Kenny Gamble’s Philly International Records just turned 50, but another endeavor wasn’t as enduring. A look back at a unique moment in the culture of R&B
15 min ago
In the late ’70s Philadelphia was a tough town to be a righteous black person in. The Mayor, Frank Rizzo, who’d been a reactionary police commissioner in the late ’60s, ruled with an implicit mandate — keep the city controlled by the same (white) ethnic forces that had run Philadelphia for decades. That meant a heavy handed, often brutal brand of policing. Under Rizzo’s authority the Philadelphia Police Department raided the local Black Panther headquarters in 1970 and had its members strip searched on the sidewalk, in full view of passersby and photographers. A photo of these humiliated activists appeared on the front page of the Philadelphia Daily News. The PPD was notorious for both brutality and planting evidence on black citizens.
In 1979, the Department of Justice, in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, charged Rizzo and other city officials with allowing pervasive police abuse. An investigation found that from 1970 to 1978, the PPD shot and killed 162 people. “The cops were just totally out of control,” remembered Michael Simmons, an organizer with SNCC and a variety of other leftist groups, told Vice in 2015. “They were really beating and shooting African Americans and Puerto Ricans. It’s like what’s going on now, but it was all taking place in one city. Take Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, the guy in Staten Island, and you put all that shit in one city.”
This brutality was met by activism lead by attorney, local NAACP chapter head and city council member Cecil B. Moore. These days he’s immortalized with a Philadelphia street and a subway station named in his honor, but during the ’70s he was a controversial figure whose instincts ran more towards Malcolm X angry than Martin Luther King moral suasion. One of Moore’s biggest supporters was Georgie Woods, who also happened to be big one of Philadelphia’s most popular air personalities. Known as “the guy with the goods,” Woods worked both WHAT and WDAS, wrote a column for the black weekly, the Philadelphia Tribune, and was the host/promoter of concert’s at the Uptown, the city’s version of the Apollo. Woods’ ubiquity, plus his connection via music to the city’s youth, inspired Moore to recruit him to become, at one point, vice chairman of the local NAACP.
Philadelphia was a city of duality and, unfortunately, not all of them as positive as Woods’ story. Gangsters used membership in Nation of Islam mosque to cover a vast range of criminal activities by a brutal gang who became known as the Black Mafia. Their crimes ranged from street rackets (extortion, heroin trafficking, prostitution) to white collar schemes (defrauding the government via a phony anti-poverty organization.) Brutal violence was one of their calling cards. In 1973 they were involved in the murder of seven Sunni Muslims in D.C., including five children. In another horrifying incident involving the Black Mafia a man was decapitated.
There was civil unrest in Philadelphia on a number of levels when I made my first visit there in June 1978. But there was also magic. Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving was defying gravity on a nightly basis for the NBA’s 76ers at the Spectrum. Musically TSOP (the Sound of Philadelphia) was a dominant force in pop and R&B throughout in the decade, creating anthems (“Love Train,” “For the Love of Money,” “Love is the Message,” “You Are Everything,”) and hit acts (the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, the Three Degrees, the Spinners, the Stylistics.) Producer/writers Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff set the stage for disco, while their publishing company partner Thom Bell penned classic ballads.
Gamble had a vision that went far beyond composing popular songs. He truly believed “there’s a message in the music” and had composed scores of socially conscious lyrics for performers like the O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes and Billy Paul. In 1977 Philly International, which he co-owned with Huff, released an album titled ‘Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto,’ which featured the entire roster of PIR artists singing black self-help songs.
Gamble was a real race man. But he was also a son of the Philadelphia streets who’d seen how black folks, without a plan and discipline, could fall victim to self-destruction. It’s one of the reasons that, on the low, Gamble was studying the Koran and would, eventually, announce himself as a Muslim. Wisely he’d buy up large parcels of land on white flight abandoned South Philly avenues and revive it by building housing, schools and a mosque. That would be a continuation of the ideas that drove the ‘Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto’ album. Unlike so many creative people who talked about black empowerment, Gamble used his money up to backup his lyrics.
My introduction to Philadelphia, Gamble, and the R&B world in all its glory was the inaugural Black Music Association convention held in Philadelphia in June 8 to 11, 1979. I was a college intern/stringer for Billboard magazine, but had been recruited by mentor, Billboard staffer Robert ‘Rocky’ Ford, to be part of a four person team covering the historic gathering.
The BMA was a valiant attempt by to address the many issues bedeviling black music’s health by folks with a vested interest in it. Gamble had been a driving force behind the organization’s founding. In retrospect it’s clear that the BMA was his attempt to clean up the black music biz. Lobbying by Gamble, radio personalities Dyana Williams and Ed Wright, along with others, convinced President Jimmy Carter to declare June Black Music month. On June 7th, the President hosted a celebration of the music on the White House lawn, which covered the gamut of African-American musical expression with jazz giant Billy Eckstine, gospel stars Andrae Crouch and Sarah Jordan Powell, rock & roll pioneer Chuck Berry, and young disco star Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King on the bill. In a statement Carter said of the BMA, “The activities of your organization will bring new appreciation and acclaim for black music in your country and around the world. Your goal to preserve and perpetuate black music and it’s artistry is indeed a worthy one.”
BMA was very much an extension of Gamble’s philosophy in that the organization was intended, not just to celebrate black music’s legacy, but work as a trade group for those who made and promoted the music. But the reality was that the varied black music community had many needs that were very specific and sometimes in conflict. Gamble saw BMA as picking up the mantle of an earlier long-standing black trade organization, NATRA (National Association of Radio & TV Announcers), which had been dominated by DJs.
NATRA organization had come undone in the late ’60s when the same philosophical tensions that were tearing at the civil rights movement came to black at a convention in Miami. The drive for black ownership of soul labels and radio stations lead to threats of violence against white executives who attended. Black nationalist fractions found themselves at odds with others who wanted a less confrontational approach. The conflict ultimately split NATRA apart. Alas similar tensions would undermine the BMA. At an introductory breakfast Gamble said of the BMA, “We all know what the problems are. These are problems that have existed for years. Let’s get organized, then go out and solve them. We’re not about picketing. We don’t wanna force anybody to do anything. We wanna see how smart we are, see if we can figure out this puzzle.”
As a twenty year old rookie reporter, the BMA gave me crash course on the myriad economic and artistic conflicts in the industry that shaped the musical environment pre-hip hop. Some of the issues have disappeared or been re-shaped by technology. Others have been covered up by cosmetic advancements that mask on going disparities. Perhaps because many of these issues had been boiling under the surface for years the BMA conference was full of passion and anger with much finger pointing and virtually no real solutions offered. Welcome to world of black music circa ’79.
Black Music Departments
Starting in the early ’70s all the major record companies made a commitment to being in the black music business. Up until then prolific independent labels like Detroit’s Motown, Memphis’ Stax, New York’s Atlantic and a tapestry of small record companies dominated the market. With few exceptions r&b and soul stars had always been developed and released by scrappy, culturally connected, sometimes unscrupulous, independent record companies usually owned by hustling businesspeople, whether it was Berry Gordy at Detroit’s Motown, Joe and Sylvia Robinson at New Jersey’s All Platinum or Sid Nathan at Cincinnati’s King.
These labels were places where the line between the music world and the underworld often blended, where accounting was questionable, royalties miniscule, and strong-arm tactics not unheard of. If you were black and had musical talent these were the doors that were open to you for the middle part of the 20th century. Some of these labels were owned by numbers runners or partially financed by criminals, whether they were connected to the Mafia or just small-time gangsters who loved music. There was a culture of exploitation around black music, one that mirrored the exploitation that most black Americans endured in an American economic system that excluded them.
The million selling successes of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and others in the ’60s soul music explosion led CBS, RCA, MCA, Capitol, Polydor and other corporate financed major labels to inaugurate black music departments with the ability to break new artists, sign established acts and recruit top writer/producers to distribution deals in lieu of starting their own indie labels.
As a result, Motown and Stax were strip mined for performers and staff. So were other smaller regional labels. New York based Atlantic became a part of WEA, a distribution operation that merged the might of Atlantic with west coast entities Warner Bros and Elektra. James Brown ended his long standing relationship with Cincinnati based independent King Records for a deal with the European label Polydor. CBS records, under the direction of Clive Davis, spurred by the mainstream success achieved by Sly & the Family Stone, were aggressive in bolstering its roster with acts plucked from black owned indie labels (Bill Withers for Sussex, Johnny Taylor from Stax, the Jacksons from Motown), while giving established hitmakers the Isley Brothers (T-Neck) and Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International) the ability to record under their own label deals.
Moreover, the staffs at these black music departments, which included A&R executives, radio promotion, publicity, retail merchandising and college promotions, were well paid in comparison to the R&B indies, including health insurance and corporate credit cards. Entire black suburban towns in New Jersey, Long Island and in the San Fernando Valley were populated by this generation of upwardly mobile black label employees and their families, creating the black record business Buppie, and sending scores of kids to private school and colleges.
In fact, at labels like Columbia, Warner Bros and RCA, many black executives came from life in corporate America, bringing fresh marketing ideas to black music. As a result, the record business, which had always been a viewed as a seedy world by the black middle class, became a viable, exciting career option for students at Howard, Hampton and other historically black colleges.
But by 1978 many blacks in the industry saw these departments as golden ghettos. The budgets of these departments were decided by white executives and much of the hiring had to be approved by white higher ups, making many of the employees feel they worked on a musical plantation. This unease was heightened by the limitations put on the black departments when an artist went pop. Once an Earth, Wind & Fire or O’Jays single had become a hit on the R&B charts and was crossing over to white audiences, the Pop department took over and the black staff that had developed that hit weren’t allowed further involvement. Despite being part of a huge corporation most of the black employees were segregated into a very specific niche. In the ’80s, when I covered for black for the entire decade, of I rarely met a black employee working in any label’s Pop department.
This was particularly galling since black music’s “crossover” potential was crucial to why the major labels had invested so deeply in R&B. For them R&B was a farm team where you could develop pop stars in the mode of Syl & the Family Stone. Motown had proven black singers could soar on the pop charts. But, in this new era of corporate control, that music would profit major labels while having only limited black behind the scenes involvement.
Not only did this create dissension amongst the black staff but among the artists as well, but not always because they supported the black staff. Many of the performers, who’s personal goal was always maximum sales and mainstream superstardom, felt having their music first go through the black music department restricted their vision. And, in fact, some of the bigger black stars were able to have their singles released to pop and R&B stations simultaneously. But that was a select group. So, if the black music departments reflected an acceptance of the music’s power, they also reinforced the sense that there were ceilings placed on both its executives and black artists.
Much of the money for BMA’s launch came through the major label’s black music departments, which meant the purse strings for an organization hoping to address issues surrounding the music had be approved by white executives who, in many cases, would be perceived as the problem. This would tension between it’s mission and funding would haunt the BMA’s short history.
Decline of R&B/Soul Labels
The fact that the BMA’s funding relied on the major labels was not lost on the many black indie labels who, by the late ’70s, saw a cloudy future. With the exception of Motown virtually all the labels that had historically nurtured R&B, soul and funk music had either had their catalogue’s purchased out right by majors or had made distribution deals with them. If they hadn’t capitulated by 1978 they would by the mid-80s. Berry Gordy was on the BMA’s board but otherwise these little guys had no voice.
The labels that survived this era of corporate consolidation worked in black music’s niches (gospel, reggae, avant garde jazz, dance music.) While the older R&B entities struggled to compete a new group of dance music indies (mostly based out of New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Boston) would take their place as scrappy purveyors of new trends. Some started during disco, but the canny ones would evolve along the music was. Using 12-inch singles, which in ’79 were new to the marketplace, these labels survived disco’s “death” and became early adaptors to drum machine driven dance music and would be crucial homes for rap’s first wave of records.
Black or Urban Radio
Since its invention in the 1940s black oriented radio had been the chief vehicles for promoting all forms of black music, from R&B to jazz, gospel to funk. For much of its history these stations had been limited to the far end of AM radio. In fact, a great many of them only had day-time licenses, which meant they only broadcast from sun up to sun down.
The early ’70s had witnessed a tremendous evolution in black radio. The AM stations were still around but had been joined by FM outlets in major cities (WBLS in New York, WDAS in Philadelphia, WHUR in Washington D.C.). The sound quality was great. The vibe smoother, more laid back. The entire sonic package, just like the music, reflected the growth of the black middle class and its aspirational nature. The fact that many of these stations were black owned reflected their cultural importance.
But this evolution didn’t necessarily impress Madison Avenue. Black radio had always been a place where hair grease, prayer cloths and local bars had advertised. More expensive upscale products (automobiles, airlines, real estate companies) resisted advertising on radio stations aimed at black consumers. Trying to increase big brand advertising on their station was major mission of these stations, which is why so many of these stations began labeling their programming as “urban” or “urban contemporary” as opposed to “R&B,” “soul,” or “black.”
It was a linguistic evasion that allowed many stations to program disco music or R&B tracks by Queen along with Earth, Wind & Fire or Natalie Cole. The urban idea was that these stations attracted more than black listeners (which was absolutely true) and thus should not be locked into old stereotypes (also true.) It was this pursuit of mainstream advertising that would, in a few years, inform black radio’s initial negativity towards hip hop.
But it wasn’t just Madison Avenue that these hip black FM stations had beef with. The major record labels, for whom black radio was crucial, weren’t perceived as being truly supportive. When artists came to town having local DJs host the show or the station co-promote the show or have a ticket giveaways were crucial branding for these station. Yet, especially when a black performer with pop appeal came to town, the Pop (aka white) department of a label would control the majority of the promotional dollars and often offer black radio stations token involvement.
While these big market radio programmers strategized, the smaller market FM and AM R&B stations had their own issues. Though they generated revenue for these stations and were extremely popular in their markets, the DJs felt poorly paid and treated like disposable product. Talk to a radio DJ and you are speaking to a gypsy, someone who’s moved from station to station, city to city, sometimes to move up, other times just to survive.
The taking of payola to play certain records or promote new artists was rampant at black radio since a) it had been a generally accepted practice since the ’50s and b) most black radio station personnel, despite their visibility, were often barely holding on financially. This was particularly true of black AM stations and smaller market broadcasters in the South and Midwest. It’s why the fight to get a piece of shows by acts visiting their market was crucial to them.
Another piece of this puzzle were drugs, particularly cocaine. Some radio promotion people curried favor with radio programmers and air personalities as drug suppliers, effectively buying airplay for nose candy depending on how thirsty folks at that station were. When it came to radio play sometimes the line between the music world and underworld was as thin as vinyl on a turntable.
Black concert promoters
The concerns of black radio were even more intense within the ranks of black concert promoters. From the post- World War II period onward small black promoters, often working with booking agencies focused on black talent like Associated Booking Company or Queen Booking, put together national tours for R&B acts. Both of these company’s were said to have underworld connections, useful since so many major venues around the U.S. were either financed by organized crime or were owned by folks of unquestionable ethics. It was taken as a given that road managers for artists carried guns, a tool would often be crucial in getting paid what was owed and holding onto that cash between the venue and the hotel safe.
Sometimes these promoters, people like Herman Wynne or Teddy Powell, were “relatively” reputable. (George Clinton once told me that Powell was known for keeping the take on the last show of any tour. You had to bill him when you went on the road again to make up the previous tour’s short fall.) Other promoters were more fly by night who pay have owned a local club or were a gamblers bigger on talk than cash.
In the ’70s, when white booking agencies and promoters began taking on black acts in large numbers, many performers were excited. Suddenly venues like Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall opened their doors to performers too long ghettoized. But who promoted and booked these shows? Increasingly white agencies and promoters. This became a huge controversy within the black music community. Promoters claimed dibs on the artists since they’d booked them since their start, often taking losses before the acts broke big.
White promoters, many who cut their teeth on pop or rock, argued they had experience with bigger venues and the logistics of mounting arena shows. And the artists, torn between loyalty to old friends and the pull of new opportunities, were in the middle. At the BMA conference the sessions around booking were particularly contentious. Lee Woods, a Jackson, Mississippi based promoter, claimed he’d lost money on a Teddy Pendergrass date a few years ago. Now that Pendergrass was an established star, he couldn’t get dates with the singer via Teddy’s now white booker. Leonard Rowe, a long time promoter based in Atlanta, called the booking and promotion business “the most segregated segment of the record industry.”
The crossover success of Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston and other superstar acts in the ’80s would exacerbate the divide between black promoters and white booking agents. We can see now, looking at a 21st century landscape where a few mammoth entities control both promotions and venues in the United States, these black promoters were fighting an historically losing battle. Ultimately no industry group was more an endangered species than black retailers.
Mom & Pop retailers
Down at the bottom of the musical food chain, yet historically crucial to it’s health, were Mom & Pop record stores. In every African-American community there were at least one and often two or three retailers with speakers placed out on the side walk blasting music for passersby on busy shopping strips. These were places where the owner was always ready to play you a new track or help you identify that hot record you heard on the radio you hadn’t caught the name of. These places, often small, narrow and cluttered with posters and vinyl, were as much a part of a black neighborhood’s identity as the local church, soul food spot or bar.
But the major’s dominance of black music threatened their existence, since they focused on large chain retailers and big box stores like Sears. These bigger companies were about big orders and, if the orders were big enough, a chain store could buy at a discount. Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘All ’n All’ might retail for $12.99 but, because of a discount, a large retailer could sell it at $10.99 or even $9.99. The majors wouldn’t sell directly to Mom & Pop stores, so they had to buy through a wholesale outlet at list price. To make a profit the small stores would charge $13.99 or more for that same EW&F. Black buyers, while loyal to the local shop, began buying the hottest LPs at the major retailers. It the start of a slow death for these retailers.
The Mom & Pop stores complained loudly but not too much effect. The black music departments aided many of the stores in buying together as a co-op, making them eligible for discounts. But these efforts were band aids and the Mom & Pop owners knew it. Being based in inner city hoods that, in the ’70s were in steep decline, didn’t help their disposition. In 1979 they were hanging on. By the ’80s, when crack overwhelmed these areas, most would close. Way before the digital revolution changed music purchasing and gentrification their hoods, these black owned businesses were already doomed.
Yet, at the BMA and when I would cover their struggle in the ’80s, these feisty women and men were some of the people most devoted to the music. The hip hop crate digging culture that was just in its infancy in ’79 was pretty much based on the records sold out of Mom & Pop retailers. I remember traveling out to Birdel’s Records store on Nostrand Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant in fall of ’79 to cover the sales success of the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Owner Joe Long talked at about how hot the record was. The copies of the 12 inch he had were so new there wasn’t even a Sugar Hill logo on it — just an orange label featuring the group’s name and that of the label Sugar Hill. For much of the early ’80s it was indie rap singles that helped Long and his peers pay their bills. In their knowledge of their buyers and ability to sell new music these Mom & Pop retailers weren’t merely crate diggers. They’re the ones who created the crates.
The creation of black music departments meant bigger advances, larger recording budgets, more coordinated national promotion and better royalty rates. However, artists still didn’t own their masters, meaning they were actually more employees of the record companies than independent vendors in partnership with them. On this labels, large and small, wouldn’t budge.
So, while the working conditions for black musicians were definitely enhanced by ’79, it also created new challenges. Artists perceived to have crossover (white) appeal were treated differently than those that weren’t. At an indie sales of 500,000 were applauded. At CBS or Warner Bros the goal was 1,000,000 sales or more. Over the course of the ’70s this crossover pressure began to affect what songs were recorded, how they were recorded, and which were heavily promoted as singles.
Many of soul’s most vibrant voices were urged to cut disco records (Johnny Taylor’s 1976 hit “Disco Lady” was one of the most successful.) However, for many, disco became a creative dead end that alienated their core fans and won few new ones. The late Aretha Franklin’s disco oriented 1979 album, ‘La Diva,’ is the nadir of this trend, selling only 75,000 copies in the U.S. during its initial release and ending her historic relationship with Atlantic Records.
Finding a strategy to overcome racism, both within the pop department of major labels and at pop radio, was a major preoccupation of the artists, their managers, and black department a&r staffers in the late ’70s. Disco was not the answer. However many were looking at the success of the Commodore’s Lionel Richie, who was penning pop number one ballads (“Easy,” “Three Times A Lady,”) turning a hard charging funk ensemble into an easy listening hit machine. Richie songs with the Commodores’ foreshadowed, not just his ’80s solo career, but a road map many others would follow, one that would later justify the need for a return to rawer sounds in black music. (Check the careers of James Ingram and Whitney Houston for two examples.)
While covering the BMA conference all these issues above, and probably a few I missed, bubbled to the surface. Panels devolved into shouting matches. There were tense conversations in the hallways of Philly’s Sheraton Hotel. A group of black radio programmers, feeling their issues were not being properly addressed by the BMA, formed their own new organization, the Young Black Programmers Coalition.
It was a contentious, spirited conference. None of the later conferences had the same intensity or openness. More importantly the BMA never fulfilled its potential as an advocacy group for the music, including the major goal of getting an annual television special on one of the big three networks. There were some highlights though. Stevie Wonder performed at a banquet and Bob Marley joined him onstage, a moment I’ll never forget.
The BMA conference was my baptism of fire in a black music world that would become my journalistic beat and artistic inspiration for the next decade. In 1981 I was named Black Music editor of Record World magazine, one of Billboard’s music trade publication competitors, and I then rejoined Billboard in the spring of ’82. So, from January of that year until the summer of 1989, the trends, attitudes and customs of the people who made and sold African-American music I contemplated on a daily basis.
A lot of what I observed was disappointing. I quickly began to realize that for all the marketing meetings and promotional strategies employed by major labels, most of the folks in the industry didn’t have a clue as to what would sell or why it did. Much hyped records would pass my desk and never make it past #50 on the R&B chart. Some would zoom up the singles’ chart based on radio play, but have no legs in the real world, selling a few thousand copies to be followed by an LP that went, not gold or platinum, but wood.
Few of the people I encountered in the black music biz were as passionate about music, its history and its makers as I was. I’d go to showcases where the vice president for black music for some major label would trumpet his latest signing as a major star. The new act would do two or three songs of questionable musicality or just formulaic competence. Then at the bar or buffet line I’d find out the VP and the act had the same attorney, or the A&R executive on the project got kicked back $30,000 out of the signing bonus by the manager or the singer had to give an executive a blow job to close the deal.
While Kenny Gamble and company’s dream of the BMA was never fulfilled, he took the fruits of his success with PIR records to institutionalize himself in the real world, tangibly improving the lives of his fellow Philadelphians. It’s a message in the music I hope the current leaders in black music are taking to heart.