• Rann Miller

The Sound of Black History

One of the oft forgotten about places in New Jersey is Cape May and yet it is one of the more beautiful “getaway” destinations in the state. It’s where I proposed to my wife; it’s where we take our children to the zoo. It was a destination of Harriet Tubman. She worked in Cape May as a hotel servant to earn money for her returns to the Antebellum South to have enslaved persons get away.


I have no doubt that Ms. Tubman passed through the southwestern edge of New Jersey (Salem, Gloucester, and Camden Counties) as she ushered precious souls to freedom. All-Black towns including Guineatown, Saddlertown, Timbuctoo, Gouldtown, and Springtown were routes along the Underground Railroad as well as attractive destinations for newly escaped Blacks due to the treatment of Blacks by local Quakers.


Source: Lawnside.net


Another town along that route was the all-Black community of Lawnside.


Initially known as Snowhill and later Free Haven, Lawnside was established in nineteenth century the by abolitionists as a community for free Blacks. It was the first Black community in the state to be incorporated as a municipality in 1926. Not only was Lawnside a destination for souls in search for freedom, it was also a destination for souls in search of culture and entertainment.


I know Lawnside.


In addition to visiting friends, attending fraternity functions or galas for then state senator Wayne Bryant. Lawnside was the location of my primary care physician for a time, Dr. William Young. Dr. Young got his start with my childhood doctor, Camden physician, Dr. Charles E. Brimm; who in his younger days played piano at local nightclubs throughout New Jersey. I suspect he made an appearance in Lawnside.


So too did several entertaining giants came to Lawnside to perform, including Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, Marvin Gaye and even LaWanda Page, affectionately known as Aunt Esther. There was also the Romeo’s, comprised of musicians Thom Bell, Woody Wolford, and a gentleman by the name of Kenneth “Kenny” Gamble. On a chance weekend at Loretta’s Hi-Hat, the Romeo’s performed and after an hour wait, a young musician from Camden, who was off from work that night, got in. That young musician’s name was Leon Huff.

Source: Columbia Records / Sony Records. Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble of Philadelphia International Records at Sigma Sound Studios in the 1970’s.


There are so many different things that can be mentioned in celebration of Black History Month, starting with its genesis as the brainchild of Carter G. Woodson; originally taking form as Negro History Week. But as a fan of Black music, I cannot think of a greater gift given by African America to America than that.


However, can we call Black music a gift if it’s stolen?


For example, Black creatives on social media provide the world with rich content; viral moments of Blackness displayed with music and movements rooted in the African American experience and Africanisms passed down from the ancestors and yet it’s often appropriated, exploited or straight up jacked by white folk.


Sadly, it’s nothing new; in the words of Melvin from Baby Boy, “this ain’t nothing but a rerun.”


Black art has been stolen from the dawn of time; whether Jack Daniels, Picasso or NBC, if we made it chances are a white person tried to steal it. The same thing is true for Black music. There’s the music of Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton and even Chic’s, whose famous baseline from Good Times was “borrowed” by Queen for Another One Bites the Dust.


Nevertheless, Black folks keep giving to America and from the early 1930’s until the 1970’s, Lawnside, home to several jook-joints like Loretta’s Hi-Hat, gave to South Jersey, and America.


Shout out to my college professor, Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, whose class I took at Rutgers University Camden introduced me to what a Jook-Joint was. The Jook-joint is Black history. Jook-Joints created Black history and on a random weekend at such a spot in Lawnside, New Jersey; a town along the Underground Railroad, introduced Leon Huff to Kenny Gamble.

That introduction yielded a partnership in music that became Philadelphia International Records (PIR), yielding more Black history.


There was of course Motown Records, who came first.


Historically, the Motown Sound may have very well been the soundtrack of an American Century. Kudos to Berry Gordy; he’s an icon. But full disclosure; I am biased. I ain’t from Detroit and while I am not from Philly, if you know anything about New Jersey, then you know that Philadelphia is to South Jersey as New York City is to North Jersey.


What about Central Jersey you as? There’s is no such thing as Central Jersey; although the wayward would beg to differ, but I digress.


I am from Camden aka East Philly as per Leon Huff. I wasn’t raised on the Motown Sound. I came up on the Sound of Philadelphia, affectionately known around my parts as TSOP. Break Up to Make Up, Family Reunion, I Hope that We Can Be Together Soon… I was weaned on WDAS FM; Patti Jackson, Tony Brown and Joe “Butterball” Tamburro.


So yeah, I am biased.


There were other Black owned record labels. Some of these included Teaneck NJ’s own T-Neck Records powered by Ron Isley, SOLAR powered by Don Corneilus and Dick Griffey and American Recording Company powered by Maurice White. But Motown and PIR were the blue chips of Black record labels and PIR was the last of the soul music empire; whose catalog rivaled any of its industry contemporaries.


Motown had the more mainstream and thus famous acts, no question. Motown, at one time, housed Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and The Jackson 5.


Rather, the difference between the two companies is about the sound. It’s about the Funk Brothers versus Mother Father Sister Brother (MFSB). It’s about the Jackson 5 leaving Motown for Philly International. While Motown was PIR’s blueprint, Philly International was about the soul and they too had the hits.

TSOP’s brand of music was a fusion of funk, R&B, and a string section that was amazing, I affectionately call funk orchestra or symphonic soul... and the soul was good. But it was also the message in the music, in addition to the soul, that made TSOP stand apart.

When he initially heard What’s Going On, Berry Gordy said it was the worst thing he had ever heard in his life. Only when the song became the biggest record at the time was Gordy happy. Meanwhile, Gamble and Huff made a career of making music that spoke to the times. To understand why, you’ve got to understand what it was to be Black in Philly – under the reign of one Frank Rizzo.

Source: Matt Rourke / AP. A statue of controversial former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo was vandalized during protests over the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. The city of Philadelphia took down the statue.


From 1968 to 1980, Frank Rizzo’s reign was one of terror for Black Philadelphians. PIR was birthed and housed largely during this time. Rizzo had the Black Panthers strip searched in public, mishandling of the Move controversy in 1978 and told residents to “vote white” while running for mayor. All those things earned Rizzo a statue in 1998 in Center City Philadelphia; only to be removed just last year in disgrace.

TSOP gave voice to those under the thumb of Rizzo with lyrics that hit as hard as MFSB’s funk and soul rhythms. Whether it was Rizzo, the war in Vietnam or Watergate, TSOP gave an answer to Marvin Gaye’s question; they said what was going on. Kenny Gamble said so in his own words:

We wrote songs about the time we were living in, you know, in the early 70’s we were coming off the civil rights movement… Communicating to the masses about social issues was always important to us.

Leon Huff agreed:

Well, if you're a songwriter, you have to know what's going on in the world… Me and Gamble always had conversations about current events and the community we came from. Our idea was to reflect that in the songs.”

You can hear it when you listen to Give the People What They Want, by the O’Jays:

People want better education now / People want better food to eat / People want here better homing / People need money, money / People need equality / People need understanding / People need freedom

Source: Wikipedia Commons. The O’Jays perform on Soul Train.


You can hear it on Wake Up Everybody, by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes:

Wake up, everybody I'm talking about the dope pusher / Stop pushin' that dope, Dope users, Stop usin' the dope / Wake up, yeah, False lyin', False preachin', False teachin', / Wake up, y'all, Come on / You preachers, Start preachin' what you teach, Teach the truth / Wake up, preachers, All liars (all liars), Politicians, Stop lyin' (stop lyin') / Why don't somebody, Help the poor people, Help the babies / You businessmen, Start treatin' (start treatin')”

This year, PIR celebrates its 50th anniversary. A lot has certainly changed since then. For one, those jook-joints in Lawnside are no more. While Gamble and Huff may participate in a project here and there, they have retired from the day to day work of record making. However, somethings haven’t changed. Through their philanthropy, these industry legends continue making Black history; renovating blighted homes, rebuilding decaying schools and building brand new school buildings.


What also hasn’t changed is the systemic racism at the root of the police brutality, social and economic inequities, health disparities, education disparities and voter disenfranchisement plaguing Black communities nationwide. Nevertheless, Black people continue to create spaces for uplift, healing, and empowerment; whether physical or digital.


New icons like iMarkkeys takes the everyday events of Black America, while navigating society built on their demoralization and fetishization, to build the soundtrack of our lives, whereby we collectively sing a song of unity to condemn the injustice we see and the foolishness we deal with daily.


Source: GAMBLE HUFF ENTERTAINMENT LLC. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (right), whose Philadelphia International Records produced the Sound of Philadelphia.


That’s the tradition of Black music; taking sour lemon and adding some soul to make some damn good lemonade. TSOP was some damn good lemonade; forged from a chance meeting in a jook-joint racism facilitated in a town built for free Blacks, serving as a stop along the underground railroad, during a time when Black folks were enslaved.

That’s what Black history sounds like.