put thumbtacks behind the hammers of his piano keys, which allowed him to play faster and put more treble in the bass keys, making the sound brighter.

“When I rigged that keyboard, that took that sound into a whole different level,” Huff says. “It was an upright, but it didn’t sound like one.”

“We could get into songs like ‘Love Train,’ ‘I Love Music,’ ‘For the Love of Money,’ all the uptempo songs,” Huff adds. “Man, I wish I could do that era again!”

He certainly isn’t the only one who feels that way.

Patti LaBelle, 1977 [Photo: courtesy of Philadelphia International Records]

PIR’s distribution contract with CBS ended in 1984. EMI/Capitol quickly picked up the label and released some hits for Phyllis Hyman and Shirley Jones. But when that deal ended in 1987, so too did PIR’s streak of runaway hits.

PIR may never fully get the accolades it deserves for the swings it took, raising the consciousness of Black music and elevating its sound. But to DJ Jazzy Jeff’s original point, if you know, you know—and the music clearly isn’t going anywhere, so you can catch up.

“They were probably some of the most incredible producer, songwriters, arrangers, labels in history,” he says. “To understand that level of impact that you’re still having 50 years later is pretty much what everybody who’s ever done music, produced music, played music, that’s what you strive for. You strive for longevity.”

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