A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul

By John A. Jackson | Go to book overview

6
“Only the Strong Survive”
(1969)

KENNY GAMBLE, LEON HUFF, AND THOM BELL GOT OFF to a spectacular start in 1969, when Jerry Butler 's “Only the Strong Survive” sold over a million copies. It was a song that would not have been written had Butler not heard someone utter the title phrase in a conversation. Butler thought it would make a great topic for a song, and Gamble and Huff agreed. In what Butler called “one of the most productive and inspiring writing sessions” the three ever had, they sat down and wrote the million-seller “Only the Strong Survive.” 1

Thirty-five years since its inception, the unforgettable “Only the Strong Survive” remains a pop masterpiece, exhibiting all of Gamble and Huff's musical trademarks. (Amazingly, the song was captured in a single take. “We went into the studio and Butler had to sing two vocals and get to the airport and be on a plane in two hours, ” remembered Thom Bell. “Man, that joker said, 'turn on the tape.' He knocked out both the songs in about twenty minutes and was gone!”)

The song opens compellingly, with Earl Young's thumping bass drum, Roland Chambers's cloying guitar work, Vince Montana's ringing vibes, a crescendo of strings, and, finally, a female chorus. All of this before Butler even begins to sing his sad tale about the demise of his first romance—and about his mother's advice that “only the strong survive.” It is a full minute before the Thom Bell/Bobby Martin–arranged song gallops into its uplifting chorus. The delicate counterplay of strings, vibes, and guitar during the song's instrumental bridge flaunts Sigma Sound's cutting-edge capability and Joe Tarsia's penchant for spacey, elegant sound. Gamble, who throughout his career favored a strong rhythm backing, was not satisfied employing the standard four or five musicians here. Instead, he used almost a dozen players, including two percussionists, two keyboard players, and three guitarists. Tarsia cited Gamble's penchant for exploiting Sigma's expanded capabilities to their

-78-

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