As we celebrate the legacy and the memory of Michael Jackson, who would have celebrated his 54th birthday on August 29, I take great pride in the fact that Philadelphia played a significant role in his emergence as a prolific songwriter and producer.
With a catalog of hits that includes "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Beat it," "Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel" and of course the unforgettable "Billie Jean," Jackson's first lessons in crafting a song and producing a record came under the tutelage of the prolific Kenneth "Kenny" Gamble & Leon Huff, while in Philly to record "The Jacksons" and "Goin' Places," their first two albums following their departure from Motown Records in 1975. Jermaine, who had married the boss' daughter, Hazel Gordy, chose to remain at Motown and was replaced by youngest brother, Stephen Randall, also known as Randy.
When the Jacksons were negotiating with CBS, they expressed an interest in writing and producing their own music, which was not an option at Motown. On the two albums, released jointly on the Philadelphia International/Epic label, Gamble and Huff not only gave them that opportunity, but actually began to teach them the rudiments of songwriting and producing.
"I encouraged people," said Gamble, whom, along with Huff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall in 2008. "I always thought that Huff and I, we could stand the competition. We had to be strong, so me and Huff, we encouraged young writers to be producers and get off on their own, and look at the business as a business."
Since Gamble and his partner insisted on rehearsals during the recording process, Philly became a temporary home for the Jacksons, who took up residence at the Latham Hotel while they worked on their new music. In the studio, Gamble and Huff made sure that each of the brothers had his moment in the spotlight.
"We didn't just use Michael, we had Jackie, we had Marlon, we had them all singing so that all the weight didn't just fall on Michael," said Gamble. "I can remember writing for them, and the songs that Huff and I were writing for them were songs like 'Let Me Show You the Way to Go' and 'Enjoy Yourself,' and a couple of other songs, and Michael loved them. One was called 'Man of War.' 'Man of War' was one of his favorite songs, 'cause our whole thing was messages. 'Message in the music,' and that's what Michael wanted to do. He said, 'Man, you know? I want to do some messages.'
Judging from heartfelt hits such as "Heal the World," "Earth Song" and "We Are the World," which would eventually come, Gamble & Huff set the example and laid the foundation for some of Jackson's greatest work.
Jackson's first effort was the innocent and effervescent "Blues Away," which would become his first credit as a professional songwriter.
"Michael wrote that song, and I think McFadden & Whitehead and myself," said Gamble. "He needed help with it, so we all got in the studio with him because he played piano a little bit. So when he played the song on the piano and he was telling me how he wanted it to go, I said, 'You do it,' and I left the studio and let him do it, and he did an excellent job!
"I came back in when he started to overdub his voice, and he had all these great ideas about how to record his voice, like doubling his voice, doing all kinds of little ad libs and whatever. He had it all thought out in his head. As a matter of fact, they had two songs on each album. They had 'Blues Away' and 'You've Got to Change Your Style of Life.' Michael wrote 'Blues Away' by himself. 'You've Got to Change Your Style of Life,' all the brothers, they wrote it together.
"And so the conclusion that I came up with, after listening to them, I told Michael and Tito and the rest of them, 'You know, you guys need to express yourselves, and whatever I can do to help you, I'll help you.' They were extremely talented, and I told Ron Luxemburg from Epic [Records], 'These guys need to produce themselves,' because they had a sound in their heads.
"Then, the first album that they produced on themselves was 'Destiny,' but the song that was in it was 'Shake Your Body Down to the Ground," and I was like, 'Man!' Because their whole thing was dancing! It was a great experience, and Michael used to thank me for showing him how to put a song together."
"He was such a shy person," Gamble said of the late "King of Pop." "This guy was such a shy person, but also a very bold person, 'cause he was deep inside — you know how you have something going on? Well, eventually, look what happened. I mean, this guy became the biggest artist in the world! Ever, in the history of the business!"
As we remembered Michael Jackson, whose sudden death on June 25, 2009 shocked and saddened the world, Gamble recalled the very first time he saw a little boy perform on the stage of Philadelphia's historic Uptown Theater, referring to him as "a phenomenon."
"It's very seldom that you find a young 12, 13 year old boy that can sing like that," he said. "I mean, he had a tremendous voice — this was no kiddie game! This was real singing, and he often gave credit to James Brown and to Smokey Robinson. These are the people that he studied. He studied those people and incorporated all that stuff into himself. He just had something special. It's just that simple. It's just a shame that he's gone, but the thing of it is, who knows when that's going to happen to any of us? But yeah. This guy, he was something special."