Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff are the current grand-masters of R&B production, having delivered not only dozens of hit singles during the last several years but proving themselves innovators and creators of the first magnitude. The albums they did with Jerry Butler are classics and their recent Laura Nyro production was one of her most interesting products. They are consummate professionals; their records are always excellent musically, if nothing else.
Philadelphia International, believe it or not, is the name of their new label (distributed by Columbia) and these are the first two albums released. The most spectacular product is the "Back Stabbers" single by the O'Jays which has sold over a million copies and is surely the most delicious hit single of the summer. With its unusually long instrumental opening leading to "They smile in your face/All the time they want to take your placethe back stabbers," the song floats perfectly into the mind. Like Phil Spector, Gamble and Huff use musical cliches to their own advantage rather than being used by them. They transform the formula hit single into sublime art.
On both of these albums, Gamble and Huff do some experimenting, mostly with long songs. This works well with the O'Jays, who sound somewhat like the Temptations, but slightly smoother and with more use of harmony. One track "Who Am I" has lovely water-like sound to present a soft mood of introspection. The best song, "Listen to the Clock," is a perfect description of adultery, complete with love and guilt, and written with a fine memorable chorus. On the other hand the weak spot is a lack of first-rate material. Several of the songs are merely ordinary and far below the quality of the production, arrangements and singing.
Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes are softer, bordering on middle-of-the-road. On their album, the songs are mostly very long; the title song "I Miss You" is more than seven minutes, and "Be for Real," more than eight. Both of those contain a talking lyric that is excellent, dramatically capturing a sort of soap opera slice of life. "I Miss You" is a telephone call by a guy asking his sweetheart to take him backvery understated and believable, while "Be for Real" is a guy reprimanding his wife for always talking about money and status to his friends who just want to party. Unfortunately both are marred by excessively long repetitive choruses. This is a technique that the Beatles used on "Hey Jude," and the Chi-Lites on "Have You Seen Her" with great success, but only because the chorus had a kind of haunting magic that wore well with repetition. On the Bluenotes record the repetition is boring and pretentious and doesn't really make it. However both songs touch the edge of an interesting development of the talk-song genre and with refinement, the Bluenotes could have a good thing going with it.
Unless you're an ardent fan of smooth production R&B, it's unlikely that you'd want both these albums. Although "Be for Real," is one of a kind, the Bluenotes record requires effort to sit through whereas the O'Jays has a consistently grooving beat and more of a rock singing format. Back Stabbers is certainly one of the better R&B albums this year, despite its weak spots, and the single is required listening. Overall, Gamble and Huff are dependent on their artists for that central core around which to work production magic. If they are to make albums that are as good as their singles, they will have to find songwriters to fill in that core. Can Philadelphia be international? If Gamble and Huff really put their mind to it, it can even be cosmic. Meanwhile, there's Back Stabbers to tide us over. (RS 120)
(Posted: Oct 26, 1972)
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