Johnny Mercer Award

Leon Huff

From the first moment his fingers pounded on the “C” keys in the opening melody to “Back Stabbers,” Leon Huff helped create and bring the genre of Philadelphia soul music to the world. Along with his partner Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff wrote or co-wrote more than 3,500 songs in 45 years, including R&B #1 hits, pop #1 hits, gold and platinum records, Grammy winners and BMI songwriters awards honorees.

Born in Camden, New Jersey on April 8, 1942, Leon Huff was exposed to music through his mother. “That’s how the piano got in our house,” Huff remembers. “We had our own piano, we were the only family on the block that had a big upright piano in the dining room, up against the wall. My mother taught me some of the basics, but I had some formal teaching through the school system and private lessons. I still like to go to the churches to hear good music.”

Huff participated in several “doo-wop” groups throughout Camden. One group Huff participated in, the Dynaflows; auditioned for Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. Another group, the Lavenders, recorded a regional hit, “The Slide.” While working with a Philadelphia productions duo, Johnny Madera and David White, Leon Huff received the opportunity to perform on sessions with his personal idols, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. “It was through Johnny Madera and David White, that I met Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich,” Huff recalls. “That was a blessing for me to be that fortunate to come in contact with these musical gods.” Encouraged by Madera and White to expand his musical horizons, Huff began writing songs. He wrote the first major hit for Patty and the Emblems, “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl.” Leon Huff set up an office in the Schubert Theatre, where he met his future songwriting partner, Kenny Gamble. “Kenny was on the sixth floor and I was on the second,” said Huff, “and we used to pass each other in the elevator, but we didn’t know each other.”

Gamble and Huff later collaborated in Kenny Gamble’s band, the Romeos. The duo found they had common interests in songwriting and production, so Gamble and Huff formed a production company with offices in the Shubert Theatre; and began a songwriting partnership that exists to this day. Their first hits were for local Philadelphia artists. “Expressway To Your Heart,” a Gamble-Huff collaboration inspired by a traffic jam on the Schuylkill Expressway, became the Soul Survivors’ biggest hit. Another Gamble-Huff collaboration, “Cowboys to Girls,” became the Intruders’ first #1 R&B hit and their first million-selling song. “The Intruders could really sing,” Huff remembered. “They could harmonize – it wasn’t really hard for us to rehearse them, once they got the parts, they knew the parts. They had the best harmony – I listen to their records now, and their harmony was just so good.”

By 1971, Gamble and Huff had formed their own label, Philadelphia International Records, and secured a distribution deal with CBS. With a stable core of artists – the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, MFSB, the Three Degrees, the Ebony’s and the Futures, Philadelphia International had monster hits almost from the first day of its inception.

Through the 1970’s, the Gamble-Huff collaboration provided major hits for other artists, including Lou Rawls, the Three Degrees, Shirley Jones and the Jones Girls,  Thelma Houston, the Dramatics, Third World and the Soul Train Gang. In 1976, Gamble and Huff produced and co-wrote songs for the Jacksons’ first two post-Motown albums. Huff even released a solo album during this time period, “Here To Create Music,” with songs like Ain’t Jivin’, I’m Jammin’” receiving lots of club and dance airplay. In 1989, Huff and Gamble received their first songwriting Grammy, as Simply Red’s interpretation of the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ classic “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” was awarded “Best Rhythm and Blues Song.”

On May 31, 1995, Gamble and Huff were inducted into the National Academy of Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Songs that they have co-written and co-produced, tracks like “Back Stabbers,” “Cowboys to Girls,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” “Enjoy Yourself,” “For The Love of Money,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “Only the Strong Survive,” “If You Don’t You Know Me By Now,” “Love Train,” and “TSOP” have received songwriters’ awards from Broadcast Music International (BMI).

Gamble and Huff and the PIR catalog have been bestowed with countless accolades and honors including the 1999 Trustees Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS & the Grammy Foundation) for their “significant contributions…to the field of recording.” For their historic contributions to dance, soul and disco music, Gamble and Huff were inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in September 2005. As prolific songwriters for a host of artists, Gamble and Huff were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994. Gamble-Huff artists and productions have received multiple awards from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. Gamble and Huff were recipients of the prestigious Ivor Novello Award, presented in London by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, in 2006.

With a catalog that has lasted more than 45 years, Gamble and Huff continue to receive national and international accolades with the duo’s music being prominently featured on such top-rated shows as Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” “Dancing With The Stars,” and “American Idol,” which have showcased such Gamble and Huff produced hit recordings as “For The Love Of Money,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and others throughout their respective seasons.
45 years after the duo’s very first collaborations, Gamble and Huff were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the newly-named Ahmet Ertegun Award (formerly the “non-performer category”) on March 10, 2008.

In November of 2010, Gamble and Huff were honored by the City of Philadelphia with the renaming of the block of South Broad Street they made famous to “people all over the world” as “Gamble & Huff Walk” in a special ceremony. “We are truly blessed that the City of Philadelphia, which has inspired so many of our message songs
throughout the decades, and which we are proud to say has been our home for so many years, feels we are worthy of such an honor,” said Gamble & Huff. “This is beyond our wildest dreams. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Leon Huff continues to produce and write songs to this day, and is never far from a piano or keyboard when the inspiration arises. He also watches as his son, Leon Huff Jr. (“Pop”), follows in his father’s footsteps, recording his own tracks that will someday be popular songs for the new millennium. Leon Huff himself continues to write and record songs daily. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife Regina, the love of his life. Leon continues to be “inspired, humbled and, more importantly, proud” of the music he co-created and its lasting impact on the world and people’s lives.