Thom Bell with The Stylistics
As a songwriter, musician, producer and arranger, Thomas Randolph Bell established himself as one of the most preeminent R&B/Soul and Pop Music figures of all time. Along with his “Mighty Three” partners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Bell created the lush and seductive sound alternatively called Philly Soul, Philly Sound, or Sound of Philadelphia, the most dominant sound in western popular music from the early to mid 70s. Bell was the driving force behind The Delfonics, The Stylistics and The Spinners.
Thom Bell was born in Kingston, Jamaica on the 27th of January 1943. Bell and his family moved to Philadelphia when he was about five years old. He studied classical piano as a child which would set the stage for his style of production: lush orchestral arrangements, using seemingly odd instruments, such as sitars and bassoons, to create sounds that were unique to Soul and R&B music.
Thom Bell at his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame In 2006
Bell came from a musical family. His mother was a concert pianist. His father played pedal steel guitar, piano and accordion.
According to Bell:
“By the time I was six, I played drums and piano. By the time I was 11, I got into fluglehorn,… Then I got into trumpet… Then I got into the big drums in the drum and bugle corps .. By the time I was eight or nine, I was playing harp…. I made my own little guitars out of cigar boxes and a piece of wood and some rubber bands. By the time I was nine or ten, I was playing accordion. Most people don’t know that on a lot of records, I was playing accordion.”
Thom Bell’s mother worked at the University of Pennsylvania as an executive secretary and as a coordinator for exchange students. Thom’s grandfather was a teacher of botany and a horticulture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ironically, Thom met Kenny Gamble when they were both teenagers, in Thom Bell’s home. According to Thom Bell:
“Kenny went to school with my sister, one night she was helping him with his homework at our house. I was over on the piano having lessons and Kenny came over and introduced himself as a songwriter, he said ‘hey, maybe we could get together sometime?’ And that was it. I was 17, he was 16 and a week later we sat down at my house and started writing.”
They started to collaborate from then. Bell joined Gamble’s harmony group the Romeos in 1959.
Kenny Gamble and Tommy Bell – Some Day You’ll Be My Love (1962)
By the age of 19 Bell was a conductor and arranger for Chubby Checker of “The Twist” fame. He quit two years later, because, according to him, he became tired of conducting “The Twist” all over the world.
He got a break when Luther Dixon writer of the doo wop classic Sixteen Candles and producer for the Shirelles hired him as a writer in New York after hearing him play at a nightclub. Luther used Thom’s playing on such songs as Chuck Jackson’s hit Any Day Now.
The year 1963 saw Bell moving back to Philadelphia where he began to work for the Cameo Records as a session pianist. At Cameo he met the Delfonics, originally known as The Five Guys. He reduced the members to three. One of them had asked Bell, “Man, you produce records?” Bell said yes even though he didn’t’t know the first thing about producing records.
The Delfonics manager Stan Watson formed the Philly Groove label in 1968, and Thom became a producer, working with the Delfonics and producing two big hits ‘La La Means I Love You’ and the 1970’s Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time’, which extended Bell’s reputation beyond Philadelphia.
Delfonics – La La (Means I Love You) – Live
The Stylistics perform “Betcha by Golly, Wow” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New”
According to Thom Bell: “No one really knew what an oboe sound was until they heard the introduction to “Betcha By Golly Wow.” They weren’t even into a bassoon until they heard things like “Make Up To Break Up,” where I used a bassoon.”
In 1972 Bell also produced the Spinners self-titled debut album for Atlantic records which included such hits as “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I Am Falling In Love,” and “Ghetto Child.” Some people regard the album as the decade’ best pop/soul album. Bell also did production and arrangement work on The O’Jay’s Backstabbers album for Philadelphia International.
The Spinners – Rubberband Man
Bell followed up his success with the Spinners with their second blockbuster album “Mighty Love,” for which Bell won the Grammy award in 1975 in a new category created fro him, “Best Producer of the Year.”
Over the 70s decade Bell was one of popular music’s most prolific hitmaker working with among others, Teddy Pendergrass, Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warwick, Lou Rawls, Little Anthony and The Imperials, and Dusty Springfield. He also worked with Elton John on an album that was not completed because of disagreement between them, from which the hit “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” was released over a decade later.
Elton John, Mama Can´t Buy You Love – 1977 – Thom Bell Sessions List
Thom Bell was also good friends with Bob Marley. He worked with the I-Threes, Bob Marley’s back-up singers – Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiiths – on their album “Beginning,” before Marley got sick in 1980. He penned three songs for the I-Threes. The Thom Bell sessions were recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau. The LP was released on EMI-America in the 80s.
In the 80s Bell slowed down, working less frequently, but still producing hits. He teamed up with Denise Williams, who he regarded as a great lyricist, to produce hits such as “It Going To Take A Miracle.”
Deniece Williams – “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” at Reggae Sunsplash ’81
According to Thom Bell he got Deniece because:
“Her boyfriend at the time was from Jamaica and he was Bob Marley’s manager. His name was Don Taylor. I knew Don Taylor years ago. When we were kids, we used to go to the Jamaican clubs in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Each area had its own Jamaican clubs. Not only Jamaica, they would have Barbados, they would have Trinidad…”
“Years later Don Taylor called me on the telephone and asked me, if I’d like to produce Deniece Williams. I knew who she was. I just didn’t know her. She was selling records, but she was only selling records in the r&b end. She wasn’t selling records in the pop end, the big money market end, and that was my forte. I was lucky enough to be able to sell records in the pop end as well as r&b end.”
“They wanted a black producer to work with her. Then I talked to Maurice White, who had her at the time. My people, my management, got together with the Columbia people to put the deal together…That’s how I got to work with Deniece.”
Phyllis Hyman – Old Friend
(Interestingly Phyllis Hyman was married to Larry Alexander, her manager, and the brother of Jamaican Jazz pianist Monty Alexander)
In the late 80s Thom also reunited with the Stylistics on their album Closer Than Close.
Since the 90s, Bell has worked with a wide range of artists including James Ingram, Angela Winbush, Joss Stone, and David Byrne.
In 2006 Thom Bell was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Caribbean Events Replay:
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Saturday April 20, 2013. From time to time we will re-post articles of great importance. We will use “Caribbean-events replay” to acknowledge that the article is a re-post of our previous publication.