Over the last few weeks, I’ve been charting the rise of Salsoul Records and then the changes in personnel that ensued from 1978 onwards. The story of Salsoul Records wouldn’t have happened without Philadelphia International Records and Gamble and Huff. M.F.S.B. were Philadelphia International Records legendary house-band, and in 1975 after members of M.F.S.B. were involved in a dispute with Gamble and Huff over money. When the dispute couldn’t be resolved, many members of M.F.S.B. quit, deciding to head less than one-hundred miles away to New York, where they became The Salsoul Orchestra. This left behind a very different M.F.S.B., with many musicians that played on albums like Philly Soul classics like Billy Paul’s 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, The O’Jays Backstabbers, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes’ Black and Blue and M.F.S.B.’s Love Is the Message had left M.F.S.B. While this might of proved fatal for many labels, Philadelphia International Records continued to release many classic albums. However, losing the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr, guitarist Bobby “Electronic” Eli, percussionist Larry Washington and keyboard players Bunny Sigler and Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey left a void. While Philadelphia International Records continued to release many classic and successful albums, M.F.S.B. released further studio albums, including 1978s The Gamble and Huff Orchestra. This was M.F.S.B.’s sixth album and the follow up to 1976s Summertime, which was the first album by M.F.S.B. since the change in M.F.S.B.’s lineup. Would The Gamble and Huff Orchestra be an album match the quality of classic M.F.S.B. albums like Love Is the Message and Philadelphia Freedom? That’s what I’ll tell you, after I’ve told you about the background to The Gamble and Huff Orchestra.

For M.F.S.B.’s sixth studio album The Gamble and Huff Orchestra, it was very much a team-effort, with various songwriters and songwriting partnerships contributing the eight tracks. Gamble and Huff only contributed two tracks, and one of them, Use Ta Be My Guy was a cover of a track originally recorded by The O’Jays. The other tracks was The Way I Feel Tonight. Another cover version was Billie Calvin’s Wishing On A Star, originally recorded by Rose Royce. Dennis Harris, M.F.S.B. guitarist, wrote Redwood Beach, while Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs cowrote Dance With Me Tonight. Joseph Jefferson and Philadelphia International arranger John L. Usry Jr. cowrote To Be In Love, while Leroy Bell and Casey James cowrote Let’s Party Down and with Thom Bell, cowrote Is It Something I Said. These tracks would be recorded at two studios, Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios and Seattle’s Kaye Smith Studios.

Of the eight tracks on The Gamble and Huff Orchestra, only Let’s Party Down and Is It Something I Said were recorded at Kaye Smith Studios in Seattle. The other six tracks were recorded in the familiar surroundings of Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios. With many of M.F.S.B. now finding even further success as The Salsoul Orchestra, the new lineup was very different from the early days, when albums like Love Is the Message and Philadelphia Freedom were recorded. Among the musicians that featured in this lineup of M.F.S.B. were guitarists James Herb Smith, Dennis Harris, Anthony Bell and Leroy Bell who also added percussion and backing vocals. Dexter Wansel added keyboards, while the legendary trio of backing vocalists Yvette Benton, Carla Benson and Barbara Ingram know as the Sweethearts of Sigma were familiar faces at Philadelphia International. Incidentally, they also featured on the Salsoul recordings. More familiar faces could be found among the arrangers and producers who worked on M.F.S.B.’s sixth album The Gamble and Huff Orchestra.

The producers who worked on The Gamble and Huff Orchestra included Gamble and Huff who produced The Way I Feel Tonight, while Joseph Jefferson and John L. Usry Jr. produced two tracks. Jack Faith arranged two tracks and produced Wishing On A Star. Anthony Bell arranged Let’s Party Down, which his brother Thom Bell produced. Thom Bell also arranged and produced Is It Something I Said, which was recorded in Seattle. Dennis Harris who wrote Redwood Beach, arranged and produced the track. With The Gamble and Huff Orchestra recorded, what would prove to be M.F.S.B.’s penultimate album would be released in 1978.

On the release of M.F.S.B. sixth album, The Gamble and Huff Orchestra failed to chart. Given how M.F.S.B.’s sound had changed, hoping to compete with The Salsoul Orchestra, which comprised many former M.F.S.B. legends, this must have hurt everyone at Philadelphia International Records. At least Used Ta Be My Guy reached a lowly number ninety-four in the US R&B Charts. However, given how M.F.S.B.’s sound had been changed to fit the growing love of all things disco, was this a mistake and should’ve M.F.S.B. have stuck to what they did best, fusing soul, funk and jazz seamlessly and peerlessly. That’s what I’ll tell you, after I’ve told you about the music on M.F.S.B. 1978 album The Gamble and Huff Orchestra.

Opening The Gamble and Huff Orchestra is Dance with Me Tonight written by Cynthia Biggs and Dexter Wansel, who arranged and produced the track. As the track opens, it could only be one band M.F.S.B. With a pounding, funky rhythm section, flourishes of quivering strings, keyboards and blazing horns combining, M.F.S.B. kick loose. While M.F.S.B. combine their combination of soul and funk, the track heads in the direction of disco. Graceful strings, rasping horns, Dexter Wansel’s keyboards and an uber-funky rhythm section provide a pulsating, funk-laden heartbeat. In the space of five-minutes, M.F.S.B. seamlessly fuse funk, soul, jazz and disco like only they can. 

To Be in Love was written and produced by Joseph Jefferson and John L. Usry Jr. who arranged the track. When a flourish of piano opens the track, your hopes are high. As a Latin-tinged rhythm section, punchy backing vocals and cascading strings combine, things are still looking good. When keyboards are introduced they don’t quite work, but the braying horns rescue the situation and M.F.S.B. spring a surprise. Suddenly, you think you’re listening to The Salsoul Orchestra, when the Sweethearts of Sigma add sensuous, sultry backing vocals. If you think The Salsoul Orchestra, circa Nice ‘N’ Nasty you’re on the right lines. This is M.F.S.B.’s take on disco. Everything works, with the blazing horns, woodwind, dancing strings and the Sweethearts of Sigma’s vocal, showing that anything The Salsoul Orchestra can do, so can M.F.S.B. Mind you, by 1978 Salsoul featured many of M.F.S.B.’s legends and so was more M.F.S.B. than M.F.S.B.

Let’s Party Down sees the Bell brothers take charge of arranging and producing the track. Anthony is arranger and Thom producer. They combine elements of disco with funk and soulful vocals. There’s a slightly space-age sound to the synths and keyboards, with what sounds like a Moog Bass synth providing part of the track’s funky backdrop. While sometimes, synths from this era can sound slightly dated, this isn’t the case here. Add Bill Lamb’s sweeping, soulful vocals plus the lush strings, percussion and blazing horns and the result is a funky slice of dance-floor friendly music, where Philadelphia International had one firmly fixed on the ever increasing popularity of disco. If Gamble and Huff really wanted to conquer the increasingly popular disco market, maybe they should’ve hired The Salsoul Orchestra?

Wishing on a Star sees Jack Faith take over the production chair, resulting in one of the best tracks on The Gamble and Huff Orchestra. His arrangement sees a jazz-tinged, chiming guitar solo accompany a subtle rhythm section, melodic keyboards and the Sweethearts of Sigma’s tender, elegant harmonies. When the vocals drop out, a clarinet solo fills the gap, before the lushest of cascading strings and growling horns combine to create one of the most traditional M.F.S.B. sounding tracks. Later, M.F.S.B. threaten to kick loose, as they toy with you, as they add a sprinkling of funk to the jazzy sound. That this is one of the highlights of The Gamble and Huff Orchestra is no surprise, after all, Jack Faith, one of the most talented arrangers and producers at Philadelphia International was responsible for this track and its success.

Use Ta Be My Guy was written by Gamble and Huff and is a cover of a track made famous by The O’Jays. The Sweethearts of Sigma take charge of the vocal, as Joseph Jefferson and John L. Usry Jr. produce it. With a jazzy guitar, punchy harmonies from the Sweethearts of Sigma combined with a dance-floor friendly beat, the track reveals its secrets. Bursts of pounding drums and blazing horns punctuate the arrangement, while strings sweep and swirl and the tender harmonies add beauty to the drama of the horns and drums. A rasping horn solo is key to track’s sound and success, while the keyboards, rhythm section and cascading strings see M.F.S.B. fuse jazz, funk, soulful harmonies and disco beautifully and seamlessly, all in the space of five minutes. 

Gamble and Huff’s only produced The Way I Feel Today, which they cowrote. Jack Faith arranges the tracks, which is another of the highlights of The Gamble and Huff Orchestra. The Sweethearts of Sigma add wistful and sometimes joyful vocals, while the arrangement is more jazz than funk. A standup bass, helps give the track a slightly moody, thoughtful old-fashioned jazzy sound, as do bursts of rasping horns and the Sweethearts of Sigma’s tender harmonies. The coup de grace is the swathes of lush strings that sweep and swirl. They’re just the icing on Gamble and Huff’s delicious, jazzy cake.

Is it Something I Said is one of two tracks that were recorded at Seattle. Given that Sigma Sound Studios was familiar territory for Philadelphia International and part of the Philly Sound, this seems a strange move. Thom Bell arranges and produces the track, where the funky rhythm section, combine with swathes of dancing strings, growling horns and keyboards. This works really well, but for some reason Thom thought that allowing a poor man’s James Brown to holler “Is it Something I Said” occasionally would add to the track? Obviously it doesn’t and is something of an unwelcome intrusion. Thankfully it doesn’t happen too often and doesn’t spoil what’s a dramatic and funky track.

Closing The Gamble and Huff Orchestra is Reedwood Beach written, arranged and produced by M.F.S.B. guitarist Dennis Harris. It’s a track where jazz and funk are combined, with jazzy guitar, piano and drums combining, before cascading strings and rasping horns combine. M.F.S.B. play their part in moving the track from a quite beautiful, laid-back sounding track, before injecting woodwind, blazing horns and bursts of horns as M.F.S.B. threaten to kick loose. They never do, instead toy and tease you, and in the process, create a quite beautiful track to close The Gamble and Huff Orchestra.

The Gamble and Huff Orchestra was M.F.S.B.’s fifth album and first since 1976s Summertime. It would also prove to be the penultimate M.F.S.B. album. While music had changed much since their debut album M.F.S.B. in 1972. So too had M.F.S.B.’s personnel and on The Gamble and Huff Orchestra, their music. Although many of the tracks on The Gamble and Huff Orchestra were M.F.S.B.’s familiar fusion of funk, jazz and soul, some of the track’s were designed to help Gamble and Huff and Philadelphia International Records to conquer the increasingly popular disco market in 1978. This is somewhat ironic, given that Gamble and Huff with the help of the other multitalented personnel at Philadelphia International Records had been creating quality and timeless dance music since 1972. What they didn’t do, was go chasing popular musical trends. Somewhat ironically, disco had only another year to live, before it nearly died in July 1979, on Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago. However, on The Gamble and Huff Orchestra, Gamble and Huff spread their bets, by not solely concentrating on one musical genre. Instead, there was the usual mixture of funk, soul, jazz and dance-floor friendly music, including disco. These eight tracks ranged from beautiful, wistful and melancholy jazz and soulful, to dramatic, pulsating and uber-funky. 

Although the classic lineup of M.F.S.B. had headed to New York and became The Salsoul Orchestra in 1975, Philly still had more than its fair share of talented musicians. These musicians became in some respects, M.F.S.B. Mk. 2 and for many people, M.F.S.B.’s music is best described as two periods 1972-1975 and the classic lineup and M.F.S.B. Mk. 2, the post-1975 lineup. While many legendary musicians left M.F.S.B. in 1975, it was still a hugely talented lineup of musicians, backing vocalists, the Sweethearts of Sigma, plys some talented songwriters, arrangers and producers. They all played their part in making The Gamble and Huff Orchestra a really enjoyable album which mostly has aged well. While it’s maybe not a classic album like Love Is the Message or Philadelphia Freedom, but it’s one of the best albums from M.F.S.B. Mk. 2, along with Summertime, M.F.S.B.’s fourth album released in 1976. Standout Tracks: Wishing on a Star, Use Ta Be My Guy, The Way I Feel Today and Redwood Beach.


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