Leon Huff, Kenny Gamble and Don Cornelius were all at the height of their powers in the summer of 1973. Gamble and Huff were two songwriters, producers and music executives who happened to be shopping the right product at exactly the right time. Their fortunes were also connected to those of Cornelius, the Chicago cop, turned DJ, newscaster, and then - in an act of by-the-seat-of-your-pants creative desperation that typified independent television in those days – television show host.
Gamble and Huff were shopping soul music. More precisely, the two men were looking for a distribution deal. Cornelius had a teen dance show that started out as a fill-in for another teen dance program on the local Chicago station WCIU. Cornelius’s show, called “Soul Train,” featured R&B and soul acts performing their big hits. However, the real stars were Cornelius and the teen and 20-something dancers. The show became a hit and Cornelius moved “Soul Train” to Los Angeles where it became the nationally syndicated “hippest trip in America.”
Over at Columbia Records, Clive Davis was looking to move the label into the R&B/soul music industry. Columbia’s direct collaboration with Gamble and Huff and the duo’s relationship with Cornelius would help bring R&B music even more deeply into the mainstream. However, at the start of the 1970s, the label’s track record with black artists was decidedly mixed. Columbia had success with Miles Davis, but couldn’t reproduce the same magic with Thelonious Monk. Columbia’s attempt to turn Aretha Franklin into an interpreter of the Great American Songbook flopped. Franklin left Columbia and went to Atlantic Records and became the Queen of Soul. Part of the problem was that Columbia, like most of the major record labels, didn’t know a lot about the R&B/soul music market. The big labels ignored black singers, and their neglect allowed independent labels such as Chess, King, Stax and Motown to dominate what was then called the race music market. By the late 1960s, R&B and soul music became a proven moneymaker, and the major labels wanted in.
Davis commissioned a group of Harvard MBA students to write a study on the soul music market in the early 1970s. Columbia used the findings of the Harvard Report (also known as A Study of the Soul Music Environment) to move aggressively into to R&B/soul music market. How aggressively? By the end of the 1970s, three out of every four R&B/soul artists were either signed to Columbia or a subsidiary. The way that the soul music market evolved led many to believe that the majors used the report’s recommendations to develop what turned out to be neo-colonial relationship with black labels and artists. However, in the 1970s and early 80s, majors such as Columbia, subsidiary labels like Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International, artists and music fans benefitted from what the Harvard Report wrought. The fruits of the Columbia/PIR hook up can be heard on Golden Gate Groove: The Sound of Philadelphia Live in San Francisco 1973.
The timing of Golden Gate Groove is fortuitous, as the names of Cornelius and Davis returned to the headlines in recent days. Cornelius died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Feb. 1. Davis returned to the news when Whitney Houston, his most famous protégé, passed away while preparing to attend Davis’ pre-Grammy bash on Feb. 11. Still, Golden Gate Groove takes listeners back to happier times. This record is an archived live concert in which PIR acts performed for more than 1,500 Columbia executives. The vocal acts included The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul and the Three Degrees, and MFSB, the PIR house band, provided the music. Cornelius emceed the concert.
The executives who attended the concert (Davis was not there after being fired by Columbia) had to be happy with the arrangement. The five acts were already household names. The O’Jays, Billy Paul and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes all had Top 5 hits on both the Pop and R&B charts. The Three Degrees were a year away from their releasing their biggest hit, “When Will I See You Again,” but in that year reached the top of the R&B and Pop charts by providing the vocals on MFSB’s “The Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP).” That tune, of course, went on to become “Soul Train’s” theme song for many years, and the Columbia executives and Cornelius heard the cut for the first time at this concert.
What the executives witnessed was a live manifestation of the transformation taking place in soul music. R&B was moving away from the blues influenced Southern Soul of Chess and Stax records to a sound that captured the growing self-confidence and financial independence of the growing black middle class. This concert gave the music executives their first glimpse of disco through MFSB’s “The Sound of Philadelphia.” The executives saw how the laid back grooves of PIR music made the social concerns expressed in tunes such as Billy Paul’s “East” and the O’Jays “When the World’s at Peace” go down as smooth as butter (some of the label’s biggest hits such as “Love Train” to “Wake Up Everybody” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” were socially relevant cuts).
The crowd saw how jazz elements could be used to create a number one smash when they heard Paul sing “Me and Mrs. Jones.” They heard Teddy Pendergrass bring the intonations and call and response of the black Baptist and sanctified church to bedroom anthems. The execs saw The Three Degrees show that there was still some life in the girl group concept, while the O’Jays further refined the Blue Notes sound to create a totally unique amalgamation of sensual soul and dance music.
While time would put a different perspective on the relationship of Columbia and P.I.R., and there would be more questions than answers on the effect of the Harvard Report on popular music, on that day in 1973 those 1,500 executives from Columbia music must have felt like they hit the jackpot. They were right. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes