Geez...I was pondering for quite some time how to tackle The Intruders. If I picked just one album to write about I would be terribly unjust to their remaining body of work. On the other hand, writing just about one 7" single would be like eating a cherry off the top of a delicious ice-cream dessert and then leaving the rest to melt in the sun...Oh no, boy!...with the Intruders you gobble that dessert till your face is covered in chocolate and the zipper in the fly of your jeans is desperately hanging in trying to keep your pants from cracking open...
The only problem is: how does one start eating a dessert the size of a mountain with only a tiny spoon in hand?
Well, I could start this article by mentioning that The Intruders were a group of four guys from Philadelphia...I could tell you their names: Sam "Little Sonny" Brown, Eugene "Bird" Daughtry, Phillip "Phil" Terry and Robert "Big Sonny" Edwards...I could also say that they started off as a doo-wop group singing on street corners in the early 60s...or...I could just cut straight to the chase and tell you that the true 'spiritus movens' behind The Intruders are two guys, who don't appear on any of The Intruders' album cover photos. These two guys are: Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.
Gamble & Huff, as they are usually credited on records, are a legendary songwriting/production duo responsible for over 170 gold and platinum records. They wrote and produced songs for such fantastic acts as The O'Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, The Jacksons, Teddy Pendergrass, Aretha Franklin, Archie Bell & the Drells, The Three Degrees, People's Choice, Dusty Springfield, The Trammps (damn, this list could go on, and on, and on). Gamble & Huff and their Philadelphia International Records label forged a unique sound that would be later dubbed: 'philly soul' and laid the foundations for nearly five decades of American dance music.
But hold on. Let's get back to the '60s and The Intruders. In the early years of the decade, The Intruders were a local, Philadelphia-based doo-wop group and Gamble & Huff were up-and-coming producers working for Atlantic Records, with which they had a few hits along the way (think: Soul Surivors). Their paths crossed in 1966 when The Intruders were signed to the newly created Gamble label and, under the guidance of the visionary duo of Gamble & Huff, release their first hit: '(We'll be) United'. The track goes all the way up to number 14 on the R&B Charts and a year later the group follows up with another banger of a tune called: 'Together', which also scores the charts. 1967 also brings us The Intruders' firsts album: 'The Intruders are Together'. However, it wasn't until 1968, when they release: 'Cowboys to Girls' that the group gets their first crossover hit and breaks through to the mainstream. The tune tops the R&B Charts and lands on number 6 on the pop side thereby introducing The Intruders to the wider public. The group also releases their second album: 'Cowboys to Girls' (surprise, surprise) which will prove to be their most popular LP.
The initial success of the group helps Gamble & Huff convince the Columbia officials to grant them money to create their own label: Philadelphia International Records, which will become one of the most successful soul labels of the early 70s. Meanwhile, The Intruders were facing some trouble. The lead singer - Sam 'Little Sonny' Brown - decides to leave the group and spend more time with his family. He is replaced by a nightclub singer - Bobby Starr - with whom The Intruders release their third album, entitled: 'When We Get Married'. The title track, a Dreamlovers covers, is their biggest hit, reaching number 8 on the R&B Billboard charts. Starr did not enjoy much success with the group, as 'Little Sonny' decided to rejoin The Intruders on their 1973 album: 'Save The Children', spawning such hits as: 'I'll Always Love My Mama' and 'I Wanna Know Your Name'.
Alright, there's the facts for you...Now, what is it about the Intruders that makes them so special to me? Well, it's a number of things, really.
First of all, Gamble & Huff are simply fantastic songwriters. When you take a look at tunes like: 'Together', what strikes me, is that they can create really catchy, heartwarming melodies and great hooks and yet, they make it seem so easy and straightforward. The simplicity of their songs, however, acts as a counterweight to the elaborate arrangements Gamble & Huff wrote.
That's really where the magic happens. Gamble & Huff took simple, catchy melodies and they built these rich arrangements around them, thereby creating a mouthwatering mix of fantastic harmonies and colourful sounds. Take: 'Cowboys to Girls'. You get these lush strings, piercing horns and the omnipresent, soul-soothing sound of the vibraphone. Add to that some warm basslines and a piano hook here and there and you got yourself a 'philly soul' blueprint.
Of course, the focal point of all their songs are the vocals. And boy, are they simply fabulous! I really love the harmonies that the lads create together (just listen to the intro to 'A Love That's Real' and you know what I mean) but it's also 'Little Sonny's' croaky, grab-you-by-the-nuts voice. What I really like, is that Sonny has a fantastic voice, but it's very 'down-to-earth' and 'mortal' at the same time. Bobby Starr is also a hell of a singer, and if you don't believe me, just check out 'When We Get Married' which is probably their most elaborate, sophisticated song - a true masterpiece and an homage to Gamble & Huff's songwriting skills. Starr really proved he ain't no pushover there (the other lads also did a hell of a job with the backing harmonies).
This is all pretty neat, but the song that first got me really hooked on The Intruders is 'Friends No More', which, contrary to my first impressions, is not a song about a guy who manages to escape the 'friend zone'. It's actually a story about two friends and one girl (oh, the cliche!) and some dirty business between them. The guys even manage to share some solid advice: 'Never trust a girl with your best friend'. But enough about that, let's get on the good stuff.
This song is simply great on so many levels, that I really am in awe every time I listen to it. I love the way the delicate intro, driven by this serene guitar and bell duo, fortifies gradually with the help of the chord-bashing piano and the bass and the drums. Then, the song bursts into the chorus and it's all the way down the hill from there! Every single part of this song is just great: from the octave-jumping bass, the sweet backing vocals, Sonny's croaky voice, the soul-soothing bells, to the gorgeous, lush strings topping the melody and accentuating the harmonies in just the right moments! I think mister Kenny and mister Gamble have really outdone themselves on this one. Chapeau bas!
It's a real shame, that The Intruders released only a few albums and just a handful of singles. But in case, like me, you're left craving for more, I'd suggest tracing their rich music heritage - and trust me, there's a lot to explore there.
The Intruders laid the foundations for the phenomenon that would soon take over the world - disco. Try listening to 'I'll always love my momma' (which, btw was sampled in Wally Lopez's 'Circus Parade' - you should see the look on my face when I stumbled upon this song by The Intruders...it took me nearly 10 years to find this sample). The hi-hat driven, upbeat melody would later come to define a new sound. Disco was born and before you knew it, everybody was doing 'the hustle'.
And that's not all. The way I see it, you can draw a straight line starting from The Intruders, through to the Salsoul Sound (Salsoul Orchestra, Instant Funk, Double Exposure, First Choice, etc.), to disco bands like The Trammps or Chic, to the early house sound of the late '80s/early '90s (e.g. Larry Levan, Nicky Siano, Frankie Knuckles), and finally to modern Electronic Dance Music. In my opinion they all share the same aesthetic that really stems from the street corners of '60s Philadelphia...Shit, if you ask me there's bits of philly-soul in most of the late Beatles tunes.
Don't believe me? Go ahead, see for yourself!
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