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(Soundbite of music)

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

If Motown owned the '60s, you might say the '70s belonged to Philly International Records. Super producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff defined the sound of Philadelphia for the world.

Now after having racked up just about every major award there is, including 175 gold and platinum records, the duo is finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

We sat down to talk about the arc of their amazing careers, the performers they introduced to the world, and those classic tunes like "Backstabbers," the song that launched the legendary O'Jays.

(Soundbite of song, "Backstabbers")

O'JAYS (Pop Music Group): (Singing) What they doin'? They're smiling in your face, all the time they want to take your place, the backstabbers. Backstabbers. They're smiling in your face.

Mr. LEON HUFF (Producer): What they doing, smiling?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUFF: We thought that was a great message.

Mr. KENNETH GAMBLE (Producer): Yeah, I thought that was a tremendous hook. When I first heard it, I said boy, what they doing? I mean, that was really the hook to me.

Mr. HUFF: We went in and cut the track. Well, first we showed it to the O'Jays, which they didn't like it when they first heard it. So Gamble convinced them to just - let's experiment. Let's go into the studio and see how it comes out, and that's when it all started to happen for the O'Jays.

(Soundbite of song, "Backstabbers")

O'JAYS: (Singing) Blades are long, clenched tight in their fist, aimin' straight at your back, and I don't think they'll miss. What they doin'?

CHIDEYA: So how did each of you get interested in music? I mean, as children, I'm sure that you must have been interested. You wouldn't have been so successful if you hadn't started young. So how did you, Leon, first...

Mr. HUFF: Well, I started as a musician first, as a piano player because my mother played piano, and that's how the piano got into the house. So I guess I must've become curious at that big thing sitting in the living room. And I look at it like, you know, a child would see something and stick his hand up on those black-and-white things and hear them sounds come out of it, and I guess I must've gravitated toward that, became obsessed with it. And nobody never really taught me. I was playing music, but I didn't know the name of the chords. You know, later on I did, you know, but that's how I developed an ear, you know, for popular music.

CHIDEYA: What about you, Kenneth?

Mr. GAMBLE: I used to write poetry at a young age, and so I guess I always had like a knack for writing. South Philly, where I grew up at, there always was people standing on the corners, and eventually, it would turn out to be some kind of a singing group where you start singing. And I always would come up with a song, you know. It was just a great time to be growing up for music, and, you know, lyrics. I write lyrics.

CHIDEYA: But how did you actually meet up? How did you connect, and not just connect, but say we're going to make a business out of this?

Mr. HUFF: Well, we wasn't formally introduced. We just happened to work in a music building called the Shubert Theater in Philadelphia, and we worked on different floors. So we just happened to meet in the elevator this particular day, and we introduced ourselves, and then Gamble came over to my house one weekend.

Mr. GAMBLE: I think the magic started when I met Huff.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HUFF: First sitting, we must've wrote about six, seven songs.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: What does it take to identify talent? I think about, you know, the fact that there are so many reality shows now that look for talent. How do you identify talent?

Mr. HUFF: Well, most of the time, we tried to find a voice that was unique and something that someone could identify and say wow, that's Teddy Pendergrass or that's Eddy of the O'Jays or that's Patti LaBelle, you know, or Aretha Franklin or whatever. You know when you hear it on the radio. You say, wow, that's so-and-so. And I think that's what we look for. We look for the uniqueness in the artist, and...

Mr. GAMBLE: Best performers.

Mr. HUFF: Yeah, performers, because you've got to be able - once you get a hit record, then when you do a show, it makes it easier.

CHIDEYA: I want to hear a little bit of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the song, "If You Don't Know Me By Now."

(Soundbite of song, "If You Don't Know Me By Now")

HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES (Pop Group): (Singing) Just get yourself together. Or we might as well say goodbye. What good is a love affair when we can't see eye to eye? Oh, if you don't know me by now, you ain't never, never...

CHIDEYA: That featured Teddy Pendergrass when he was part of an ensemble. How did you guys start working with him?

Mr. GAMBLE: You know, we knew Hal Melvin for many years. Hal had a smooth voice himself, but we always thought that he needed a real lead singer, and so Huff was working one day with Teddy, and I think Teddy was the drummer. Huff, was it like that?

Mr. HUFF: Yeah. He was the drummer.

I heard this big, booming voice in the background, you know, that just stood out, you know. So I said, Gamble,this guy in the background can really sing. Listen to the sound of his voice, you know.

Mr. GAMBLE: After Teddy made his entrance as a lead singer, I mean, he just roared all over the place, you know, his feeling, I mean, intensity. You know, that's what I felt. And he just did it naturally. His voice just stood out.

Mr. HUFF: We just took on a real big interest in Teddy's voice.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: You really came to the prominence of your careers in the mid-'70s. And music constantly changes, so you had disco, you had funk. How did you relate to these other sounds coming into vogue?

Mr. GAMBLE: Well, I think we just did what we could do. We didn't try to compete. Some people say that, you know, some of our music was the beginning of disco, you know. We concentrated on songs, songs and great musicians and great arrangements. And so we didn't try to really follow any trends or whatever. And I think that's the best part of it, that we created our own sound out of the whole thing.

Mr. HUFF: What's that song, Gamble, "Do It Any Way You Want It" by the Peoples Choice. I think that was one of the earlier records that was mixed by Tom Molton.

Mr. GAMBLE: Tom Molton.

Mr. HUFF: Yeah, Tom Molton. He was a disco guy.

Mr. GAMBLE: Prominent mixer during those days. And he just wanted to mix that song, and it just took on a different life, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Did you ever worry, okay, this other stuff is going to cut into our market share? We're not going to be as relevant? People are going to forget about us? Did you ever, I mean, have moments of insecurity about the direction you were taking?

Mr. GAMBLE: No.

Mr. HUFF: No.

Mr. GAMBLE: We always had the mindset of writing music that would stand the test of time, you know. We just didn't settle with just a hit. You know, a hit can last for a few weeks, you know, and that's it. But we wanted to write songs that would go into the standard category, you know, classic music, you know, that would be around for 20, 30, 40 years. You know, that was our mindset, you know.

(Soundbite of music - medley)

CHIDEYA: We spoke with the music critic Steven Ivory, and he said that he believes that in some ways, the Philly sound got so big that it permeated everything, and it became no longer exclusive to what you two were doing. First of all, do you agree? And secondly, do you feel that that's a positive or a negative, that so many people have kind of taken bits and pieces of what you do and incorporated it into what they do?

Mr. HUFF: You know, when you're hot, people are going to gravitate towards what you're doing. You know, people started using our studios. You know, Stevie Wonder'd come in.

Mr. GAMBLE: David Bowie.

Mr. HUFF: David Bowie, yeah.

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah. Elton John, people, they came from everywhere, all over the world.

Mr. HUFF: So, you know, like you were saying, we were so hot, they'd say well let us down there to Philly to see if we can get some of that, see if it can rub off on us. You know, so we always felt good about that, you know.

CHIDEYA: I mean, you've gotten so many honors. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is huge, but if you were to take one of your songs and put it in a time capsule, tell me what one song of yours you would pick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAMBLE: I would say "For the Love of Money," the O'Jays. You know, that was a very intense session when we was producing that.

(Soundbite of song, "For the Love of Money")

O'JAYS: (Singing) Money, money, money, money, money. Money, money, money, money, money.

Mr. HUFF: I think I would pick "Love Train." I'd pick "Love Train."

CHIDEYA: (Singing) People all over the world.

Mr. HUFF: Yeah, yeah, I'd pick that one.

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah, that was a good one.

CHIDEYA: Well, I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed the conversation, and may the music keep on flowing. Gentlemen, thank you so much.

Mr. HUFF: Thank you.

Mr. GAMBLE: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: The legendary songwriting and production team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Today, the two are being honored with a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To watch an excerpt of the interview you just heard, to go our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org.

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