For fans of soul from the ’70s, the hits were unforgettable: “Betcha by Golly Wow,” “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” “La La Means I Love You,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New.”
As the co-writer (many with the late Linda Creed), arranger and producer of these and other romantic, densely orchestrated soul classics, Thom Bell was an integral part of what became known worldwide as the sound of Philadelphia.
Though not a business partner in Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records label, Bell was a partner with them in their Mighty Three Music publishing company and served as one of the label’s secret weapons, developing the funky horn lines, sweeping strings and insistent multirhythms that were the hallmarks of the label’s sophisticated output.
Among his sterling credits, Bell also guided the sound of the Delfonics for the Philly Groove label, the Stylistics for Avco and a run of hits for the Spinners on Atlantic, among others.
As PIR this year marks its 35th anniversary, Bell’s contributions are well-remembered. The Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York included Bell among this year’s class of inductees. On June 29, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in Philadelphia will honor Bell at its revamped Pioneer Awards.
Raised in a musical family, Bell was a teen studying to be a classical pianist when he met Gamble, who went to school with his sister. When Gamble heard Bell’s piano skills, the future label founder immediately drafted him into his group Kenny & the Romeos.
Inspired by a record by Don & Juan called “What’s Your Name,” the two also joined forces as Kenny & Tommy and with help from Gamble’s mentor, Jerry Ross, cut a 1959 record for the Heritage label called “Someday.”
“We weren’t really singers, but we thought we’d give it a try anyway,” Bell says. “It didn’t do anything, but it gave us a chance to be in the studio and see what real instruments sounded like and be with this band until I got married, left the band and got a job.”
The job was writing lead sheets for a local Philadelphia recording studio. The experience proved invaluable for Bell, and ultimately for Gamble & Huff, who by the early ’60s had branched out into their own songwriting/production team.
When the noted local Cameo-Parkway label decided to follow Motown’s lead and develop its own in-house rhythm section, the label consulted Bell, who immediately called in members of the Romeos and began writing and producing as well.
“The very first stuff was done by those Romeos,” Bell says. “They would hold auditions on Saturday, have different acts come in and try to find talent, and we would play behind them. That’s how that whole sound of Philadelphia musically came together, with that band.” Meanwhile, Bell worked on sessions with Jerry Butler, Laura Nyro, Dusty Springfield and Wilson Pickett.
With a growing list of song credits on different labels among them, Gamble, Huff and Bell decided to pool their writing output to gain recognition and earnings. Mighty Three Music was born in the late ’60s with a logo featuring three elephants and the motto: “You’ll never forget our songs.”
The publishing company was born of necessity, Bell says. “I was producing for one side of Philadelphia, and [Gamble] was producing for another side of Philadelphia. And we found that we had a better chance, did much better if we joined forces. He had his sound, I had my sound, but put it together, the sound worked perfectly.”
Again inspired by Motown’s Jobete catalog, Mighty Three was a way for the hitmakers to stake their claim within a white-dominated publishing world that would not work their songs to other artists.
“In those days you didn’t have your own publishing company. You had to go with the big white companies, and they owned all the stuff,” Bell says. “If you wrote something they would take the publishing and we didn’t like that so hot, so they said, ‘If you don’t do it our way we won’t record your stuff.’ So we said, ‘We’ll try it our way.'”
A consummate musician, Bell liked the independence of being able to work for a wide range of artists, using his elegant approach and easy demeanor to bring the best out of the sessions.
“I was not involved [as a business partner] in Philadelphia International, and since that was the case, I was an independent producer,” he explains. “I didn’t even produce most of the PIR artists. Towards the end I think I produced the O’Jays and [Teddy] Pendergrass and MFSB, but my job was independent, I did the outside stuff. [Gamble & Huff] were building PIR, I was building Bell Boy Productions. It all funneled into Mighty Three Music, the songwriter mechanicals and royalties.”
By the late ’70s Bell was turning his attention away from the Gamble & Huff operation to work with such artists as Nancy Wilson, Elton John, Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams. He had also moved his base of operations to Seattle and traveled between the two cities for many years.
Now, almost 40 years later, the recordings Bell created remain so vibrant because of the brilliant orchestrations and pristine production. A self-described romantic, Bell used vibes, oboe, sitar, flute, harpsichord and bassoon along with strings, brass and percussion. Some musicologists credit him with creating the earliest disco records.
“When you study classics you hear all the instruments that you don’t hear usually in other forms of music,” Bell says. “You don’t hear a pedal steel guitar in jazz, you don’t hear a harp in blues. It’s not impossible, just not common. I come from a classical world, and I hear classical ways of doing things.”
Though the Seattle-based musician has spent the last decade in relative retirement, Bell’s prodigious skills are still in demand. He says he is collaborating with singers Peabo Bryson, Jeffrey Osborne and James Ingram on a long-planned “three tenors”-styled pop album and may work on other projects.
Adulation for his work, such as the Songwriters Hall of Fame honor, still seems to surprise Bell, who says he was not conscious of laying the foundation for a uniquely contemporary R&B sound. “I would love to say, ‘Oh, yes, I planned it that way!’ That it was something I looked in the mirror and saw no one else was doing and I decided I was going to do it,” he says with a laugh. “That’s horse manure. It just sounded good to me.”