Who Owns the (Philadelphia) Soul of Black Music?

Sony’s acquisition of a classic Philly catalog means that more soul tunes are no longer black-owned.

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Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and Eric Grant of the O'Jays on Jan. 31, 2014, in New York City

Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Time Warner Cable

I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoyed the Coors Light beer ads that featured the O’Jays’ classic recording, “Love Train.” But I’m sure many folks would also be curious as to how that song—one of the great anthems recorded on the Philadelphia International Records label—ended up in a commercial for a company whose former president and CEO was a founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Why would a label that stood for black aspiration in the 1970s allow one of their songs to be used by a company that has supported an organization directly opposed to those aspirations?

The answer lies in the fact that Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff,  the founders of Philadelphia International, don’t own the publishing rights or master recordings to the songs that were recorded for their label. 

Nearly 25 years ago, Mighty Three Music, the music publishing company founded by Gamble, Huff and Thom Bell, was sold to the Warner/Chappell Music publishing company for $15 million. Mighty Three Music held the publishing rights for many of the great soul recordings of the 1970s, including music from the O’Jays, the Stylistics, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, the Spinners, Teddy Pendergrass, MFSB and the Jones Girls. Though the sale highlighted the commercial value of black music, it also highlighted a trend in which music produced by black artists no longer remained under the control of black record companies.

Indeed, Philadelphia International Records has been in the news recently as the Sony Music Entertainment group announced that they acquired the label’s entire catalog. The Sony deal brings the label, which has largely been defunct since 1987, full circle, from its beginnings as corporate America’s first big investment in black music. Prior to the creation of Philadelphia International Records, most black music was recorded on independent labels like black-owned Motown, Stax and Chess—which both had white founders.

Philadelphia International Records was created in 1971 by Gamble and Huff. The duo began making music and producing together in the mid-1960s, working at small Philadelphia-area labels, including their own independent label, Gamble Records, which had early success with the Intruders (“Cowboys to Girls”). Gamble and Huff were sought out to work with other labels producing gold and platinum singles for the likes of Wilson Pickett (“Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You”), Joe Simon (“Drowning in the Sea of Love”) and, most famously, Chicago-based crooner Jerry Butler, who put the duo on the radar of then-Columbia Records President Clive Davis.

Initially Columbia’s legal counsel, Davis was charged with bringing one of the oldest record companies in the country into the future. He did it by signing acts like Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana and Sly and the Family Stone. With an eye on the success of Motown and Stax, and hoping to cut into the black market, Davis funded a study by Harvard MBA students that has come to be known as the Harvard Report: “A Study of the Soul Music Environment Prepared for Columbia Records Group.”

One of the report’s suggestions was that Columbia identify up-and-coming producers who could help attract new black acts to the label. In 1970, Davis began negotiations to bring Gamble and Huff into Columbia’s fold as in-house producers, but Gamble and Huff held out for their own label. Their compromise was Philadelphia International Records, where Gamble and Huff oversaw the creative side of the label while Columbia handled distribution and promotion. As John Jackson writes of the initial deal in his book A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, “Columbia guaranteed the cash-starved entrepreneurs an advance of $75,000 to produce fifteen singles and $25,000 for each album. Columbia, in turn, got its foot in the R&B and soul music door.” 

And though Davis would be off the scene before Philadelphia International’s greatest successes—leaving for Arista Records in 1975 and signing Gil Scott-Heron as his first black act—Philadelphia International would be the model for two generations of boutique black music labels like Def Jam, LaFace, Uptown, Roc-a-Fella, Young Money Entertainment and Bad Boy Entertainment (initially conceived with Davis at Arista).

Fortunes turned quickly, though, for Philadelphia International Records. When the initial deal ended in 1975, Columbia no longer needed PIR’s music—acts like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Michael Jackson (who signed with Columbia’s subsidiary, Epic Records) were about to really take them into the future—and they walked away from the deal with Philadelphia International’s master recordings (now owned by parent company Sony), though they continued to distribute PIR music until 1982. When a subsequent deal with Philadelphia International and EMI/Capitol Records ended in 1987, the Philadelphia International Records with which many grew up was effectively dead.

Both the sale of Mighty Three Music Publishing and the Philadelphia International Records catalog are ultimately the prerogative of Bell, Gamble and Huff, and the fact that this important archive of black music is no longer owned by black people should serve as a cautionary tale for black artists.

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