Don Cornelius remembered: Kenneth Gamble touts 'Soul Train' pride
Kenneth Gamble, along with partners Leon Huff and Thom Bell, was responsible for discovering and nurturing numerous R&B and soul performers during the heyday of their Philadelphia International Records label in the 1970s and '80s. Gamble and Huff also became one of the premier songwriting and production teams in popular music, putting their stamp on dozens of hits, including songs by Brian Holland-Lamont Dozier-Eddie Holland and Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Here, he remembers "Soul Train" creator Don Cornelius, who died Wednesday.
“I’m sad to hear of his passing. He was such a wonderful person and an American icon.
“Don Cornelius’ ‘Soul Train’ made a great contribution to American culture. It came directly from the African American community. It was more than TV dance show; it was a source of pride and dignity for African American community. There were hardly any venues at that time, especially on TV, that would give African American artists any exposure, including ‘[American] Bandstand.’
“‘Bandstand’ was a dance show, but it basically concentrated on Caucasian people. They had a few black artists on from time to time. ‘Soul Train’ was something that the African American community first embraced -- and it’s always good to see African American people on TV -- but then it spread to become a national and an international phenomenon.
“I first met Don Cornelius in the late '60s or early '70s. We got a long real well. He was just getting started at the same time we were just getting started. We both agreed that hopefully we’d be able to make records some day.
"We had some local acts -- the Intruders, the Delfonics -- that we working with here in Philly. He said ‘Come do my show.’ It was in Chicago then and it was a regional show. So we used to send what little acts we had at the time to Chicago and they were able to get that regional exposure.
"But when he moved to California and 'Soul Train' became a national sensation, we could send an artist like Billy Paul or Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and you got instant national exposure, which became something that helped increase record sales, increased the crowds at their performances and everything.
“‘Soul Train’ not only became a community -- something that gave the African American community a lot of pride -- but it became a strong economic engine for the total music industry. It got so popular that artists like Elton John and David Bowie and the Bee Gees wanted to be on ‘Soul Train.’ By that time it had gone far beyond the color barrier this country has embraced for so long.
“During the time when ‘Soul Train’ was going to California and was starting to get real big, our relationship with Don Cornelius continued. I used to talk to him two or three times a week. At one point I said, ‘Don you need a theme song.’ He said, ‘Well you, know, I got a theme song I use. I said, 'No, you need your own theme song and I want to do one for you. Johnny Carson’s got a theme song, Bob Hope has a theme song, Every great person has a theme song. You know what I mean.
“So we invited him to come here to Philly, and he came on a Friday night. Huff, Thom Bell and myself were messing around with some concepts and we went into the studio that Saturday, but we weren’t really satisfied with what we came up with. Don would say, ‘I’m going back home,’ but I said, ‘You’ve got to stay one more day. You can go back on Sunday. He went back to his hotel and Huff and I came back to our office.
“We got onto the piano and tried to break our brains because we’ve gotta come up with something great for this guy. Then we got the part that goes ‘Soul train, soul train,’ and everything fell into place once we got that hook. We borrowed something from ‘Love Train’ -- the line about ‘people all over the world’ -- because the show was trying to communicate with people all over the world. That thing just fell into place. Don was so happy, but when he heard it, it still wasn’t finished; we only had the rhythm section. We put the Three Degrees in there; they were hot with ‘When Will I See You Again,’ along with the MFSB orchestra and got it finished.
“We said, ‘Let’s call it “The Soul Train Theme.’ But Don didn’t want to. He said 'I’m protective of my ‘Soul Train’ brand.' You can call it anything else you want. We called it ‘TSOP’ and in parentheses ‘The Sound of Philadelphia.’ It became a No. 1 record all over the world. In the Philippines it was No. 1.
“Even today when you hear it, you think of ‘Soul Train.’ Don told me [later], ‘That was the dumbest move I ever made. It should have been called 'Soul Train theme.’
"Those were great times. Without Don Cornelius, people like the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle, the Three Degrees, Billy Paul -- all the artists we had -- the Delfonics, all these great artists would never have gotten national exposure.
"There were not other opportunities for black artists. A lot of that happened because you don’t get the sponsors for black art in America. America trying to run away from black thought. That’s a detriment to America. People don’t realize the value they have in the African American community and the contributions that have been made and that are still being made.
“He was taking artists nobody ever heard of -- that’s the most important part. It’s great to get the big-name artists, but who’s going to take great new artists like the Intruders, put them on your show and then they become a million seller? He played a big part in developing new talent.
“Also, look at all the dancers that were on that show and how creative they were. They made their own costumes, put together their own skits and many went on to be movie stars, television stars, choreographers, everything you can think of.
“It was a moment in time. A moment that comes around every now and then, when someone has a vision. Don Cornelius had a vision and the talent to put together an idea that was timely and able to capture the imagination of the whole world.
“He was a great man, a humble man, and a very giving man. I pray for him. When I think of him, I think of fun times. Those were fun times in America.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Kenneth Gamble, seated center wearing blue suit, shakes hands with Joe Jackson after signing on the Jackson 5 in 1976. Leon Huff is seated behind Gamble. Credit: Philadelphia International Records