(Pictured: Cooler and richer than you and me—Gamble and Huff in the 70s.)
I am not sure when I first figured out that those records I loved by the O’Jays and the Spinners and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes came from largely the same stable of writers, producers, and musicians. It probably wasn’t until several years after I started listening to them, and may not have been until I fell in with some like-minded geeks in college. So I was a fan of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff before I ever knew who they were.
We associate Gamble and Huff with those elaborate Philadelphia productions—MFSB gliding along like a high-powered luxury car, high-hat cymbal keeping time and strings glittering in the distance, with Teddy Pendergrass testifying on top or the O’Jays or Three Degrees harmonizing along. But before they assembled their own production line at Sigma Studios, Gamble and Huff were independent producers. And while their most famous productions are as polished as silver, some of their early productions are different.
G&H’s first big hit was “Expressway to Your Heart” by the Soul Survivors (1967), a white soul band from New York who were popular in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. The most successful record they produced during their pre-mogul years was Jerry Butler’s “Only the Strong Survive” in 1969. I knew this song for years before I learned it was a Gamble and Huff joint, and I could hardly believe it. It’s practically 100 percent Memphis (and your proof might be that Elvis Presley recorded it on From Elvis in Memphis the same year). You can hear the latter-day Gamble and Huff sound start to coalesce on Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You,” which was one of the first 45s I ever bought, early in 1971. It’s on the album Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia, which also features “Engine No. 9,” a soul burner you’d never spot as Gamble and Huff either—if all you knew was their later stuff. (They wrote it, but it’s listed as produced by “Staff for Gamble-Huff Productions Inc.” I’m guessing they were around.)
All of these productions are mentioned in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s biography of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. But that biography doesn’t mention what I believe to be their greatest pre-mogul production: Joe Simon’s “Drowning in the Sea of Love.” Go and listen to it now—loud, if you can.
From the first second, it grabs you by the ears—the intro is absolutely impossible to ignore from the moment it hits the radio. The arrangement G&H put behind Simon is not especially busy, yet somehow evokes the feeling of a man going under. The lyric is ambiguous—is she giving him hope of survival or pouring more water on him? And you gotta love soul poetry metaphors like “I depended on you for love navigation” and “I’m in the middle of a love storm / Miles from the shore.” The last 30 seconds, with Simon testifying over the main instrumental theme, is the kind of thing I could listen to for 10 minutes on a loop.
(There’s probably another whole blog post in the career of Joe Simon, like so many other soul singers an ex-gospel performer, who scored a handful of memorable hits in the late 60s and early 70s, including “The Chokin’ Kind” and “Power of Love,” although his lone Top-10 hit, “Get Down on the Floor” was a proto-disco record from the spring of 1975. Somehow, his “Drowning in the Sea of Love” made it only to #11 early in 1972.)
“Drowning in the Sea of Love” has been covered plenty over the years. It’s in the repertoire of Boz Scaggs, a singer whose voice resembles Simon’s a little; he recorded a version of it with Donald Fagen’s New York Rock ‘n’ Soul Revue in 1991. But nobody gets closer to the song’s mighty soul than Joe Simon did, with Gamble and Huff at the controls.