King Kenny

Why do some people still say that Kenny Gamble isn’t good?


Even strolling along the sidewalk, nodding to passers-by, Kenny Gamble exudes a certain grandness. He moves with a royal manner, as though nothing on Broad Street could slow him down, or make him walk any faster.

He’s tall and broad, and wears an all-black tunic and a black crown cap called a kufi. His black horn-rimmed glasses recall Malcolm X.

We met recently at Philadelphia International Records on the corner of Broad and Spruce streets, where Gamble and his musical partner, Leon Huff, produced hit after hit in the 1970s. The music faded for a couple of decades, but it’s resurging now, unexpectedly. There’s a new souvenir shop on Broad Street, gleaming new neon signs, and music spilling out onto the sidewalk.

Gamble, 64, entered the building like a king entering his fortress. Security guards offered reverent greetings, and Gamble strode down a hallway plated in gold and platinum records. He doesn’t walk these halls as often as he once did; these days, he works more as a land developer in South Philadelphia. He once wrote this lyric:

Wake up all the builders,
Time to build a new land;
I know we can do it
If we all lend a hand. …

“I’m living the music now,” he said. “The music has inspired me so, through my life, that I don’t take it for granted.”

He pulled keys from his pocket as he approached the only nondescript feature of his office building: a cream-colored door. He opened the door, which was as thick as a bank vault’s, and revealed a second door, which swung the opposite way and was equally thick. Inside that door there was a security monitor, which displayed footage from 16 security cameras.

The first thing I saw inside Gamble’s office — the first thing that seized my eye, among many contenders — was a wall-size painting, done mostly in purple.

“I commissioned that,” Gamble said. “Took the lady four years to paint it.”

The painting is important, and so bears description: Near the bottom there is a city, small, as though seen from a great distance. It could be any city, except as I leaned closer, I saw that the artist must have used a very narrow brush for such fine detail; one of the buildings looked a lot like Independence Hall. “And look,” Gamble said, growing more animated. “There’s City Hall, and the Art Museum. All the landmarks.”

The miniature Philadelphia sits on what appears to be a roiling bed of molten lava. “The earth is rumbling, shifting around,” Gamble said. “The city is troubled.”

Up from the city — and this is where things get interesting — bubbles float skyward, each containing the face of an anguished soul. “Look at them,” Gamble said sadly. “But look — look where they’re going!”

 


The bubbles float upward to meet a cryptic symbol hanging in the sky. “It’s a symbol I designed,” said Gamble, who seemed less royal than boyish, now. “Can you see what’s there?”

“The crescent of Islam … the Star of David … ?”

“Yes!” he said. “And there’s the Christian cross, too. It’s all there. This is the Universal symbol. All in one.”

Above the symbol, the souls of Philadelphia emerge into paradise, untrapped from their bubbles, no longer anguished.

“Look at them now,” Gamble said, standing back. “See how they’re helping each other up? They’re at peace now. Universal.”

Some residents in South Philadelphia fear that Gamble’s real-life aims aren’t as inclusive; they fear that Gamble, a convert to Islam, is inclined toward racial and religious segregation, which is creating tension in what has long been an integrated neighborhood. And Gamble himself, with his sweeping and sometimes outlandish views, doesn’t always help matters.

For the moment, he regarded his painting — his enormous, garish painting — and said, “It’s beautiful.”

It is a beautiful ideal, at least; grand and strange. But ­Gamble’s introduction to his Universal ideal — the grandness, the ­strangeness — was only the beginning.

GAMBLE HAS A VISION FOR HIS CHILDHOOD neighborhood that’s just as big and illustrious as his own persona: He sees South Philadelphia as a rhythm-and-blues destination, like Nashville is for country music, or Memphis for the blues. In the meantime, his company is rebuilding entire blocks of South Philly. Gamble sees himself as the architect who will bring it all — the music, the land, the people — together.

It’s easy, in trying to explain where he started and where he’s going, to divide Gamble’s career in two: Part one is the wildly successful musician with a message; in the new one, he’s become an urban pioneer. But really, it’s all of a piece. Let’s start when Gamble seemed at the end of one career, and hadn’t yet grown into the next phase.

It was after he’d gotten rich, after he and Leon Huff had scorched pop music with hit after hit for two decades in the ’60s and ’70s. Gamble did what he thought rich Philadelphians from poor neighborhoods do: He moved to a mansion in Gladwyne in 1980.

But he always drove through his old South Philly neighborhood on his way to his company, Philadelphia International Records, on Broad Street. And he visited similar neighborhoods in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities.

“I saw that there was a threat,” he says. “It wasn’t just Philadelphia.”

In fact, in 1977, Gamble had done what he always did; he wrote a song, called “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto,” featuring Lou Rawls. It starts as a fairly generic, nationwide call to community action:

Let’s paint a sign everybody can read,
Let’s get rid of everything we don’t need:
The pushers, the dealers,
The pocketbook-snatchers and thieves. …

Then there’s a more remarkable, personal line, a nasty snarl in which Gamble seems to predict his own dilemma:

All of you brothers that live on the Main Line,
You lived in the ghetto once upon a time.


And so the man who had devoted himself to sweet tones, to harmony and resolution, had within himself a discord.

During one of his regular passes through his old neighborhood, Gamble found himself at the old corner where he had once sung with his friends, back in the ’50s, long before anyone knew who he was.

The place looked “devastated,” he says: empty husks of buildings, run-down and boarded up; hustlers selling drugs and flesh in an open market; fearful women peering from behind soiled curtains.

Gamble saw an elderly figure step from the doorway of his childhood house, and recognized the shape of his family’s old landlord, Sam Sobel.

“Sam!” Gamble called.

The man peered at him. “Who is that?”

“Sam, it’s me, Kenny … Ruby’s son.”

“Oh, yeah. … ”

Gamble asked if he could come inside and see his old home. “Well, you can go in there if you want,” Sobel said. “But I’m getting ready to sell this place.”

“Sell it? For how much?”

“’Bout a thousand dollars.”

Gamble couldn’t believe the figure. Could his old neighborhood really be that depressed? “A light went on in my head,” he said.

Because what he saw — and what he knew he had to do — ­connected to the lessons Gamble had learned here, growing up. The lessons that he would take to heart and that made him so successful.

Back in the ’50s, Gamble and his friends had a leader in their neighborhood: old Carlton Lewis, who owned the Ideal Barber Shop on South 15th Street.

“Mr. Lewis raised us,” says Barney Richardson, a childhood friend of Gamble’s. Neither boy had a father at home, and so they gravitated to the barbershop, where Mr. Lewis handed out nickels and advice: Good credit is more important than cash. Learn Bible verses. Be independent. And always — always — buy land when it’s cheap, because it’s never worth zero, and it’ll eventually go up.

Gamble followed that advice, starting with independence. As a young singer, despite the prevailing tastes of the record companies, he formed his own singing group, called the Romeos. When he started making music with Leon Huff, they sat for hours at the piano at Huff’s house, and kept to a simple formula — Gamble sang, while Huff played — through everything that would come.

The resulting songs didn’t just come from Philadelphia. They were Philadelphia. One of the duo’s first big nationwide hits was in the mid-’60s, a single called “Expressway to Your Heart,” with words that can still bring tears to the eyes of any Philadelphia motorist today:

I was thinking about a shortcut that
       I could take
But I found I made a mistake. …

At five o’clock it’s much too crowded
Much too crowded
Much too crowded …

As Gamble and Huff’s songs gained more attention, the two men realized they couldn’t ship their records as quickly as they could write them. They needed a distributor.  The  common solution would have been to sign on as in-house producers with one of the big record companies. But Gamble and Huff wanted their own label.

Be independent, old Mr. Lewis had said.

They wanted to work for themselves, and distribute through Columbia Records. And Columbia — incredibly — conceded. So with a deal in hand, Gamble and Huff set up Philadelphia International Records.

It was a savvy move. Throughout his career, Gamble became known for keeping one eye on his company’s bottom line, and another cast toward social responsibility. You can see it in the Gamble-Huff catalog of work: a chart-topping love song, then a social message song. Like “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” and then “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto.” Or Teddy Pendergrass crooning, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” and then barking out, “Wake Up Everybody.”

At their very best, Gamble and Huff wrote songs that were both commercial successes and social commentaries. Take the seemingly innocuous “Love Train,” which rose to number one on the pop chart just before the Yom Kippur War in 1973:

People all over the world, join hands,
Start a love train, love train. …

All of you brothers over in Africa,
Tell all the folks in Egypt, and Israel, too;
Please don’t miss this train at the station
‘Cause if you miss it, I feel sorry, sorry
       for you. …

The sweet-and-savory formula worked. Together, Gamble and Huff co-wrote more than 1,000 songs, at least twice as many as the Beatles. They won two Grammys and earned 175 gold and platinum records, with artists from Patti LaBelle to Pendergrass to Michael Jackson to Elton John.

And their songs — the list of familiar tunes goes on almost to the brink of ­boredom — shifted the landscape of music in America. They put Philly at the center.

And so now we’re back to Kenny Gamble, in the late ’70s, when he stumbled upon his old landlord, Sam Sobel, ready to sell him his old house for a thousand dollars.

Always buy land when it’s cheap, Mr. Lewis had said at his barbershop. It’s never worth zero, and it’ll eventually go up.

“I told my wife, let’s look at the ones next door,” Gamble said. “By the time we got finished. it was 130 vacant lots and empty houses.” Independent, practical, with an eye toward the bottom line, Gamble rebuilt or rehabilitated them all, and when he finished, he liked what he saw: a little patch of something positive — a song of hope — in his old neighborhood.

Meanwhile, his studio at Broad and Spruce didn’t turn out pop hits like it once did, but Kenny Gamble the music producer began a new role: Kenny Gamble the social engineer.

In the coming years, he poured money and time into his old neighborhood — ­funding community initiatives, anti-drug programs, and politicians he felt could help — but he was continually frustrated as he left his home in Gladwyne and drove through South Philly: still devastated. Still rife with dealers and prostitutes. The old neighborhood still shook its collective tin can at passers-by, hoping for handouts.

By the late 1980s, Gamble was grumbling to his wife, Faatimah, at their suburban enclave. Philadelphia could be so much more than it is, he told her. Not blight. Not decay.

“Somebody ought to do something,” Gamble told his wife.

She eyed him. “Well,” she said. “You’re somebody.”

 


Gamble sold his mansion and moved back into a rowhouse in his childhood neighborhood, on South 15th Street. Back to the pushers, the dealers, the pocketbook-snatchers and thieves.

From there, he began his redevelopment effort in earnest, starting Universal Community Homes, which grew into a nonprofit empire called the Universal Companies, which includes the housing development company, a charter school, an investment fund, and various social services, from credit building to computer classes. Universal’s “target area” lives up to the company’s name: It’s an enormous parcel that comprises the entire south-central part of the city, running from 5th Street out to 22nd, and from South Street down to Tasker.

The umbrella’s president and CEO, Rahim Islam, recently took me on a tour of Universal’s good works. We started at the Universal Institute Charter School, which houses 700 students in three buildings. Then we visited Universal Court, at the corner of 15th and Christian Streets — the site of Kenny Gamble’s childhood home. His first attempt at development, it’s a whole block of rebuilt and rehabbed townhomes, and includes a courtyard with a playground.

Then Islam drove us past block after block of similar developments, hundreds of red brick doorsteps outfitted with nice lamps and a touch of landscaping. So far, Universal has rebuilt or rehabilitated about a thousand houses, he said.

We stopped at 16th and Federal streets, where Islam hopped from his car and stood in the street with arms outstretched, turning in place as though starring in an urban Sound of Music. Behind him, people strolled unafraid from a tidy Universal housing development toward a little grocery.

“This corner had the most notorious open drug trafficking in the city,” he said. “Over a five-year period, we’ve put almost $45 million worth of investment just into this area. And now we’re a catalyst for change.” And he was right: The intersection was dominated by a Universal satellite office, and elsewhere showed every sign of growth and industriousness, including a little hair salon, a dry cleaner, and new construction by private builders. The intersection was full of the sounds and smells of men sawing lumber, and trucks bearing construction equipment passed each other coming and going. Across from Universal’s office, someone had planted a bed of flowers in a small front yard, and a more modern type of flower — a digital television satellite — had sprouted on the roof.

We toured Broad Street starting at Catharine, where Universal owns a huge plot of land on which it plans to build an upscale residential building, called 777 Lofts, with partner Dranoff Properties. Down at Broad and Washington there’s another enormous plot, which Islam said marks the epicenter of Kenny Gamble’s dearest, most ambitious desire. He envisions South Philly as an entertainment corridor with an emphasis on the city’s musical heritage, similar to Beale Street in Memphis. In a major step toward that goal, Gamble persuaded the Rhythm & Blues Foundation to move from New York to Philadelphia, and next he plans to develop a $50 million National Center for Rhythm and Blues on the empty plot at Broad and Washington. He envisions a massive complex including a concert hall, a music academy and a Hall of Fame.

Those are majestic aims. But not everyone in South Philadelphia admires Universal, or its work. Some residents say Universal is too heavy-handed in its tactics, and that it gets cheap properties through political connections; many of those new doorsteps Islam showed me were acquired when Universal lobbied the city to exercise its “eminent domain” policy: to seize blighted properties, or properties whose owners owed long-overdue taxes. One of Gamble’s staunchest critics was Barney Richardson, his childhood friend who also sat at the feet of Mr. Lewis in the Ideal Barber Shop.

Richardson hasn’t left the neighborhood in the entirety of his 70-plus years, and is now the area’s unofficial historian. “I had five properties,” he said recently. He had bought them as cheaply as two-for-$5,000. “They needed paint and all, but in our neighborhood, you couldn’t get a loan from a bank to fix up your properties.”

He received a letter from the city alerting him that his houses would be seized under eminent domain. He blamed Kenny Gamble, publicly. “I fought it,” he said. Ultimately he agreed to spruce up his homes, and was allowed to keep them. But the strong-arm maneuver angered him.

Other residents say that Universal, once it acquires properties, moves too slowly to develop them, and so actually contributes to blight. South Philly activist Lisa Parsley, for instance, gnaws on Universal like a determined dog with a bone. She tracks the company’s business dealings, tax payments and development progress; she says Universal may have done good for South Philly long ago, but now it’s holding back development and even fostering crime. She offers the Royal Theater on South between 15th and 16th  as an example: Universal acquired it in 2000, and she says the company promised to renovate it. But all they’ve done — visibly, at least — is paint a mural on the front.

I asked Rahim Islam about her assertion, and he said, “For somebody to say we wanted to buy [the Royal] to develop it is just a misleading thing. We bought it to preserve it.” But a press release announcing the purchase in 2000, and bearing Islam’s name, seems to confirm Parsley’s claim: It said the Royal had been bought “for conversion into a live performance theater.”

Parsley said the empty Royal — along with other bare lots owned by Universal — invites drug traffic and other crime. Gamble recently lent his name, voice and time to a program called 10,000 Men, an effort to tamp down deadly crime in Philadelphia’s black community. But Parsley’s dim view of Kenny Gamble persists.

“Crack baggie,” she said recently, bending down to pick up a tiny pink plastic bag from the sidewalk on Bainbridge Street near 21st Street. We’d spent the evening walking through South Philadelphia, looking at Universal’s properties — the Royal Theater, among others — and now she held the baggie aloft as evidence. “All the abandoned housing makes it still attract this kind of thing.”

“For which you place some of the blame squarely on — ”

“Universal. Absolutely.”

Activist resident Laura Blanchard, a former board member of the South of South Neighborhood Association, said that Gamble’s work in the neighborhood has been, on balance, a good thing. But she mentioned a touchy aspect of Gamble’s approach to development:

“Sadly, Mr. Gamble’s faith and some of his reported comments about preserving an African-American community have been polarizing,” she said, “particularly in our uneasy post-9/11 world.”

She said some people fear Gamble wants to build a black Muslim enclave. I promised to ask him about that.


The second thing you notice in Kenny Gamble’s office — after the enormous purplish painting — is everything else.

The cream-colored, thick-pile shag carpet, shot through with a chocolate-colored geometric design; the leather furniture; the enormous portrait of Gamble and Huff; the painting of the kings of Africa. And, of course, an elaborate copy of the Koran.

In the 1970s, Gamble converted to Islam, and ultimately made the hajj to Mecca. Islam, he said, is a “constant remembrance of the brotherhood that should be among people. Whether or not Islam has been able to produce this in reality, it’s a lofty goal.”

As Gamble talked about his plans for Philadelphia — the music, the land, the people — it became clear why Islam appeals to him in this particular way. He’s a man for whom only the lofty goal is worth the effort; he reaches for the greater good, even if it means climbing over smaller, more immediate concerns.

Sometimes that works. Barney Richardson, the childhood friend who grew to become one of Gamble’s critics, has changed his mind again. He has watched his neighborhood blossom, he said, and although he owns just two properties instead of five, one of them is worth more than a million dollars. And somehow, he said, Universal has managed to make sure old-time residents aren’t shoved out by new money. “Kenny stood up against criticism from his own people, including me,” Richardson said, chuckling. “And now I have to eat crow.”

As for other neighborhood residents who still feel overrun by Universal’s projects, Gamble is unflinching: “The welfare of the community overrides any individual.”

A community, of course, is made of individuals, and talk of “overriding” people makes them nervous. But Gamble, in his most kingly mode, casts his gaze so far into the distance that he doesn’t see the rabble at his feet. He doesn’t weigh his words for effect; he just lets them tumble out as they please.

For instance, I asked Gamble about some residents’ concern about racial segregation or supremacy. I expected a tidy denial. But his response was unfiltered: “It’s like cats,” he said. “They’re all cats. But you don’t see the lion with the tiger. You don’t see the tiger with the panther.”

I didn’t know how to respond. He continued: “It pretty much boils down to mating. Every now and then you’ll see a tiger and maybe a lion copulate, and you’ll get a tiger-lion, or something strange.”

I told him that sounds a lot like segregation. It’s not, he said; it’s consolidation. Consolidation of jobs, money and influence. In his neighborhood, he argues, black people make up the vast majority of the population, but own only a small percentage of the businesses. He said he admires other self-sustaining and culturally insular neighborhoods: “There’s nothing wrong with the Chinese having Chinatown,” he said.

Gamble’s views, strange though they may be, aren’t quite the threat some of his opponents fear. It’s illegal, for instance to sell land or businesses based on race. So chances are slim that he’ll build an exclusive “Africatown” to rival Chinatown. But he does seem to hope for it: “You don’t have people selling goods and services in the Irish community from some other community,” he said. “In the Russian community, you don’t have people from other communities. In the Puerto Rican community, the Puerto Ricans have their own economy, they have their own stores.”

Race can only be understood by taking the long view, Gamble said. He described the whole history of the black community in America, then applied the same sort of long view into the future: Sure, his efforts in South Philly may take 100 years to fully succeed, but really, what is one century in the face of all history?

His personal aims are so big and sweeping that during regular conversation, he seems to be extemporaneously composing lyrics: “The saving of America. That’s the underlying thing here,” he said.

At one point, he walked across his office and placed a hand on his throne. It was an honest-to-goodness throne, with a wraparound back of carved wood and a seat of golden fabric. Its arms were just that: literally carved as human arms. Anytime Gamble sat down, he would rest his hands on the chair’s fists.

It seemed fitting, somehow, for a man of such grand stature, distant vision and staggering hubris.

“My whole thing is Philadelphia,” he said. “This was the city that gave birth to America. The spirit of Philadelphia is still here, and we have an obligation to make that idea last.

“That’s the saving of America.”

E-mail: mteague@phillymag.com

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