All Kenny Gamble needed was a title, and he and fellow songwriter-producer Leon Huff would be off and running. And run they did. Gamble and Huff were the founders of Philadelphia International Records, which began in 1971 and had a string of hit records, including “Expressway to Your Heart” and “Me and Mrs. Jones.”
As the two told host Terry Gross in an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” they had pages of titles for possible songs. Likely not all the titles were used, but the act of writing them down served as inspiration for what would come next.
Where ideas come from is a widely discussed topic. From intense study or out of thin air? You can make a case for either. What matters more than origination is application.
Ideas strike us anywhere, even driving on the highway. Gamble says the idea for that song came while stuck in a traffic jam on the Schuylkill Expressway on route to see his girlfriend. His application was to write down the title and later turn it into a song. He and Huff even incorporated honking car horns to capture the moment. Inspiration, indeed.
Working with inspiration
Counting on inspiration to strike, however, is not a good strategy. You need to put yourself in the path of ideas so that you will be ready when an actionable thought occurs. So how to do this? With apologies to songwriters, let me offer this extended metaphor.
- Listen to the sound. You must be ready, so you do the work. Learn your craft, then get to work where you can do the most good. Listen to what appeals to you.
- Harmonize. Learn how to put a piece of music together — 8, 12, 16 or 32 bars. Lyrics first, or melody. Sometimes you can start with a bass line, and the melody will come later if you keep at it.
- Revise, revise, revise. Creativity involves sweat, not to mention tears. The blood is the spirit that you imbue to the piece of work. Keep at it. Put the songs that don’t work so the good one can thrive.
- Share what you sow. Harvest the fruit of your craft. Share what you have created with people who appreciate what you do.
Inspiration meets perspiration sums up the above. You prepare yourself by honing your craft, and even when you are good at the work you do, you keep working. And along the way, you learn what grows best and what is best left in the ground.
Nothing lasts forever
Getting back to the Philly sound guys, inspiration only lasts so long. In time, you change, and times do, too. Gamble and Huff say the magic for their company began to wane in the mid- to late 1980s. Huff puts it into perspective: “I’m thankful for what we had. I’m glad for what we had. But, you know, it’s like, I always had a perspective in my mind. I said, I know this is not going to last; nothing lasts forever.”
The hit Gamble and Huff recall with fondness is “Love Train,” sung by The O’Jays. Gamble explains that the song “capsulizes everything that we were thinking about, the message that we wanted to get out, you know? We’re always talking about a message in the music, and ‘Love Train’ is, like, international, very optimistic about life in the world, you know, people living together in harmony and unity.”
Inspiration from the heart and the soul.
John Baldoni is a globally recognized executive coach and leadership educator. Inc.com ranked John a Top 50 Leadership Expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Trust Across America awarded John its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust and Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of Top 30 leadership experts. John is the author of 14 books, including GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us. His latest book is “Grace Notes: Leading in an Upside-Down World.”.