Leon Huff Talks Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Donald Trump

Kenny Gamble's legendary songwriting partner comes out of hiding

Next Tuesday, Leon Huff, the quiet half of the duo that gave birth to The Sound of Philadelphia genre, releases Groovy People, his first album in 31 years. I reached him in his car (someone else was driving … I think) to discuss what life is like four decades after “Love Train.”

It’s 2011. Why come out of retirement now?
Man, I never retired. Creative people don’t retire. I’ll create music until I can’t. I’ll play the piano until I can’t. I play it every day. I’m always coming up with melodies, concepts. I just be going in the studio in my spare time, jamming. I get an idea and I do it.

How have you adapted to the music industry of the 21st Century?
Someone just guided me toward the Internet. I made my statement in the 70s with live musicians. Now it’s altogether a different world, and I’m still learning it. The Internet is the thing now. I intend to release a lot of new music now that I’m learning new ways to expose my music to the public. And I’m enjoying watching these artists like Rihanna and Lady Gaga. Beyonce. This new crop of talent. The entertainment world is in another place right now, and I think it’s great.

You and Kenny Gamble wrote some ridiculous number of songs together at Philadelphia International Records. Which are your personal favorites?
Okay, I’m going to give you five. “Love Train.” “Me and Mrs. Jones.” “For the Love of Money,” the Donald Trump signature song. “T.S.O.P.,” the Soul Train theme. And “You’ll Never Find a Love Like Mine.” Wait, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” Oh, I have one more. “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” by the Supremes and Temptations. We’ll stop there, but I could keep going. I still love hearing them. The music is as vibrant as ever. And it should be. We put a lot of time in. We stayed in the studio 24/7 in the 70s.

You mentioned the theme song to The Apprentice. Do you actually get money every time that show airs?
[Singing] Money, money, money, money … Money. That’s the name of the game. I get royalties from the shows and all the commercials. We took a wonderful ride with Donald Trump. And “Love Train” was on that Coors beer commercial for three or four years. I’m just [thankful] to be a part of that creation. A song like that being used on a commercial for years. That’s a nice ride for a songwriter.

How long does it take you to write the typical song?
Some of them are quick and spontaneous. A half an hour. Some of them take a couple of days.

Which songs did you write in a half hour?
“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” That was a fast tune. And the Wilson Pickett songs like “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” and “Engine No. 9.” And “Cowboys to Girls,” too. That was fast. Spontaneity was key to our creativity. We had the tape recorder running all the time. As soon as I sit down at the piano, that tape recorder be rolling. Gamble comes over and starts to groove. We always talked, we had big conversations about current events, and concepts and titles came out of those conversations.

Gamble has always been in the limelight, while you’ve been more behind the scenes. Is that by design?
Well, that’s one of the traits of my character. I always stayed in the studio, close to the music. He’s always been the spokesperson. I do have things to say, but I’d rather be in the studio than making a speech. I let the speech come through in the music with songs like “Wake Up Everybody” and “Clean Up the Ghetto.” We always had social songs.

You’ve been sampled countless times. Any examples that stand out?
Stronger” by Kanye West. He sampled … what was the name of that song?* He had to dig deep. Those rappers have boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes of albums. I completely forgot about that song. I can’t remember it. Also, 50 Cent sampled us. Jay-Z. I get the printouts to see who sampled my music. Some of them I can hear. Some of them I can’t. We have a CD we’re thinking about releasing with the sampled version and the original song together.

What’s your biggest extravagance? Travel? Food? Wine? Cars?
[Laughing] Some of all of that. I’m in a good place. I have a great wife, Regina. We’ve been married four years, and she makes my life complete … Smokey Robinson once said to me, “There’s always a place for a love song.” And you know what? He’s right.

* Kayne West sampled Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” which sampled “Cola Bottle Baby,” a track by Philadelphia International Records artist Edwin Birdsong.