I think it’s important to again let you know how I’m connected to Kenny Gamble. First and foremost, before I ever met him, I was a big fan of his music. Not only did I enjoy the music immensely, I was overwhelmed by the lyrics- the message in the music. Significantly, I used to literally study his many albums covers and read his personal message (liner notes) about his philosophy of life and mostly his love for our people and what we need to do as a group. He wrote about unity, peace, love, trust and a “Universality” of life and the respect that we must restore for each other in our daily life. While he wrote many memorable love songs, it is the songs of “social” change that will remain relevant forever- “Wake Up Everybody,” “When the Worlds at Peace,” “Love Train,” “Ghetto Child,” “Don’t Call me Brother,” “For the Love of Money.”
I formally met Kenny Gamble in 1992 when I was doing an event in Philadelphia called “The Celebration of Excellence,” which was designed to be a weeklong of activities that celebrated the successes in our community. I was introduced to him as a potential sponsor. This is not abnormal because most, if not all, efforts undertaken in the Black community in Philadelphia has his DNA all over it and my project was no exception. He bought into our concept and not only did he become the chair of the event, he became the biggest financial sponsor. He used his awesome personal and political capital to bring the Black community together. Needless to say, “The Celebration of Excellence” event was an incredible success. From the time we met in 1992, to today, we haven’t stop dreaming and working together. Like his meeting with his writing partner nearly 50 years ago, Leon Huff, our meeting was destiny and as they say “the rest is history.”
I have many titles for Kenny Gamble in my life. Not only has he been a friend, mentor, father figure, and teacher of life, I now call myself a student, disciple, and protégé of Kenny Gamble. He has invested so much into me, mostly the spirit of his convictions in the Universality of Man. I’m not sure what he saw in me- but whatever it was, he cultivated it and nurtured me to be the man I am today – I owe so much to him personally, professionally, and spiritually. While he has given me so much, his most profound impact in my life is the chance to serve my people and to fulfill, what I believe, is my divine purpose.
At a later date, I will write more on the culmination of Kenny’s spiritual journey that I’ve had the great opportunity to witness. He has termed this journey “One World, One People.” Many of the thoughts, ideas, and strategies that I assert and write about originated with him. Further, when you consider most of his songs were written in the 60s and 70s, we can only marvel that Kenny Gamble was/is a man ahead of his time. While I won’t bore you with his entire biography as it would consume the entire article-it’s important that I do justice, especially for the younger generations, to describe just how successful Kenny Gamble was in music.
Kenny Gamble is a world-renowned musical writer, composer, producer, founder and CEO of Philadelphia International Records and founder and current chairman of Universal Companies. Kenny Gamble, along with his partner, Leon Huff, is responsible for writing, producing, and recording more than 3,000 songs performed by over 50 artists with 200 becoming all-time hits (standards). It is estimated that one of Mr. Gamble’s songs is played every thirty minutes somewhere around the world. This body of work affectionately termed “The Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP)” is one of the largest music catalogs in the music industry represented by signature artist (male and female individuals and groups), signature musicians, and great, great songs.
Many people attribute the title “hit maker” to Berry Gordy and Motown. While that would be accurate, after Berry Gordy and Motown- there was Gamble and Huff and- there hasn’t been anyone like them since. Gamble and Huff dominated R&B music for nearly three decades and rank in the top five in nearly every musical category with being number one the majority of time. Gamble and Huff’s music is responsible for a significant segment of R&B music.
Gamble and Huff have worked with some of rhythms and blues greatest artist; including the Jackson Five, the Intruders, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul, Phyllis Hyman, Jerry Butler, Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls, the Ojays, MFSB, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, Patti Labelle, the Three Degrees, McFadden & Whitehead, the Delfonics, Stylistics, Jean Carn, Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warrick, Wilson Pickett, Nancy Wilson, and Grover Washington, just to name a few. Some of his nearly 200 standards include hits like: “Me & Mrs. Jones,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Love Train,” “Wake Up Everybody,” “People Make the World Go Around,” “Close the Door,” “Cowboys to Girls,” “Back Stabbers,” “Use to be My Girl,” “Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now,” and “Never Gonna Give You Up”- to name a few. Significantly, his catalog is the most played and most sampled in all of music.
Gamble and Huff have been inducted into every musical hall of fame including: the Grammys; National Academy of Songwriters; Rhythm and Blues; Dance and Music; United Kingdom’s Version of the Grammy’s Version (Ivor Novello); and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fames. Gamble and Huff currently serve as the co-chairs of the prestigious Songwriters Hall of Fame, which is home to every songwriter past and present that made life better for all of us. Today, Gamble and Huff’s catalog is so recognizable that advertising agencies and music production houses use the Gamble and Huff catalog as their musical source for commercials and movies. Their impactful beats and attention-grabbing rhythms make hit records and that’s why artists and producers today rely on the catalog for just the right sample including Jay-Z, Baby Face, Nelly, Outkast, Angie Stone, Simply Red, and Bette Midler to name a few.
Even though Kenny Gamble has very few peers that have matched his music accomplishments, even fewer peers match his commitment to using their fame and fortune to personally address the systemic issues facing the Black community in America. Many of us, when we’re young, say that if we were ever successful- after we help our family- we would help our community. Unfortunately, not too many of us are successful, and those who have achieved some modicum of success aren’t able to keep their promise because life gets in the way. Starting in 1977, with the purchase of the home he was born and raised in, Kenny Gamble began buying vacant and dilapidated houses in his old neighborhood in South Philadelphia with the intent of rebuilding the community. In just a period of 15 years and millions of private investment, including his own money- he assembled more than 120 properties.
In 1990, he and his family, made the ultimate commitment to our community when they gave up the quiet, luxurious life of the suburbs and moved back to his old neighborhood. This was significant for many reasons. Notably, this move symbolized a reversal of the trend on how we measure success. For many Black people, and Kenny Gamble was no exception, we were told that success could only be achieved and/or seen when we are furthest away from our own people. This is why- if we become successful -we only know one standard to live out our dreams and that is to have our success validated by moving into White communities. Kenny Gamble followed this same paradigm but realized that this only made the problem worse and this approach would never correct the problem.
This snippet is only one half the story- because what Kenny Gamble did was to leave his palatial mansion in the suburbs, which represented the best money could buy- to return to his old neighborhood. By this time, his old neighborhood had deteriorated to the point of deep decay -riddled with prostitution, open drug dealing, crack houses, large number of vacant lots and properties, high level of violent crimes, and a general attitude of hopelessness. Kenny Gamble is the example of “putting your money where your mouth is.” It’s one thing to romanticize about the problems facing the Black community -but it’s another thing to become involved in a real and authentic way to improve the present and future circumstance. This level of self-discipline and delayed gratification will require a huge sacrifice, on the part of those of us, who like Kenny choose to embrace this mission.
Kenny Gamble’s relocation back to his old neighborhood required not only a significant degree of vision, courage, and strength, but was a “game changer” – it made the difference. Today, we have completely rebuilt the neighborhood and many other neighborhoods that confronted a similar predicament. A fine line exists between genius and insanity. In many cases, a sizeable number of Black people believed that Kenny was losing his mind. Kenny Gamble used to be in a number of “Black” movement type of meetings and he would hear “we should do this, we should do that.” His question was always “who’s going to do it?” “Who’s going to do the work?” With the encouragement of his wife and partner, he took a hard look in the mirror and determined that the “who” was him. Coming to the realization that he had to do the “work,” he relocated back to his old neighborhood to take a “hands-on” approach to rebuilding our community. To date, this “hands-on” approach was lacking. In fact, many successful Blacks wanted to help, but would only assist from a distance- a long-distance. This is one of the reasons I describe Kenny Gamble as the Bill Gates of the Black Community.
No -he doesn’t have Bill Gates type of money (he and I both wished for that). However, what he does have in common with Bill Gates- is that they both have had unbelievable first careers in the first part of their life – Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and Kenny Gamble, the founder of Philadelphia Records. Bill Gates, who had tremendous success from Microsoft, has taken his fame and fortune to try to save the world. With an investment of nearly $50 billion, Bill Gates is a force to be reckoned with and now is better known, not for Microsoft and its tremendous success, but for the work of his foundation and its humanitarian efforts all over the globe.
Similar to Bill Gates, Kenny Gamble is slowly transitioning from the tremendous success of his first career and, for many, is now becoming best known for giving up the path most aspire to (leaving community for the suburbs) and returning back to his roots (his old neighborhood in South Philadelphia). By taking this path, Kenny personally addressed the issues of the Black community, which included founding and chairing Universal Companies. Kenny Gamble is a true American success story, and truly a Black American success story and example. He continues to stake his own future on the success of the community rebuilding effort he has initiated, demonstrating his continued high level of commitment to helping those who are less fortunate starting with our Black family.
Universal Companies (Universal) founded by Kenny is considered by many one of the largest and most successful community revitalization efforts in the history of the city of Philadelphia. Universal is an accomplished community development company, education provider and the architect of the Universal Plan. Since its inception in 1993, Universal has built the capacity to challenge and reverse the effects of urban decline and has become one of the most sizeable and acclaimed community revitalization efforts in the history of the City of Philadelphia. Universal now works in a number of cities in America, including Newark, NJ; Camden, NJ; Baltimore, MD; Milwaukee, WI; Atlanta, GA to name a few.
The Universal Plan is a comprehensive and holistic physical and human redevelopment model and “plan of action” that fully engages in transforming communities and lives primarily for the Black community. The Universal Plan is a comprehensive approach to rebuilding the community by addressing the inter-related and inter-connected systems that make a community function specifically education, economics and organizing at every level. To that end, Universal is one of the largest independent Black led and governed non-profit organization in America with nearly 700 professionals operating twelve (12) charter schools and housing development of nearly 1,500 units of primarily affordable housing.
For a man known worldwide for making hit records, he calls the rebuilding of the neighborhood where he was born and raised “The Biggest Hit Of My Life.” The Message in the Music is about Love and it’s about “Doing for Self. In part three, I will reflect on one of many of Gamble’s songs called “How can you Call Me Brother” and reflect on its message of “Brotherhood.” I will also discuss more about Universal and the Universal Plan for transforming the Black community.