Kenny Gamble grew up in South Philadelphia, singing on street corners. He aspired to be a performer but quickly went from the stage to behind the scenes. He and his musical partner Leon Huff went on to produce some of the most well-known music in the world.
Today, Kenny Gamble oversees Universal Companies, which aims to revitalize neighborhoods through education and entrepreneurship.
Who is Kenny Gamble?
I’m a guy who was born and raised in South Philly. I’ve seen the best and the worst. I always wanted to be involved in music. We used to sing on the corners.
What year was that?
I was born in 1943. So, when I was 10 or 11. I was on the corners. And then there was a group called Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. That’s who everybody wanted to be like.
That’s what made you want to start?
Oh yeah. That was just my music side. Along with that, I had my mother and my two brothers. My mother took us to church all the time. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I learned a lot about the Bible. We used to go door-to-door, in cold weather, early in the morning, waking people up by knocking on their doors.
Me and another brother, Brother Wilson. He was one of the elders. I used to work with him. I always had a lot of questions. Things used to trouble me. A lot of things had no answers. People said, “You got to have faith.” That wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to know about certain things. There should be an answer for everything, I think.
So, who is Kenny Gamble? He’s a guy who has been trying to make it, trying to do good things and I’ve always been a praying person, all my life. When I came into contact with Islam, I really enjoyed what it had to say. It answered most of those questions I had- reading the Koran, talking to people.
Frankie Lymon was your musical hero?
He was like the Michael Jackson of my day. I used to go to the PAL. There was a little store across the street from the PAL and they had a record machine. That’s where I would be pretty much all of the time. I’d play The Dells, Frankie Lymon, everybody. My dream was to be in show business in some way. I didn’t know how.
Were there people on every corner doing the same thing?
Everywhere. And I had a good relationship with everybody.
Did you think you were the best?
I was just a normal guy, trying to make it in school. I didn’t know nothing about the music industry. There was nobody to teach us about the music industry. I started writing songs with Tommy Bell. We started as soon as I got out of high school. We used to perform at all the little nightclubs.
You don’t know where you’re going to end up. You just got to keep on trying.
I got a job at Jefferson (hospital) in their research department. I was there for 7.5 years.
While juggling music?
Mostly on the weekends. I needed that job. I had to help my mother out. We would perform on the weekends and all the people from Jefferson would come out and encourage us.
We had a great show. We had Tommy Bell who later wrote songs and produced for The Delfonics. We had a guy named Roland Chambers, who was the lead guitar player on all our music. We had his brother and we had Huff. We sang in harmony.
What was the group?
We were The Romeos. We had all the girls. That was the main thing back then. We were trying to make it.
When did the break come?
There was a group called Don and Juan and they had a hit record, “What’s your name?” A lot of duos came out around that time. Me and Tommy Bell found a guy, Jerry Ross from Heritage Records, who wanted to record us. We were Kenny and Tommy. It didn’t do too much but it got airplay here in Philly.
Tommy Bell, he worked in a fish shop. When it came to playing on the weekends, he couldn’t do it because he had to cut those fish up. I started going to Heritage Records myself.
That’s when you got your solo deal?
That’s when I got the solo deal with Columbia Records. Each time, I was getting a little closer. Jerry Ross showed me how to write songs. I was learning so much.
Jerry got a job in New York. He had to give up his office and he asked me, “Do you want this office?” The rent was only $60 per month. I met Huff on the elevator coming into the building one day. Me and Huff used to talk all the time. We had the same goals. We wanted to be producers. We wanted to find out about publishing. So we started to work together. There was a group called Candy & The Kisses, part of Jerry Ross’ label. Jerry and I wrote a song for Candy & The Kisses called “The 81.” It was a dance.
Huff had a writing partner and they also wrote a song for Candy & The Kisses. That led us to work together in the studio, the first time we ever worked together. I went to Huff’s house in Camden and we began to write. That was the best experience that I’ve ever had in music. It was so easy. I was doing what I did best and he was doing what he did best. I’m a lyricist. He plays the keyboards. We must have wrote six or seven songs that day.
What are your memories of working with The Jackson 5?
I had known them for a long time. They used to come through the Uptown Theater when they were small, maybe when Michael was 10 years old. Because they grew up as Jehovah’s Witnesses, we had a bond. They used to come over to my house. This was in, like, 1967. I got to know their mother, their father, everybody.
How was that?
They were just like everybody else. They were a nice family. We always said, “Maybe one day, we’ll work together.” Then Joe called me one day and said they were leaving Motown and they wanted to work with me and Huff. I wish we would have had more time with them. We did two albums with them. But they were kids and they were growing up. Jermaine had left them and they were going through a depression.
They were signed to Epic Records and they wanted them to be a pop group. We were doing message songs.
The O’Jays were signed to us. When you owned everything, we had control over everything. We could take our time with everything the way we couldn’t with The Jackson 5.
Even then, could you see Michael was special?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I used to tell him that he should record himself because he had different ideas. He used to call me every night at 2 in the morning. He was in California. I said, “Man, I need to get some sleep.” But he wanted answers, just my view on things, sometimes spiritual things.
I remember when we were recording, he wanted to try certain things – doubling his voice, tripling it, speeding the tape up – stuff I had never even thought about.
I tried to get Tommy Bell to record him. He was too busy. So Michael got up with Quincy Jones.
Do you ever talk to Tommy about that?
Every time I see him.
I think Michael would have been a different person had he stayed with us. He would have been away from all the Hollywood stuff. I used to tell him about everything we’re doing here (at Universal) with the schools and housing and all.
A lot of artists don’t understand how to have control over their own career.
It’s very important. Most careers don’t last that long. You should know every detail of your business because it’s all about business, the economics of it. You got to love what you’re doing but you also need to understand it because it’s a living, after all. To control your own publishing, masters, your own image. Controlling all these things is important because they become assets to you. You’re building up assets, things that have worth.
Is it still an ill feeling hearing your stuff, like on samples.
I love it. I seen jay-Z one time. He used a few of our songs. I said, “What made you use our songs?” He said, “I just love them.” I just said thank you. It keeps us current. Kanye West has done a lot with our music. He said, “Yo man, give me a better deal.” Just keep the music going, you know?
These are the guys who are in the spotlight right now. But that’s going to change. I like what they’re doing because they are branching out to different things.
That’s why you are my hero. You’re just a kid from South Philly. Not only did you get a record deal and do well in music but you’ve got properties and schools. What has kept you grounded?
I think my spiritual side, understanding what is the purpose of my life. I’m not amazed by all that stuff because this is where I am. I’m still on 15th Street. What I enjoy is working with the schools and the redevelopment, creating a model for what we can do.
We have one goal and that is to see the African American community be independent and sustain itself so it does not have to run to all these people and ask them for anything. Education is the way out. Want a loaf of bread, start a bakery. Take care of your own economy so you can be a part of the human family.
The platform you left for us is great – the music, the work, the community stuff.
Philly has been a music center. It always has been and always will be. Music is waiting for the next big thing.