Decades before Ms. Patti LaBelle – an iconic, one-of-a-kind performer, humanitarian and entrepreneur whose desserts in recent years have been purchased rapidly across the nation – and Mr. Kenny Gamble and Mr. Leon Huff, architects of the treasured and critically acclaimed “Philadelphia sound,” were named as 2016 recipients of the prestigious Marian Anderson Award, they all spent significant time at the Uptown Theater on North Broad Street, between Susquehanna Ave and Dauphin Street.
It was there that Ms. Labelle, then apart of the girl group Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, got her start, and it’s where Mr. Gamble and Mr. Huff, as young men enamored by the music business, would spend their entire day – they escaped security by hiding in the bathrooms or behind the stage curtains – watching the acts, including The O’Jays, whom they met there years before signing them to their label, Philadelphia International Records.
The Uptown Theater, where Mr. Gamble got a chance to see how the music business works and eventually saw his label’s artists perform, still stands today but it’s a mere shell of its former grandiose self, yet the Philadelphia sound that echoed there long ago, particularly the songs performed and/or written by Ms. LaBelle, Mr. Gamble and Mr. Huff, remain as popular as ever.
A number of those tunes, including ‘When Will I See You Again,’ by the legendary Three Degrees, and ‘Expressway to Your Heart,’ by The Soul Survivors, who became Gamble & Huff’s first hit-makers, were performed on the Kimmel Center stage at Tuesday night’s Marian Anderson Awards.
Much of the Philadelphia sound in the 20th Century could be heard live at the Uptown Theater because of circumstance: it was on the Chitlin Circuit, which meant it was a safe space for black artists to perform during segregation, a place where black audiences felt at home.
The racism exhibited both then and now Mr. Gamble – who in the 1960s was apart of a singing group entitled ‘Kenny Gamble and the Romeos’ – decried as terrible, and said, like Ms. Marian Anderson, he and Mr. Huff – a genius musician born in Camden, New Jersey – fought back with their music.
“We made our music excellent,” Mr. Gamble, who has worked tirelessly for years to revitalize his South Philadelphia neighborhood by rehabilitating abandoned homes and making them available to low-to-moderate income families, said during his minutes-long acceptance speech. “That’s how you fight back… you fight back with excellence.”
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Photos courtesy of the author.