Marian Anderson Award celebrates the Sound of Philadelphia

People Gamble and Huff
Kenny Gamble (right) and Leon Huff, founders of Philadelphia International Records, will receive the Marian Anderson Award along with Patti LaBelle on Tuesday at the Kimmel Center.

This year, the Marian Anderson Award is a celebration of the Sound of Philadelphia.

Every year since 1989, the award named for the celebrated contralto and civil rights heroine from South Philadelphia has celebrated artists “who have used their talents for personal artistic expression and whose bodies of work have contributed to society in a singular manner.”

The list of past winners includes Oprah Winfrey, Jon Bon Jovi, and last year’s honoree, Wynton Marsalis. But with the exception of no-longer-favorite-son Bill Cosby, who won in 2010, there has not been any Philadelphian on the list, and no local musical talent whatsoever.

That will change Tuesday at the Kimmel Center, when Anderson awards will be presented to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, founders of Philadelphia International Records, and to Patti LaBelle, the West Philadelphia-raised diva and soon-to-be TV cooking-show star who recorded for Gamble and Huff's label during her 1980s heyday.

Having their names spoken in the same breath as Anderson is a big deal for Gamble and Huff and LaBelle, each said last week in separate interviews.

“Marian Anderson is an icon,” Gamble, 73, said of the classical and opera singer who was famously denied the right to perform  at Constitution Hall in Washington in 1939 because of her race. (Instead, with the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, she performed a free concert for 75,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.)

“What she went through was similar to what Huff and myself went through,” says Gamble, a South Philadelphia native.  “It took awhile for her to be accepted and her talents to be accepted. And the same thing happened with us. We had to make sure that our music was excellent. So we really appreciate Marian Anderson as a role model.”

“I remember my mother talking about her,” says Huff, 74, the piano-playing half of the alliance, who, with his partner, wrote and produced hits including the O’Jays' “Love Train,” Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' “The Love I Lost.” Huff grew up in Camden, or, as he and Gamble call it, “East Philly.”  “Her name flew through my house. Her, Mahalia Jackson. Great people.” 

“They stood for freedom for African American people,” says Gamble. “They were symbols. And if you look at this award and who they’ve given it to, it’s an honor for us to even be in their number. Harry Belafonte. Quincy Jones. C’mon! And this year it’s a Philly thing, which makes it even better. And you’ve got the lovely Patti LaBelle. What more could you ask for?”

At the Kimmel, G&H and LaBelle will be feted by the Soul Survivors (“Expressway to Your Heart”) and the Three Degrees (“When Will I See You Again”), as well as Kathy Sledge, songwriter Carole Riddick, and R&B singer Ledisi.

LaBelle has sung for Anderson Award winners in the past. 

“I remember singing [The Pretenders’] 'I’ll Stand By You' for Richard Gere in 2007,” says LaBelle, 73, the powerhouse vocalist and celebrated cook whose latest culinary venture is Patti LaBelle’s Place, a series premiering Dec. 3 on the Cooking Channel. 

Growing up, LaBelle was not aware of Anderson. She was raised on the James Moody records in her brother’s collection, which are part of the inspiration for her jazz album slated for release in 2017. She’s pleased to be honored along with Gamble and Huff. “Kenny is my musical genius. He’s my brother. He’s been everything to me in this business. It’s just wonderful that it’s all three of us.”

Besides the solo albums LaBelle recorded for PIR -- The Spirit’s in It (1981), I’m in Love Again (1983), and Patti (1985) -- she also worked with Gamble and Huff when LaBelle, the vocal trio that teamed her with Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx, sang backup on Laura Nyro’s classic 1971 album, Gonna Take a Miracle.

“That was one of those great moments that I’ll never forget,” LaBelle says. “She wanted to record with Gamble and Huff, so I called Kenny.”

LaBelle was talking on the phone before flying to San Francisco for a show. She has had so much success with her cooking endeavors that the singer, known for feeding visiting rock stars like Elton John and the Rolling Stones, is in danger of seeing her music overshadowed.

Last year, James Wright’s YouTube rave review of her sweet potato pies -- which along with other flavors and cobblers are sold at Walmart -- went viral with more than five million views. On Patti LaBelle’s Place, she is to have various guests in the kitchen.  

Can 50 Cent cook? “No. He’s a good sous-chef, though. I used him real badly. He mashed potatoes and cut up short ribs for me. But he can’t cook. He’ll clean up after.” Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith was also on the show with his mother. “She’s a cook,” LaBelle says. “He’s pitiful.” 
 
The Anderson award celebrates social consciousness. Gamble’s Universal Cos. has built low- and middle-income housing in South Philadelphia not far from where he grew up, at 15th and Christian. LaBelle has been a supporter of the United Negro College Fund and a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association.

“It’s wonderful,” says LaBelle. “I’ve always tried to uplift people that are down. I’m just that girl. I’m like your sister and your auntie. Everybody calls me Auntie Pat.”
 
“There was a message in our music,” says Gamble. “To inspire. Like 'Love Train.' Or 'Wake Up Everybody,'" by Harold Melvin with Teddy Pendergrass.

Much of the inspirational feeling came from Huff’s experience playing piano at the 10th Street Baptist Church in Camden. “It was just a B-3 organ and a piano,” he says. “And the church rocked. Once that music reaches a certain peak, it’s amazing what it does to people. I was deeply entrenched with the power of that music.” 

Anderson’s music was powerful, says Gamble, because she                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  sang songs with meaning, and lived a life with meaning.”

“It was the sound of her contralto voice,” adds Huff. “It was powerful. The people couldn’t escape her feeling. She was from Philadelphia, and her spirit is flowing through Philadelphia. And so is Philadelphia International’s. And that spirit is going to flow forever.”

Marion Anderson Award gala, honoring Patti LaBelle and Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, with Ledisi, the Soul Survivors, the Three Degrees, Kathy Sledge, and Carole Riddick, 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. $45-$130, 215-670-2300, kimmelcenter.org.