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'Milk' Is Much More Than A Martyr Movie

Film critic David Edelstein says the Harvey Milk biopic, starring Sean Penn, is one of the most heartfelt portraits of a politician ever made. "The personal and the political aren't just hand-in-hand," he says: "They dance."

07:17

Other segments from the episode on November 26, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 26, 2008: Interview with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff; Review of the film "Milk."

Transcript

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Gamble And Huff, Riding Philly's 'Love Train'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Records like "For the Love of Money," "Me and Mrs. Jones," "I'll Be Around," "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "Love Train," "Break Up to Make Up" and "TSOP" aka the "Soul Train" theme helped define what became known in the '70s as the Philly sound. My guests are two of the main architects of that sound, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

In 1971, they co-founded Philadelphia International Records and went on to write and produce many of the label's hits. The label was home to such groups as Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, The O'Jays, The Spinners, Billy Paul, and McFadden & Whitehead. The new box set "Love Train: collects many of the hits from Philadelphia International Records along with some Gamble and Huff collaborations that precede the label. Before we meet Gamble and Huff, let's hear one of the hits they wrote and produced from 1972. This is The O'Jays with "Back Stabbers."

(Soundbite of song "Back Stabbers")

THE O'JAYS: (Singing) What they do? They smile in your face. All the time they want to take your place. The back stabbers. Back stabbers. They smile in your face. All the time they want to take your place. The back stabbers. Back stabbers. All you fellows who have someone and you really care.

GROSS: Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, welcome to Fresh Air. Now, Leon Huff, was that you on the piano at the very beginning?

Mr. LEON HUFF (Songwriter, Producer, Co-founder, Philadelphia International Records): Yes.

GROSS: OK. Tell us about figuring out what you were going to play there.

Mr. HUFF: "Back Stabbers" sounds like something like eerie, you know, something eerie like, so that roll was like something horrible because that's what back stabbers are. So that roll reflected that type of a drama and it worked.

GROSS: OK. So after we hear that opening, then the rhythm section comes in and then the strings. And it's a really big production which is something that Philadelphia International really specialized in. Kenny Gamble, do you want to talk about that kind of big, produced orchestral sound that you got?

Mr. KENNY GAMBLE (Songwriter, Producer, Co-founder, Philadelphia International Records): Well, you know, that sound from the orchestra was always - that was our dream to be able to play so many counter melodies that came along with those songs that the orchestra was able to put that together. And plus, too, you know, during the time when we were coming along, it was stereo. Stereo radio had just come into really, like - they were putting it in cars. I mean, it was everywhere. It went from mono to stereo. And so we had a lot of space, you know, to fill up. Stereo was much more soothing than mono so we thought about the mixes that we could do, and the music was not only funky, it was classical at the same time. So the string players and horn players, you know, we had the greatest orchestra, I think, MFSB that was the name of the orchestra.

GROSS: How did you know a lot about the instruments of the orchestra that you wouldn't typically hear in a small band, like French horns or flugelhorns? Did you study that kind - how did you develop an ear for those kinds of instruments?

Mr. HUFF: Well, I'd come in contact with those types of instruments because I was in a band in elementary school, a marching band.

GROSS: Oh, I love marching - I was in a band like that, too.

Mr. HUFF: Great experience, you know.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HUFF: So I had the opportunity to hear trombones and French horns and flutes and piccolos and all that kind of good stuff that makes up a fantastic orchestra. So that's how I became familiar, you know, with vibes, bells, maracas, shakers, tambourines, the whole nine yards, and Gamble experienced the same thing, too. That's why we were able to incorporate those types of sounds.

GROSS: Kenny Gamble, were you in a marching band, also?

Mr. GAMBLE: No, no, not no marching band. But we had a band, and I think that the music that influenced me most, you know, from like the early late '50s like Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Lieber and Stoller, you know what I mean? The Drifters were in that, strings and they're first introduced to strings.

GROSS: Strings and timpani.

Mr. GAMBLE: Everything. You know, "There Goes My Baby," I think that was probably one of the first songs that had a full orchestra and then Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach and Hal David. I mean, they did some fantastic arrangements, and they used all kinds of instruments doing that. And the rhythm making thing, so we were products of that era and also the Motown Era which had the greatest of influence, which also used a lot of horns and baritone saxes and things like that. So we stretched out and plus Tommy Bell and Bobby Martin, The Arrangers, they would also make suggestions from time to time like, why don't you use an oboe or over here or this or whatever. And it all worked together once we were able to get in that studio.

GROSS: Let's hear another great track from Philadelphia International Records. It's on the new box set. And we're going to hear "If You Don't Know Me By Now" by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. And Teddy Pendergrass sings lead on this. And I think, Leon Huff, you were the one who discovered that Teddy Pendergrass could sing as good as he did.

Mr. HUFF: Well, he caught my ear, you know, in the rehearsal with his particular sound.

GROSS: He was the drummer with the band? Did you know that he could sing?

Mr. HUFF: A big baritone. No, not really. His voice just stood out, you know, amongst the other voices, and it just grabs your ear, mine anyway.

Mr. GAMBLE: Plus, Harold Melvin knew that he could sing, you know. Harold was really the architect of that group, of the Blue Notes. He'd been in The Blue Notes since in the late '50s, and so that's why eventually, what we decided to do is call it Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes because The Blue Notes kept changing. But Harold Melvin remained there all the time and then Teddy Pendergrass came along.

Mr. HUFF: His voice roared.

Mr. GAMBLE: Yes, so we called it Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass.

GROSS: Did Harold Melvin mind that Teddy Pendergrass was singing lead and not Harold Melvin?

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah, he minded. Yeah, he minded because it was Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and people thought that Teddy Pendergrass was Harold Melvin. And so he used to come to me and say, man, they think that Teddy's Harold Melvin. I'd say, well, you know, don't worry about it, but, you know...

Mr. HUFF: There was that power sounding through.

GROSS: Well, before we hear "If You Don't Know Me By Now," do you want to say anything else to introduce it about how you wrote the song, for instance?

Mr. HUFF: All I knew is we're in the room, in Gamble's office where the piano was, an old upright, and we was just, the ideas were just coming. I don't know how the song came about, I just...

Mr. GAMBLE: Well, you just go and I suppose, you got a friend or you're in a relationship so I say, well, where have you been at? You know, I was working. And then all of a sudden, you'd say, well, if you don't know me by now, you'll never know me. I mean, that's like a relationship kind of thing where people have gone through that, everybody's gone through that. Millions of people going through that everyday.

GROSS: But we haven't written songs about it, so what made you realize that was a good hook for a song?

Mr. GAMBLE: Well, ideas pop into your head.

Mr. HUFF: And you're just feeling good.

Mr. GAMBLE: And so Huff and I, we used to write titles down. You know, we'd come in with a legal pad full of nothing but titles and that's how we would get our songs with the title. Each title had a story to it, so we're playing around and messing around.

Mr. HUFF: Just pick one. Just pick one.

Mr. GAMBLE: Pick one and then all of a sudden, you know, if you don't know me by now, you'll never know me. It seemed like it fit the order of the day.

GROSS: OK. So this is Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes from 1972 with Teddy Pendergrass singing lead and my guests, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, wrote the song and produced the record.

Mr. GAMBLE: Right.

Mr. HUFF: And won a Grammy.

GROSS: And won a Grammy for it. OK.

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

Mr. HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES: (Singing) If you don't know me by now, you will never, never, never know me. All the things that we've been through, you should understand me like I understand you. Now baby, I know the difference between right and wrong. I ain't gonna do nothing to upset our happy home. Oh, don't get so excited when I come home a little late at night because we only act like children when we argue, fuss and fight. Hey, if you don't know me by now. If you don't know me. You will never, never, never know me.

GROSS: That's Harold Melvin & Blue notes with Teddy Pendergrass singing lead, recorded in 1972, written and produced by my guests Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. And while we were listening to that, Kenny Gamble, you were telling me something I want you to repeat.

Mr. GAMBLE: Well, I just wanted to let you know that doing the background - see Huff and myself and Bunny Sigler, we used to do a lot of backgrounds on records because, not saying that the group wasn't really good, but there's a certain sound that we wanted. And so on that "If You Don't Know Me By Now" is a Gamble, Huff and Bunny Sigler, we're doing the background.

Mr. HUFF: Yeah. Boy, they can harmonize, boy.

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah. Me and Huff and Bunny Sigler, I mean, we really had a good sound together and in fact, like on a lot of Stylistic songs, you know, we song on The Stylistic songs on the background and Joe Simon. We sang on Joe Simon…

Mr. HUFF: Archie Bell.

Mr. GAMBLE: Archie Bell, we were the Drells. I mean, you know.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding?

Mr. GAMBLE: So if you don't know me by now, we were singing that - I don't know if I could hit them notes again, but yeah.

GROSS: Well, that leads me right to where I want to go. I mean, I know you used to sing in a group called the Romeos.

Mr. GAMBLE: Oh, yeah. We had a lot of fun with The Romeos and Huff and Roland Chambers, Karl Chambers, Winnie Walford, Thom Bell and myself, we were an excellent band and we sang together. We had sort of like - the best part of the band was when we used to sing songs like the Four Freshmen. You know what I mean? We'd have that kind of modern harmony kind of songs and we did the standard "Moon River." We had a great arrangement of "Moon River," and we had a great arrangement of "I Wish You Love." Huff would play the drums on that and Roland and Karl, his brother, and we would sing together. So we just sang a little bit you know.

Mr. HUFF: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Neither of you is going to do a few bars of "Moon River" for me? No?

Mr. GAMBLE: You know, I can't even hardly remember it.

(Soundbite of Mr. Huff humming "Moon River")

Mr. GAMBLE: I know he had a baseline.

(Soundbite of Mr. Gamble doing baseline sounds)

Mr. GAMBLE: Something like that.

Mr. HUFF: It was great, you know. It was funny, that was the highlight of my early music career as a musician from Camden, New Jersey. At that time, I felt like I could play good enough to join a band, and I kept hearing about Kenny Gamble and The Romeos appearing down at this club in lower side New Jersey called Loretta's Highhat(ph) and I had a day gig at Cooper Hospital. But every weekend, you see, word of mouth is powerful...

Mr. GAMBLE: You better believe it.

Mr. HUFF: And that's all I heard. Just Kenny Gamble, Kenny Gamble and there was Kenny Gamble and The Romeos. They're down in - so I had the opportunity to be off one weekend, and I thought, I'm going to ride down there, and they had lines around the corner, people trying to get into this club and busloads. I mean you might have thought the Rolling Stones or somebody you know. So it took me about an hour to get in. But once I got in, then I could see why because they were rocking the place. So me, as a musician, I could say, oh, I could be in a band like that because I thought I could play that good, you know, at that time, you know.

GROSS: Well, you know, I should mention, Leon Huff, early in your career you also did some session work for Phil Spector.

Mr. HUFF: Yeah.

GROSS: You played piano with the famous Phil Spector Christmas album.

Mr. HUFF: That's right.

GROSS: You did work with Leiber and Stoller.

Mr. HUFF: Yeah.

GROSS: So did you think that that was your future, doing session work, or did you think you'd become a songwriter-producer?

Mr. HUFF: That was one of my first dreams. You know as a young boy, I always had albums in my house. My mother used to take us to music stores. I used to read liner notes. I used to do all of that, you know.

GROSS: To read liner notes?

Mr. HUFF: Then they had liner notes in back of albums.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. HUFF: So I used to read all of them and I always wanted to be a studio musician. That's what I wanted to do.

GROSS: What did you learn from working with Phil Spector and Leiber and Stoller, great producers, that you applied to Philadelphia International Records?

Mr. HUFF: Phil Spector had a whole different approach.

GROSS: Like what? What did he do?

Mr. HUFF: You know, the wall of sound, you know. You know, you have every individual musician play their part down and then he worked for hours on the drum sound, and he'll tell all the musicians to take a break. And he'll be in there like two or three hours just working with them drums. So if you listen to his productions, then you'll see that it sounded like nothing else.

GROSS: My guests are Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They co-founded Philadelphia International Records in 1971, which had dozens of hits and defined the Philly sound. They have a new box set called "Love Train." More after our break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the creators of Philadelphia International Records. They had a zillion hits. They're producers, songwriters and performers. And there's a new four CD box set that collects just some of their work together, and the box set actually starts before you founded Philadelphia International Records with some of the hits that you had for other record labels. And I want to play one of those, and I think this is the first real hit that you had. It's from 1967, "Expressway to Your Heart," the Soul Survivors. So tell us how this recording came to be. Why don't you start with writing the song? And let me say, you're from Philadelphia, Kenny Gamble. Leon Huff, you're from Camden. Close enough?

Mr. HUFF: Yeah. Twenty minutes.

Mr. GAMBLE: That's East Philly, Camden.

GROSS: Yeah. It's just right over the river in New Jersey. And there is an expressway in Philadelphia called the Schuylkill Expressway that is famous for its unpredictable traffic jams. So just this Schuylkill Expressway - is that the expressway referred to in "Expressway to Your Heart?"

Mr. GAMBLE: That's it.

GROSS: Where you thinking about that?

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah. That's it.

Mr. HUFF: Gamble wrote the lyrics.

Mr. GAMBLE: I think it's one of the most clever lyrics I've ever written.

Mr. HUFF: Yeah.

Mr. GAMBLE: What happened with that song is sort of like self explanatory. I was on my way over to see a friend of mine, a young lady. So the expressway was just backed up - that's when they first started the expressway. That's in '67, so it was just beginning. I was sitting there for - it seemed like hours, you know what I mean? So I started beating on the dashboard, you know, talking about expressway to your heart. Trying to get to you. You know what I mean? And that's how it came through. I (unintelligible) see how much it helped "Expressway To Your Heart" and put that baseline, do do do-do-do(ph), and that's how songs come, though. Songs come from your imagination. You just got to be quick. You got to be quick to capture the moment for the concepts.

GROSS: So you were in the car writing that song on the way to see your woman friend? Who did you end up seeing first, Leon Huff or her?

Mr. GAMBLE: Oh, I saw her first.

Mr. HUFF: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: You saw her first.

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah, I saw her first.

GROSS: So you kept it in your mind?

Mr. GAMBLE: Oh, I saw Huff the next day. But I write stuff down though because I forget it.

GROSS: Now Leon Huff, did you think what this song needs to start with - well, first of all, it starts with horns - like car horns honking in traffic. And the horns are tuned. I mean there's a line...

Mr. HUFF: They sound like it, don't they?

GROSS: There's a line with like one horn and then that line is repeated in a different pitch. And another horn and they're in harmony with each other.

Mr. GAMBLE: They sound like it.

GROSS: Are those real car horns or did you...

Mr. GAMBLE: Oh, yeah. They were real car horns. But you know what? That was inspired a little bit by there was a song called "Summer in the City."

GROSS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. GAMBLE: Hot down. It's summer in the city. And they had car horns and stuff like that.

GROSS: That's true. They did. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. GAMBLE: So Joe and I, we just...

GROSS: He was the engineer, Joe.

Mr. GAMBLE: He was the engineer and so we just - we got some - they have these sound effect records where you can - they have car horns on it. They got everything on them - sound effect records. And so, we just used the car horns on it. And just one more thing about that song that a lot of people don't know is that we used the same lyrics in the expressway that we used in the song with the Temptations and the Supremes "I'm Going to Make You Love Me."

GROSS: Wait, I know that song. But I'm trying to remember, think of what the similarity is.

Mr. GAMBLE: OK. The Temptations - well, "I'm going to make you love me, every minute and every hour, I'm going to shower you with love and affection. OK. You see it now, right?

GROSS: Yes - in your direction.

Mr. GAMBLE: Right. The same thing. Look out it's coming in your direction. Same thing, see?

GROSS: Is that cheating?

Mr. GAMBLE: No, no. That's really taking advantage of creativity, you know.

Mr. HUFF: You can say a lot of things in a lot of different ways.

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah.

GROSS: Good. OK. Well, this is a great record. I have always loved this record. It's "Expressway to Your Heart," the Soul Survivors, 1967, written by my guests Gamble and Huff and produced by you two, right?

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah, we produced the songs.

GROSS: And Leon, have you been playing on this?

Mr. HUFF: Yes.

GROSS: It's you at the piano?

Mr. HUFF: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. Here we go.

(Soundbite of song "Expressway to Your Heart")

SOUL SURVIVORS: (Singing) I've been tryin' to get to you for a long time, because constantly you been on my mind. I was thinkin' about a shortcut I could take but it seems like I made a mistake. I was wrong, mmm, I took too long. I got caught in the rush hour. A fellow started to shower you with love and affection. Now you won't look in my direction. On the expressway to your heart, that expressway is not the best way. At five o'clock it's much too crowded, much too crowded, so crowded. No room for me (too crowded). Oh, too crowded. Now there's too many ahead of me. They're all the time gettin' in front of me.

GROSS: Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff will be back in the second half of the show. Their new Philly sound box set is called "Love Train." I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of ad)

GROSS: This is the O'Jays with another hit written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Coming up, Gamble and Huff tell us more stories about creating the Philly sound. And David Edelstein reviews "Milk," the new movie about the life and death of Harvey Milk, starring Sean Penn.

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

O'JAYS: (Singing) Money money money money, money. Some people got to have it. Some people really need it. Listen to me y'all, do things, do things, do bad things with it. You wanna do things, do things, do things, good things with it. Talk about...

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with the songwriting and production team Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They co-founded Philadelphia International Records in 1971 which defined the Philly sound. They modeled their label on Motown Records. They have a new Philly sound box set called "Love Train" named after one of Gamble and Huff's many hits. When we left off, they were talking about writing and producing the hit "Expressway to Your Heart" which they recorded with the Soul Survivors before Gamble and Huff founded their own label. What impact did that recording have on your careers?

Mr. GAMBLE: "Expressway?" Boy, it had a tremendous impact, and I think one of the good things about it was that the Soul Survivors was a great perform and act. They would perform in places and just turning the places out. But it was like a breakthrough for us, for Gamble and Huff, because it seemed like everything started to happen from there. Because right after or during the same time as "Expressway," we recorded the Intruders with "Cowboys to Girls."

GROSS: Love that song.

Mr. GAMBLE: So we had been trying with the Intruders, we're united. Together we have had four or five different records before them - they were building but then "Cowboys to Girls" came out and just exploded so we was on a roll. That's why we went up to Motown. We went up to Motown. We had "Expressway" on the charts and "Cowboys to Girls."

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GAMBLE: Had two records like in the top ten. So we figured we'd go to Motown, you know.

GROSS: And why didn't you stay there? Like, what didn't work when you were thinking of...

Mr. GAMBLE: Well, I think it was a kind of far away number one, you know? Our families were living in Philadelphia. And I think we were just basically on the exploratory as, you know, let's see what's up there because we admired them so much, you know?

Mr. HUFF: Yeah.

Mr. GAMBLE: And we met Holland, Dozier and Holland. We met Norman Whitfield. We met all these great song writers and producers that we admired for so many years, and we wanted to see whether or not there was an opportunity at Motown. But what happened was is that from a business standpoint and from a logistic standpoint, I think that we had decided when we were there, we said, I think we'd better try to do this back in Philly, you know? And you know, thank God it worked out really, really good for us. The timing was good. And Motown will always be my favorite record company.

GROSS: Now, you know how you said you kept a list of titles and then eventually wrote songs that would grow out of the titles? Was "Cowboys to Girls" one of the titles that was on your list before it was a song?

Mr. GAMBLE: Oh, yeah. No question about it.

GROSS: And you remember how it got on the list in the first place?

Mr. GAMBLE: "Cowboys to Girls," because it's a story. That story is like a story about a guy who grows up. Like, little kids, and they grow up where the guy would be beating the girls up, and they'll be pulling their hair. You know, they don't treat them tender. Then all of a sudden, he grows up and say, hey, you know? Now, I know girls are made for kissing, you know, new knew what I was missing.

And the girl, she went from baby dolls to boys, you know what I mean? So it's clever. I tried to - lyrics that we were trying to put together was something that was a little bit different and a little - like "Expressway to Your Heart" was different. "Cowboys to Girls" was different, you know? And there's so many other, I can't think of one right now , but try to take a different angle to songs.

Like, Smokey Robinson used to write songs, like "The Tears of a Clown" and, you know - you know, different - you know, try to be as clever as possible.

Mr. HUFF: That's the word, clever.

GROSS: So let's squeeze in "Cowboys to Girls." It's one of the songs featured on the new 4-CD box set of songs mostly from Philadelphia International Records, but also some of the songs that were Gamble and Huff collaborations before they created Philadelphia International. And this is one of those songs that they did before Philadelphia International Records. This is "Cowboys to Girls."

(Soundbite of song "Cowboys to Girls")

THE INTRUDERS: (Singing) Cowboys to girls. I remember when I used to play and shoot 'em up (Shoot 'em up, bang, bang baby). I remember when I chased the girls and beat 'em up. But I was young and didn't understand. But now I'm a grown up man. I know girls are made for kissing. Never knew what I was missing. Now my life is not the same. My whole world has been rearranged. I went from (cowboys to girls). Oh, yes I did. (Cowboys to girls). I remember...

GROSS: It's "Cowboys to Girls," written by my guests, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the founders of Philadelphia International Records. And there's a new 4 CD box set that collects music from Philadelphia International Records and some of the Gamble and Huff collaborations that preceded that record label.

Now, you're from Philly. You've been working in Philly and Camden. And Philadelphia International Records has been headquartered in Philadelphia, which was also the home when you were getting started on "American Bandstand" with Dick Clark. And that had a really strong impact on the Philadelphia music scene. And the record label Cameo-Parkway, which was based in Philadelphia, had a lot of performers that ended up being stars on "Bandstand," including Dee Dee Sharp, Chubby Checker and his record "The Twist," Bobby Rydell.

Mr. GAMBLE: Frankie Avalon...

GROSS: Frankie Avalon.

Mr. GAMBLE: Fabian, The Dovells. I mean, it was a tremendous music...

GROSS: So what other impact did that have on you, having the Cameo-Parkway label, feeding "American Bandstand" - like what did you learn from watching them?

Mr. GAMBLE: Well, we learned so much from them there. Our office is - we're in the same office as the Cameo-Parkway.

GROSS: Where they used to be.

Mr. GAMBLE: Where they used to be, 309 South Broad Street.

GROSS: And you had the engineer that they used to have.

Mr. GAMBLE: Same engineer. We bought that building back in 1970, '71. And I think Cameo-Parkway was another learning tool for us because they basically had a group of writers too. They were - I mean, Motown was - inspired them. Because when you go to Cameo-Parkway, they had a library and had every Motown records you can think of.

And all the writers at the Cameo-Parkway were basically listening to Motown Records trying to really duplicate the Motown sound. And I think that Cameo-Parkway and "Bandstand" - "Bandstand" to me was like the "American Idol" is today. You could get an artist on "Bandstand" during that time, and they perform his record. And in a day or two, he had the number one record in the country because "Bandstand" had that much influence in the music industry.

GROSS: I think the period when you started having hits is past when "Bandstand" was really still based in Philadelphia.

Mr. GAMBLE: Oh, it was gone then.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah, "Bandstand" was gone.

GROSS: So you couldn't really break your records on "Bandstand"?

Mr. HUFF: No.

Mr. GAMBLE: No. In fact, "Soul Train" had come in to play.

GROSS: Well, that's right...

Mr. GAMBLE: During that time...

GROSS: Well, that's where I'm heading, "Soul Train."

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah, "Soul Train" was - I mean, we started around the '60, '64, somewhere around there, and you go all the way to - from that era to "Bandstand," leaving and going to California. And "Soul Train" sort of picked up where "Bandstand" left off at.

GROSS: You wrote the record that became the theme for "Soul Train," TSOP, "The Sound of Philadelphia." So I guess my first question about that is why did you do an instrumental? I mean, instrumentals were basically - they kind of fallen from fashion by the time that you did this. The things had vocals on them. So why did you even think about doing an instrumental?

Mr. GAMBLE: You know, it had words to it too.

Mr. HUFF: Yeah. You know, the three degrees was on there.

Soul Train, Soul Train - Soul Train.

I mean, you know, we were singing Soul Train. Plus too, we always looked at it like Johnny Carson, you know, he had a theme song. You know, da, da, di, da (ph). That's Johnny Carson, all right? You take Bob Hope. He's got "Thanks for the Memories." You understand? Everybody great has kind of like, you know, from television, has a theme song. So we wanted to give Don Cornelius a theme song.

GROSS: Did he ask you to write one?

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah, he came in to Philly.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that.

Mr. GAMBLE: No, he came in to Philly.

GROSS: Oh, he asked you.

Mr. GAMBLE: You know, because the music he had on there - he was a really good friend of ours, still is a good friend of ours, you know? And all of our artists were on his show, you know? And so, I'm talking to him one day. We were talking about his theme song. I said, you need to get a better theme song. So he said, I'll come in. So he came in, and me and Huff and all the musicians, we got together. And like the first day, (unintelligible), we said we didn't get too much the first day.

So me and Huff went back to the office, and that melody came up - Soul Train, Soul Train. And then once you got that melody, and then you put the other pieces to it, and put that (unintelligible), you know what I mean? And then that did it, you know?

GROSS: OK, so this is "TSOP, The Sound of Philadelphia," which you also know as the theme from "Soul Train." And this was written and produced by my guests, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

(Soundbite of song "TSOP, The Sound of Philadelphia")

GROSS: We will talk more with the songwriting and production team, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, co-founders of Philadelphia International Records after a break . Their new box set is called "Love Train." This is Fresh Air.

GROSS: My guests are Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They co-founded Philadelphia International Records in 1971, which had dozens of hits and defined the Philly sound. They have a new box set, called "Love Train." Let me play another record that you wrote together and that you produced, and this is "Me and Mrs. Jones," which Billy Paul recorded. And I've read that you have described this as one of the trickiest songs that you did. And I'm wondering what was tricky about it.

Mr. HUFF: That's probably was me telling that because it was just - I had a different feel. It was more jazz orientated to me. I remember when Gamble was forming the chorus, because he had the core percussions. (unintelligible) show, I couldn't catch it for a minute because I had a different type of time and factor. It was different, you know?

I never played a song like that until, you know, I got to learn it, you know? But that was the most different track of all the tracks, I think.

GROSS: How did it start off? I mean, how did the idea start off?

Mr. GAMBLE: The idea started off with - I went a few years ago to a low bar downstairs from the Sugar Building - that's where we were, in the Sugar Building. We used to go down there every day and talk to the bar maid, and this guy used to come up to the bar every day. Little guy looked like a judge or something like that, right?

So me and Huff, we're watching everything. We're songwriters, so when we sit - and everything we're doing, we're thinking about a song. And so, we see this guy coming in, and we said OK. Then the next day, he come in there again. But when he come in there every day, this girl would come in maybe ten or fifteen minutes after he'd get there.

They'd sit in the same booth, go to the jukebox, play the same songs every day. So me and Huff, we said oh, that's "Me and Mrs. Jones" or whatever the name was going to call it, but that's how that song evolved into something. And then when they get ready to leave, he would go his way, she would go hers.

So, we - it could have been his daughter. It could have been his niece. It could have been anybody, but we assumed - we created the story out of this, that there was some kind of romantic connection between these people. And we'd go upstairs in our office, and we wrote the song, "Me and Mrs. Jones."

(Soundbite of song "Me and Mrs. Jones")

Mr. BILLY PAUL: (Singing) Me and Mrs. Jones. We got a thing goin' on. We both know that it's wrong. But it's much too strong. To let it go now. We meet every day at the same café. Six-thirty and no one knows she'll be there. Holding hands, making all kinds of plans. While the juke box plays our favorite songs. Me and Mrs. Jones. We got a thing goin' on.

GROSS: "Me and Mrs. Jones" is one of the recordings on the new 4CD box set that collects some of the recordings from Philadelphia International records, the label that was founded by my guests, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They wrote a lot of the hits on their label, including the record that we just heard, and produced a lot of those records too. And Leon Huff played keyboard on a lot of those records too, including what we just heard?

Mr. HUFF: Yeah.

GROSS: What do you consider to be like the end of the real like glory days of Philadelphia International Records?

Mr. HUFF: I think it kind of like around about '80, '86, somewhere around in '87. Patti LaBelle, we had a big hit with Patti LaBelle. But it started to fall apart a little bit, like the early '80s.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. HUFF: Well, I think the people started to evolved. They wanted to do other things. And once you get hot like that, then everybody's after you, you know what I mean? All the record companies was after the artist, you know? And the writers wanted to, you know, to start their own thing and so forth. And that's natural, you know, for people to want to do that, you know?

So I think we had a good run. We had - at least, had a good almost 20 year run, strong run, you know? And...

GROSS: Was music changing also, like hip-hop?

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah, the music was changing also at the same time.

Mr. HUFF: But...

GROSS: How'd you feel about that? When there's a kind of like - you kind of helped create a sound, and then that sound is kind of becoming a little dated as a new sound, as hip-hop comes in.

Mr. GAMBLE: Well, I was glad, to be honest with you.

GROSS: Why were you glad?

Mr. GAMBLE: Well, I was kind of glad because we had worked so hard. I mean, even now, I'm happy. You know, I'm thankful for what we had. I'm glad for what we had. But you know, it's like - I always had a prospective in my mind. I said I know this is not going to last. Nothing lasts forever. You know, we still talk about all the time. You know, nothing will last forever, so let's get the juice out of it now. Whatever we can get, you know, let's keep writing, or whatever the case might be, because with every song we were writing was becoming a smash.

So I mean, how long you think that's going to last? I mean, you're taking that kind of energy out of yourself. And so, when it started to slow down, you know, I was thankful, and I was kind of glad because that schedule was unbelievable, you know? And you start to feel it after a while. You know, doing 12, 13 albums a year. You know, we had a good staff of people working with us, but it was no question, it was a lot. To get one song, one good song, we had to maybe write 10 songs.

GROSS: Would you produce all 10 and then decide which was best or just...

Mr. GAMBLE: Sometimes. Sometimes, we would do that. Sometimes, like when the O'Jays or Teddy Pennegrass would come in, we would record maybe 30 songs on just to get eight.

GROSS: Of the songs that you wrote together, do you have a favorite that we should end with?

Mr. GAMBLE: "Love Train."

Mr. HUFF: Yeah.

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah, "Love Train." That, to me, is the song that kind of encapsulates everything that we were thinking about, the message that we wanted to get out, you know? We're always talking about a message in the music, and "Love Train" is like international, very optimistic about life and the world. You know, people living together in harmony and unity, you know? So I think "Love Train" is something everybody better get on board.

Mr. HUFF: Yeah.

Mr. GAMBLE: If you missed it, I feel sorry for you.

Mr. HUFF: Those Coors beer commercials really made it popular.

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah, Coors beer.

GROSS: Thank you both so much. Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, thank you.

Mr. HUFF: My pleasure.

Mr. GAMBLE: Thank you very much for having us.

(Soundbite of song "Love Train")

THE O'JAYS: (Singing) People all over the world (everybody), join hands (join). Start a love train, love train. People all over the world (all the world, now), join hands (love ride). Start a love train (love ride), love train. The next stop that we make will be soon. Tell all the folks in Russia, and China, too. Don't you know that it's time to get on board and let this train keep on riding, riding on through. Well, well, people all over the world (you don't need no money), join hands (come on). Start a love train...

GROSS: Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff co-founded Philadelphia International Records and wrote and producde many of the label's hits. Their new box set is called "Love Train." A TV companion called "Love Train" will be shown on many PBS stations in December.

Coming up, David Edelstein review the new movie, "Milk," starring Sean Penn as the assassinated gay activist and elected official, Harvey Milk. This is Fresh Air.
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'Milk' Is Much More Than A Martyr Movie

TERRY GROSS, host:

It's been 31 years since gay activist Harvey Milk was elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. In 1978, before he completed his first year in office, he was murdered along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White. Milk's life was the subject of an acclaimed documentary, called "The Times of Harvey Milk." Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new feature film, "Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN (Film Critic, New York Magazine): It's tempting to describe the biopic "Milk" as a hagiography, a life of a saint and martyr. But that wouldn't be entirely apt since the movie is buoyant and exhilarating, and since it pointedly reverses the usual trajectory. Instead of forswearing the flesh for a life of the spirit, Sean Penn's Harvey Milk reaches the spirit by surrendering to the flesh, big time.

His salvation begins in 1970, on the eve of his 40th birthday, when he picks up a young Midwestern stud in a New York City subway station. After happy sex, Milk lies beside Scott Smith, played by James Franco, and muses on the life he has lived, his sexual orientation under wraps. Emboldened, he sets off with his new lover for San Francisco's Castro district for a life to be lived above ground, in the light.

With arrivals pouring in, the Castro is a burgeoning gay ecosystem, and director Gus Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides have an easy, open touch, as if they're shooting a documentary. Unlike "Brokeback Mountain," the gay couplings aren't hallowed. Every smooch doesn't carry the weight of the world. The characters are just doing what comes naturally, even when it's done by hetero actors like Penn.

Penn's transformation is startling. I've never seen smile lines on his face, yet here they are, crevices going deep. His voice is light, minus low tones. He's unprecedentedly giddy. There's anger, but it never festers. It's channeled into political action. In the tedious remake of "All the King's Men," Penn put Method-acting pauses in the scenes of Willie Stark finding his soapbox voice. He seemed too inward to play a rabble-rouser.

Here, he shakes off method self-attention. For Milk, the personal became political, and Penn opens the windows to his character's soul and gets visibly high on the breeze. Milk becomes an activist almost immediately. He organizes a boycott of businesses in the neighborhood that are hostile to gays. When that's successful, he sets out to become the first openly gay elected officeholder in San Francisco.

There's a small amount of drama within the gay community. Milk butts heads with the cautious owner of the magazine, The Advocate. But when he wins office on the third try, the threats come from outside, from Anita Bryant's anti-gay ballot initiatives and, later, Milk's murderer, fireman-turned-supervisor Dan White, played by Josh Brolin in a bowl haircut. In an attempt to be friendly, White shows up at Milk's office as Milk confers with aids. Among them, Emile Hirsch, as the spectacled activist, Cleve Jones.

(Soundbite of movie "Milk")

Mr. SEAN PENN: (As Harvey Milk) OK. First order of business to come out of this office is a citywide gay rights ordinance just like the one that Anita shut down in Dayton County. What do you think about this, Jones?

Mr. EMILE HIRSCH: (As Cleve Jones) I think it's good. It's not great.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) OK. So make it brilliant. We want Anita's attention here in San Francisco. I wanted to bring her fight to us. We need a unanimous vote. We need Dan White.

Mr. HIRSCH: (As Cleve Jones) Dan White is not going to vote for us.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) Dan White will be fine. Dan White is just uneducated, you know, teaching...

Mr. JAMES BROLIN: (As Dan White) Hey, Harve. Committee meets at 9:30. Hey, you guys. Say, did you get the invitation to my son's christening? I invited a few of the other sups, too.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) Oh, I'll be there.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Dan White) Great. Thanks.

Unidentified Woman: You're going?

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) I would let him christen me if it means he's going to vote for the gay rights ordinance. We need allies.

Unidentified Woman: I think he...

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) We need everyone.

Mr. HIRSCH: (As Cleve Jones) Jesus. I don't think he heard you.

Unidentified Woman: Is it just me, or is he gay?

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Brolin's Dan White is riveting, the only character in the movie with a meaty subtext, although it's not always clear what that subtext is. The approach of Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black isn't overly psychological. We know White's a homophobe. Milk thinks he's a closet case. We see he's desperate to keep his job and feels let down by Milk on the legislative front.

In any case, Milk doesn't see the bullets coming. He's too elated by the theater of politics, by exercising power for the first time. Lovers drift in and out, but we're not entirely sure how Milk could possibly take in a Mexican lover, played by Diego Luna, who is so obviously nuts. The film doesn't probe too deeply, possibly because people from Milk's orbit are still around, and were around the set. More likely, because the filmmakers mean to inspire future generations of gay activists.

It turns out to be a timely message with the passage of Proposition 8 in Milk's old stomping grounds. Good as Sean Penn is, it's too bad he didn't have a chance to show Milk before his gay emergence. Not because we need to see the same old coming-out-of-the-closet story, but because the before picture, Milk among the straights, would give the after picture more weight. But these are quibbles.

"Milk" is one of the most heartfelt portraits of a politician ever made. The personal and the political aren't just hand-in-hand. They dance.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross. All of us at Fresh Air wish you a happy Thanksgiving.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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