Arson charge in famed Philly music company fire

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 25, 2010

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Police charged a man with arson Wednesday in a fire at the music company offices of a Grammy Award-winning songwriting team that produced dozens of best-selling records from R&B stars including Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle, Lou Rawls and the O’Jays.

Fire, smoke and water damage from last weekend’s blaze ruined 40 percent of the memorabilia at Philadelphia International Records, though the recording studio was largely spared, label co-founder Kenneth Gamble said Wednesday.

‘‘When I walked through it the other day, it was like an old friend had died,’’ Gamble said. ‘‘I’m looking for the resurrection. Bottom line is we’ll be back.’’

Christopher Cimini, 27, is charged with arson, risking or causing a catastrophe, burglary, criminal trespass and other crimes in the Sunday morning blaze on the top floor of a three-story brick building downtown. Cimini, who turned himself in accompanied by his attorney, remained in custody, and a listed telephone number for him could not be found Wednesday night.

Police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore said Cimini ‘‘appeared to be extremely intoxicated or under the influence of something’’ on surveillance video. Vanore said Cimini apparently believed he was someplace else and was seen trying a set of keys before kicking in the building’s door.

Cimini began walking through the building using a lighter to see and ended up in a closet storing memorabilia, where the blaze started, Vanore said.

‘‘He actually was calling for help out of there, and that’s when they rescued him,’’ he said.

The fire damaged gold and platinum records and the company’s personal inventory of CDs by Michael Jackson and the Jacksons, Pendergrass, Rawls and LaBelle, Gamble said.

Gamble’s partner, Leon Huff, said, ‘‘We’ll bounce back. We wrote the song — ’Only the Strong Survive.’’’

Gamble, 66, Huff, 67, and fellow Philadelphia producer Thom Bell are credited with creating the lush acoustics of 1960s and ’70s soul music that came to be known as the Sound of Philadelphia. Gamble and Huff’s songs include the O’Jays’ ‘‘Love Train,’’ Billy Paul’s ‘‘Me and Mrs. Jones’’ and McFadden & Whitehead’s ‘‘Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.’’

Many of their biggest hits continue to resonate in popular culture through remakes and commercial licensing.

The duo won a Grammy for Best R&B Song in 1989 for Simply Red’s version of ‘‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now,’’ which was originally performed by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. The O’Jays’ ‘‘For the Love of Money’’ is the theme song for Donald Trump’s TV show ‘‘The Apprentice.’’

Before Gamble and Huff bought the building in 1970, it was home to Cameo Parkway Records, where Chubby Checker recorded ‘‘The Twist’’ and Dee Dee Sharp, Gamble’s first wife, recorded ‘‘Mashed Potato Time.’’

Today, the building primarily serves as the licensing arm of Philadelphia International Records. It also hosts tour groups and offers a small gift shop.

LaBelle, who recorded the gold album ‘‘I’m In Love Again’’ for the label in 1983, said in an interview Wednesday that she is still close to Gamble and Huff. Hearing about the fire was devastating, she said.

‘‘It was like a big piece of them was taken away,’’ LaBelle said. ‘‘I just felt awful for them.’’

Gamble and Huff were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.