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Jerry Butler, Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff
Looking at two key albums that helped birth the Philadelphia Sound
Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Listening Sessions’. In this installment’s essay, I take a look at two key recordings in the birth of the Philadelphia Sound: Jerry Butler’s album-length collaborations with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, The Ice Man Cometh and Ice On Ice. If you love Gamble and Huff’s legendary work with such acts as the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and the Three Degrees, you’ll love how these two albums helped pave the way.
This essay is my final one for February. Previously this month, I wrote about the 58th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America and the soundtrack album for Summer of Soul.
Coming in early March will be a spotlight on one of Quincy Jones’ big-band recordings from the early sixties, a fascinating time capsule of jazz in 1963. Later on in the month will be an essay on two of country music’s saddest poets (make your guess as to who they are by clicking below).
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And without further delay, here is my look at Jerry Butler’s work with Gamble and Huff. I hope you enjoy it.
Do you remember the McDLT burger? Introduced in 1984 by McDonald’s, it was marketed as a solution to the supposed conundrum of how to keep the various components of a burger appropriately hot or cold. The bottom bun with the burger patty and the top bun garnished with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise were stored side-by-side in a decidedly environmentally unfriendly styrofoam container, a decision that ultimately helped seal the McDLT’s demise in the early nineties.
Among those enlisted to hock it were Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, and Jerry Butler, dubbed the Ice Man, perhaps in a sly allusion that the top half of McDLT should stay just as cool as a Butler vocal. To extend an admittedly laboured metaphor, the balance sought in the McDLT approximates the essence of Jerry Butler’s sound. Yes, there is a smoothness to his voice, a deep, resonant tone that seizes the ear, but it is buttressed by the warmth and sincerity with which he sings. If Butler is the Ice Man, he is one with heart and feeling.
Jerry Butler was born in Mississippi in 1939 and raised in Chicago. In his teens, he met Curtis Mayfield and both became members of the Impressions, one of the most influential soul aggregations of the sixties. Butler left the group in 1962 and soon perfected a style of soul best described as supper-club soul.
“I became attracted to orchestrations through playing in the band. I was a drummer. In elementary school and in junior high school, I was a drummer in marching band. I became familiar with French horns, xylophones, timpani—all the instruments included in an orchestra I became in love with. Gamble did the same thing.
So both of us were well-versed in orchestration. We agreed to incorporate the orchestra into some of our productions. The way that we wrote songs, they need the orchestra. We need violins, violas, cellos, xylophones and Hammond organ. Thom Bell, it was the same thing. We are fell in love with big orchestrations. We didn’t think just rhythm section.”
Kenny Gamble was born and bred in Philadelphia; Leon Huff in Camden, New Jersey. They first crossed paths in the early sixties in a band called the Romeos. Gamble, who formed the band, was its lead singer. Huff was its keyboardist. The band didn’t last but Gamble and Huff’s working relationship was just getting started. They began a songwriting and production partnership in the mid sixties that quickly yielded two big hits—’Expressway to Your Heart’ by the Soul Survivors in 1967 and ‘Cowboys to Girls’ by the Intruders in 1968—that were the sparks that led to the creation of the Philadelphia Sound, a counterpoint to the onset of funk in which James Brown and Sly Stone pared soul down to the groove and a relentless emphasis on “the One”, or the first beat in any measure. Gamble and Huff took soul in the opposite direction, expanding soul’s sound palette and providing a glossy veneer to the music.
“Each arranger has their own flavours. Bobby [Martin] was a fantastic horn arranger. He was an older guy who came up through the big-band era. But I’m a different horn and string arranger because I came from the classical-music end. When I hear horns, I hear it more in the classical-music stuff, I hear stuff like oboe and bassoons, because that was the world I came up in.”
Thom Bell was part of this movement too. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, but Philly-raised, Bell first made his mark producing the Delfonics and soon teamed up with Gamble and Huff as part of their emerging production house. Bobby Martin and Roland Chambers were also indispensable parts of what became a musical juggernaut.
One of the key partnerships that not only popularized the Philadelphia Sound but also codified many of its key principles was Gamble and Huff’s with Jerry Butler on 1968’s The Ice Man Cometh and 1969’s Ice on Ice. Their success with Butler and others provided the impetus to start their own label: Philadelphia International Records, and helped build a hit-making credibility critical to being able to strike a distribution deal with Columbia Records.
Jerry Ross was a Philadelphia native and the first to take note in the early sixties of Kenny Gamble’s musical ambitions. Ross contracted him as a songwriter. The most notable song they wrote together was ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.’ Jerry Butler was among the many who recorded it prior to it becoming a smash by the Temptations and Diana Ross & the Supremes. Producing Butler’s version was Jerry Ross and it provided an entry point to writing songs with Gamble and Huff and enlisting them as his production team.
One of their first joint collaborations was ‘Lost,’ released on Butler’s 1967 album Mr. Dream Weaver and also put out as a single. With a full-bodied arrangement sung with deep urgency by Butler, it hints at the innovations to come. Its’ inclusion as well at the end of the first side of The Ice Man Cometh makes that point even more crystal clear.
Unlike ‘Lost,’ in which the entire production flows from the insistent introduction and ever-present drum beat with brass and background female vocalists, the rest of the album sees Gamble and Huff as well as Bobby Martin and Thom Bell utilizing their love of orchestration and employing all manners of instruments and timbres in a far more cinematic fashion, using ever-shifting dynamics to let the sound tell a substantial part of each song’s story. The tales told here are a variety of meditations on affairs of the heart, those points in a relationship that test the bonds forged between two. Here lies love as it is lived.
The opening salvo of this new sound was the release of ‘Never Give You Up’ as a single in April 1968. The heaviness of ‘Lost’ has given way to a leaner sound. Guitar and vibraphone double as a counterpoint to a male chorus singing, “never going to give you up, no matter how you treat me” and brass enters to usher in Butler’s vocal bringing a jazz-singer’s verve to embellishing the melody and toying with time that hooks in the listener—hear his delivery of the song’s signature line, “hey, don’t you understand, what you’re doing to the man.” It’s an earworm approach to songwriting that defines the songs Butler wrote with Gamble and Huff.
The follow-up single, ‘Hey, Western Union Man,’ is full of them. First, there’s the ingenious way Butler dispatches the surfeit of syllables in “send a telegram, send a telegram, send a telegram man, to my baby.” There’s also the walking beat that opens the song and is often returned to which mimics the sound of a clock ticking, underscoring the urgency to get Butler’s telegram delivered. Here as well is proof of Butler’s depth as a vocalist: the cry in his voice when calling out to the Western Union man and the way he uses the richness of his voice to dig into the beat and reinforce the feeling of despair that never betrays the gift of his instrument. This is communication.
It also makes his next single, ‘Are You Happy,’ such an indelible piece of art. Butler addresses the audience—first, the females and then, the males—inquiring of them if their happiness, their sense of fulfillment, is truly what they are hoping for. Of course, the song pursues that point through the prism of a romantic relationship, but the song’s production: hushed, quiet and ethereal for the verses and a close, slow groove for the chrouses speaks to some sort of universality. In this context, pondering “are you happy” may just encompass anything with which the listener is preoccupied.
‘Only the Strong Survive,’ which was Butler’s biggest hit with Gamble and Huff (#4 on the Billboard singles chart) employs the same approach as ‘Are You Happy.’ The verse features minimal instrumentation so as to focus on Butler the lovelorn, it contrasts with the rousing chorus as the mother referred to in the lyric offers uplift to her son. That Elvis recorded a version of the song just as Butler’s was released as a single with an arrangement that more than just paraphrases that of Bobby Martin and Thom Bell’s speaks to the alchemy at play in the sound of Butler’s recordings with Gamble and Huff. There are the strings, brass vibraphone and other orchestral colours of Motown with the pictorial verve of producers like Chips Moman (think of some of his recordings with the Box Tops as well as that he helms Elvis’ crack at ‘Only the Strong Survive’). But in hearing such deep tracks on The Ice Man Cometh as ‘Go Away - Find Yourself’ and ‘(Strange) I Still Love You,’ one hears how Gamble and Huff (and Martin and Bell too) took these elements and fused them into something uniquely theirs.
By the time of Butler’s follow-up album with our men in Philadelphia, Ice on Ice, released in August 1969, the beginnings of an enterprise are afoot. Gamble and Huff’s production credit on the album is Gamble & Huff Productions, a sign of how the team would be profound champions and exemplifers of Black entrepreneurship. Instead of Butler partly submerged in ice as he is on the cover of The Ice Man Cometh, here he is deep in a mound of diamonds with one particular bauble that he is pondering in his right hand. Ice is nice, but diamonds are nicer ice.
If Ice on Ice isn’t as completely successful as its predecessor, it still shows the forward momentum that happens when highly creative people are in midst of building something vital and fresh.
The addition of Roland Chambers as an arranger alongside Bobby Martin and Thom Bell helps to expand Butler’s sound, with the deeply funky, ‘Been a Long Time,’ and the church stomper, ‘Don’t Let Love Hang You Up.’
Butler’s lamentations on the failures of “modern communication” (“the telephone,” “the telegram” and “the love letter”) and “modern transportation” (“the super plane,” “the real fast train” and “the speedy car”) on ‘Close to You Love’ paint of picture of entrenched desolation and resignation that chills when set aside the deeply moody Bobby Martin arrangement. Ice on Ice’s songs continue to point to the tumult of human entanglements, even as something like ‘Brand New Me,’ as close to a standard as anything Butler wrote with Gamble and Huff, provides a glimpse that love may be ultimately a redemptive tale of rebirth despite the heartbreak and roadblocks encountered along the way.
The entirely of it all is offered in ‘What’s the Use of Breaking Up,’ a bright shuffle with expert use of the electric sitar (an instrument frequently used by Chips Moman). As usual, Martin and Bell’s arrangement tells the story: a breakup recounted over a suspended beat, the moment of reconsideration gliding on top of a shuffle and the couple’s reconciliation played out during the ecstatic chorus. The sound of Butler’s voice, one of the most potent vessels of the soul message ever set against a vision of soul that exalts, that celebrates, that empowers, that expresses solidarity with its listening public. It's the vision of Gamble and Huff and their like-minded collaborators. The Ice Man Cometh and Ice on Ice remain exciting and potent chapters in the birth of the Philadelphia Sound.
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