Thom Bell can talk. He’s the third man in Gamble, Huff, and Bell’s Sound of Philadelphia song-crafting triumvirate, known as the Mighty Three. Bell’s the lushest arranger, producer, and songwriter outside of heaven, famous for his work with Philadelphia International Records (PIR) acts, as well as with the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and the Spinners.
Living his life in the chill of Seattle’s suburbs, as he has for the last several decades, Bell may be as apt to discuss his own cooking as he does the old-school cuisine that is the Philly cheesesteaks of his youth (“You’re gonna send me some Pat’s or Geno’s steaks, Amorosi—the choice is yours as to whether they have raw or fried onions”). But his real hunger is for knowledge; his yearning for innovative new sound that runs as deep as his passion for the music he came up with in the past. When he left Kingston, Jamaica, at age three for the port of Philadelphia, he hooked up, as a teen, with Kenny Gamble, for a history told previously in Wax Poetics.
Of course, there is the fiftieth-anniversary occasion to discuss, 2021’s November celebration of all things PIR—a Vinyl Me, Please/Legacy Recordings box set VMP Anthology: The Story of Philadelphia International Records featuring full albums from the O’Jays, Billy Paul, MFSB, the Three Degrees, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Leon Huff, Dexter Wansel, and the Philadelphia International All-Stars’ Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto—to consider, along with several new volumes of Philadelphia International Records: The 12" Mixes.
Bell, too, has his own, new umbrella collection out there—surprisingly, his first—with Ready or Not, a collection that includes choice production and writing credits for Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, PIR’s O’Jays, Johnny Mathis, the Laura Nyro and Labelle pairing “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” and several of his epic teamings beyond Philly International with the late, great lyricist Linda Creed, and the honey-and-cream harmonies of the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and the Spinners.
“So, here we are again, Amorosi,” Bell says, recalling that previous Wax Poetics encounter with a laugh, a phrase I need not repeat as the writer-arranger-producer does this often as an exaltation of the good life afforded him through sixty years of hard work. “I’m strong like an old bull, and built to last,” says Bell, kicking into a conversation that ranges from snow in Seattle (“I used to want to move to Alaska”) to Philly’s linguistic twitches and politicians. “Food, music, politics: I can’t get Philly out of my soul.”
At the Hop
“When I first hooked up with Gamble, he and I used to do these record hops together, and with South Philly’s own Jerry Blavat, ‘The Geator with the Heater,’” says Bell of the beloved, still-going-strong on-air personality who played 45s and danced with area kids with a wild and uninhibited energy. “Jerry would spin for the ‘Yon Teens’ as he called them, and Gamble and I would play and sing. I’m eight months younger than Gamble,” Bell jokes (he’s actually the old one), “so he organized everything for us, and we did all of the live shows across Philadelphia and Jersey with Jerry. And Blavat? He had this great tic where he added the word, ‘o-phonic’ to your name. So he would announce you, and it was like I was ‘Thom-o-phonic Thom.’ And Kenny was ‘Gam-o-phonic Gamble.’ Blavat was very original. I’m sure he still is.”
As the brain trust behind Cameo/Parkway Records, Dave Appell, Kal Mann, and Bernie Lowe helped Chubby Checker forge the sound of his “Twist” records from their writing and producing on up. But Bell was responsible for the live Chubby, as he was Checker’s touring pianist. “I wound up with the same dinky offices as theirs when we bought that building,” says Bell of the Mighty Three’s property on Philadelphia’s Broad Street. “It kept me humble, reminded me to not get too cute.” When Bell started with Appell-Mann-Lowe-Checker at Cameo/Parkway—the first real independent record label and the first to sell shares—Bell was doing lead sheets for copyrights before “The Twist” hit. “The exact intonation has to be recorded or else someone else will own the copyright,” says Bell. “Every ‘ooh’ and ‘ah.’ Now, Chubby was one of those curious guys where if there were twenty-five doors in an office, he had to open every one of them. One of the doors was mine, when I was ‘Tommy Bell,’ and I explained lead sheets, and copyrighting to him. He kept coming for weeks, until one day, he asked if I would work with him. He asked if I would go on the road with him to be his musical conductor. I said yes, not knowing anything about being a musical conductor.”
Drifting Away from Gamble and Huff
After having started together as singing, writing teens when Bell was seventeen and Gamble was sixteen, Bell went off to Cameo/Parkway and Gamble to other writers until hitting upon Huff. “Which was fine, Leon’s a good man,” says Bell of the partnership. “Gamble had the idea of merging our three sounds together, which was good, and we bought a building on Broad Street with a nightclub on the first floor. Now, I wanted to only be a partner in the building and the publishing company. I didn’t want to be stuck in something I couldn’t get out of, like a label. My job was to build up that production company, not only with the songs that I wrote, but the outside productions I took on. If I had been stuck at that label, with only the label’s acts…that wasn’t for me. I wasn’t interested in holding someone. No one could control the songs or the building. I was the president of the whole thing, but I didn’t want people to know. I shied away from most of the publicity. That’s just not what I wanted to do. I did exactly what I wanted to do—be a solo individual in control of my destiny, and working with any artist in the world I chose to work with. And I was right. Remember when the FBI came sniffing around Philadelphia International Records because of the bad name Columbia got? There was no wrongdoing at Philly International, but I had no part of that, because I had no part of PIR.”
The Unusual Suspects
Bell was renowned for his love for, and use of, somewhat unusual instrumentation within the framework of highly orchestrated R&B. Along with French horns in which to add a lush cushion to its brass construction, Bell—the arranger and producer—introduced celesta, sitar, oboes, bassoons, bells, and more into soul’s ornate equation, most of which he would play during studio sessions for, say, the Delfonics’ 1970 hit “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” or the Stylistics’ “Stop, Look, Listen” from 1971.
Along with his love of classical instrumentation, the use of the ondioline and the ceterone in his songs came from Bell’s love of Ennio Morricone, the composer and orchestrator of Italian film themes from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and For a Few Dollars More (“I was definitely influenced by Morricone,” says Bell. “I met and hung out with him too, in Milano, and he introduced me to some of his native instruments.”)
“Everything I wrote and played, I heard first in my head,” he says. “I didn’t plan it out to be different or set out to do what hadn’t been done before. That was just a by-product. It was all organic on my part—just what I happened to hear. Once I got a sound in my mind, it would grow and grow, and it would stick with me through the writing process, rehearsal, and into the studio. Maybe you call that an obsession, I don’t know. Invariably, when other producers and musicians would say that my sounds were odd for R&B, I would just tell them, ‘I don’t do R&B; I do music.’ You can’t really put a label on what I do. You can’t compare Mathis to the O’Jays. And once I gave somebody a ‘sound,’ I would get begged by other artists and labels to give them that same sound. The Stylistics were at the bottom of the barrel when I got to them. They weren’t nothing. And I gave them that sound. Now someone could say that I gave the Delfonics the same treatment. Not at all. Those were different groups with two totally different sounds of which I had two totally different trains of thought. One came before the other, and what I heard was different from group to group. The Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins Jr.’s voice, he was also a tenor, but his vibrations, his vibrato was different than [the Delfonics’] William Hart’s—different breathing patterns too. They were different guys, period.”
Bell had different songwriting partners too, for the Delfonics and the Stylistics, with Hart writing lyrics for the Delfonics and Linda Creed writing lyrics for the Stylistics. “Creed was a fanatic when it came to words,” says Bell. “FA-NA-TIC. The way that I was a fanatic about the music, she was a stickler for each syllable. Every lyric meant everything to her. We would fight all the time. If she didn’t like something, she’d tear it up in front of you, and put it all back together again. Then again, it usually only took her one day to write a thing.”
The Legend that Is Linda Creed
By all reports, Philadelphia-born Linda Creed was not a writer as a kid, but someone who developed a love of music and a passion for the game when she was a student at Germantown High School. Creed got teamed with Bell while the latter was still linked to Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. When Bell and Creed’s first songwriting collaboration, “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” hit the charts for the Stylistics, the Philly twosome started writing more songs for the Stylistics and the Delfonics (“Betcha by Golly, Wow,” “Break Up to Make Up,” “People Make the World Go Round,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “You Are Everything”) before moving on to the Spinners with “Ghetto Child,” “I’m Coming Home,” “Living a Little, Laughing a Little,” and “The Rubberband Man.”
“She wasn’t a writer at her start,” Bell says. “And if you’re asking me how I knew she could write, the answer is simple—I didn’t know. What she wanted to be was a singer at first. Now, I’m not the type of person to tell someone they’re not good, because I don’t know. I can’t confirm that. I didn’t hear in her voice, though, what she heard. I couldn’t amplify what she heard in her head about her vocals. Now, we were working with the Delfonics at Philly Groove Records. She was in the studio too. She was the white singer. If you were white, you were right, so if you could sing a little bit, you got a chance. She was trying so bad to make it as a singer. Hers was a heartfelt emotion, a real need to connect through music. ‘Well, wait a minute—can you write?’ I asked her. Creed told me that she wrote poems. Okay, now there’s a huge difference between writing poetry and writing lyrics. I told her that I would give her a melody, and see if she could make her writing fit these notes. She asked if she could change the rhythm or the notes at all. No. I needed what she wrote to fit the melody and how these men’s voices would mesh together. Exactly. That was ‘Free Girl’ for Dusty Springfield—pretty good for a first time out.”
The two worked on 1970’s “I Wanna Be a Free Girl,” together, pretty much the first and last time that Bell and Creed penned as a team in the same room. “That was one of a very few times we wrote in one space, because I bored her,” Bell says, chuckling. “And she bored me. We were better off on our own, or coming together toward a song’s end. I would put down the melody exactly as I wanted it, then I would call her in. Her lyrics had to flow and follow my path where it needed to go. Go home, and let me know it’s ready. I would also do two versions of the exact same song—one where I would hum my own wordless vocals as a guide, and one without my voice. We got on each other’s nerves, hanging around each other. It was a good plan though, a characteristic way in which I dealt with the vocalists too. I made sure they all had reel-to-reel players. If not, they had to get one, even if the record company wouldn’t buy them one. I still use them—I have two Sony reel-to-reels in my studio, today. What I would do is sing their parts, even if it was five guys, and do each individual part. I wanted them to sing everything back exactly the way I sang it to them. Per se. And I would phone and ask if they had been rehearsing like that. Sing your part only in that verse—don’t try to change it. Each four-part harmony had its own exact melody. It might not sound exactly right at first. Do it my way, and it will come out right every time. Bingo. That is the same thing I established and worked out with Creed. One version was for me. One was for her… Creed was the best. She and I stayed out of the limelight. Nobody ever believed that we were just coworkers, and not in a relationship. That’s why there were no photos of us together. The same thing, though, is true of the Stylistics. You wouldn’t expect five hard-looking Black dudes to be singing ‘Betcha by Golly, Wow.’ I was more audio conscious than visual, but I knew the importance of optics.”
How did all of this—the literal sense of harmony, in particular—change between Creed and Bell when they worked with solo singers such as Johnny Mathis and Dionne Warwick? “Nothing changed,” says Bell. “Other than the amount of people, five Spinners versus one Mathis, it was the same. Five leads. One lead. Look, I would also never make anyone go against that which was natural to them, that which they were born with. I have to make my sound change to fit your sound. If you’re doing something unnatural, it is going to sound like crap. The only thing I did different with Mathis was that I brought his keys all the way down. His father called me up and thanked me, because he thought this lower octave was more natural and suiting to his son, and that no one else in the business—and he had worked with the best—ever did this for him. Then again, the songs we wrote for Johnny [1973’s I’m Coming Home] were different, and what we were writing about for him was different. We weren’t necessarily writing to the vibrato of ‘Chances Are.’ We had to match that style and enhance that style. He was known for having those great piano introductions, which was the sound of that day. Creed and I gave him something different. Now, I didn’t get irritated very often, but Sony irritated me when we did the Mathis record, because he had never done anything like this. All R&B. They got all discombobulated. So I brought in all of my own people, promotions too, and worked it. I took him around to all the R&B stations of the day—WDAS—and it was a different world to him, one he never knew existed because he had been so cloistered. Now you asked what were different about the songs Creed and I wrote for him. Because Mathis was an adult, we wanted to write about adult things for him. The songs were more intellectually inclined.”
You don’t give the Spinners “Life Is a Song Worth Singing” and you don’t give Johnny Mathis “Rubberband Man.” The Stylistics were a bit more lyrically sophisticated than the Spinners, in Bell’s estimation, and different too from the Delfonics. Yet, Mathis was a lead with no definable backgrounds (i.e., signature harmony à la the Delfonics), and a lyrical and melodic palette with nothing close to the same element.
I’ll Be Around
“Mathis, Warwick, Streisand—these are solo lead vocalists with their own elements. When we were writing for Dionne, I was doing the same thing as I had done for the vocal groups—give her the tape recorder, follow my parts. Save for the backgrounds. The backgrounds are in my brain anyway. I don’t need to record it. Now, when you’re telling a Johnny Mathis and a Dionne Warwick to sing to the tape exactly like I am—they might think they’re doing it, but they’re not. They had their style, their sound. That’s the hugest difference in the groups versus the solo singers. Look at the Spinners—say, ‘I’ll Be Around’—where Bobby [Smith] took the lead. He was the only singer in the world who sounds like that, singing off the beat. You have to write to that. ‘Could It Be I’m Falling in Love’ too. Now, with ‘Could It Be,’ I figured that three-fourths of the way into the song that people would get bored—no matter how good Smith was. That is why I introduced Philippé Wynne’s [voice] into the mix. His voice was more gospel. I wanted him to do his thing until the end of the track.”
Relistening to the four-minute-plus track—with Smith’s soulful tenor similar to Wynne’s airy tone—the change Bell describes is nearly seamless at the 3:50-or-so-point. But now, once discussed, Wynne’s short vamp is clearer than ever as it rides out Bell’s upward-motion strings to the song’s close—a change that, to be precise, doesn’t come at the three-fourth mark, but rather, seventh-eighths into the song. Who would do that? Bell would.
“That was the first time that people heard Philippé as the lead,” says Bell. “That fooled DJs, as they thought the song was over, until he rode it out. Surprise. I thanked the disc jockeys for their soliloquies, and continued to use Philippé as my secret weapon. We had two different leads on that record. People knew it was the Spinners with Bobby, then, wham. People knew Phillipé’s sound by that point. He had been with the Stylistics for years by that point. I just tweaked his style. You can’t change sound, but you can change style. Take Dionne Warwick.”
Don’t Make Me Over
Bell starts singing “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” and espousing the glories of Burt Bacharach and Hal David when he launches into his discussion of Dionne Warwick and Bell’s Track of the Cat full-length from 1975. “If you’re lucky enough to hear and think the way that Bacharach/David did, anything she sang would be extremely classy,” says Bell of their conjoined soul and sophistication. “You could get Ray Charles to sing kiddie Christmas songs, but that’s not his style or sound. Get him to sing country though, and you’re getting him where he lives.”
Bell talks for a moment about how his own sound and style was recognizable, from its curvaceous contemporary jazz-soul-classical twists to his plush, oddball instrumental arrangements. “I made what I heard in my head, and couldn’t change,” he says. “I had to ride it out until nothing was left—everybody got a turn—and then I was gone. Bye. Bye.”
The fact that Bell was able to grace Warwick with his sound in 1975, as well as Creed’s lyrics, goes back to the Mathis record I’m Coming Home, and the adult-conversational feel that both classics contain.
“We did like we always do with artists—get them into a long rehearsal,” says Bell of starting with Warwick. “A hearing session. Now I started this practice with another older singer before Dionne, another woman who I will not name. She was three hours late. I realized we had one of those types. Okay. I decided to have her just sing with a piano. That’s all. You can’t hide with just a piano. She asked me what was it that I expected to hear during this session that I didn’t hear on her records. I told her, ‘A hit.’ Her jaw got tight. If you have an attitude, trying to control the whole thing, we’re finished. That’s actually how I got to the Stylistics, because that record with that woman fell through, and Russell Thompkins was willing to bust his ass to make a record. They were young, and hungry. They wanted it. Plus, I heard me in their voices. Now, there was one problem with them—at first. Only two of them could sing. So what could I do? I erased their tracks, and put me and my crew on there instead, doing all of their parts. For the longest time, they still thought it was them singing. They didn’t know themselves—they sang as flat as a pancake’s butt. You could land a 747 on top of some of those flat notes. Now, eventually they learned, straightened out, and flew right. You want to build. But—that took a while. And I went as far as I could go with those guys, took them as high as I could. Same with the Stylistics and the Spinners. The sooner you realize that music has changed, and that you couldn’t change with it, the better.”
Bell had already worked with Warwick in 1974 when he teamed her with the Spinners for the harmonists’ “Then Came You,” penned by Sherman Marshall and Phillip Pugh. As Warwick’s first number one pop chart hit, certainly a curiosity was forged between the vocalist (“one of modern music’s signature voices,” notes Bell) and Creed and Bell to see what next magic they could make. In Warwick, Bell saw an image of a jungle cat, something regal like a panther or a tiger. But, Bell and Creed—on songs such as the title track, and “His House and Me”—wanted to fashion adult subject matter much like they had crafted for Mathis two years previous. “Dionne was going through a divorce at the time, and we knew this song was meant to convey the sort of lonely frustration only she could bring to it at that point,” says Bell. “Look at what she had done with Bacharach and David’s most emotional tracks. This one had even more real-life drama. She made it her own. I remember that we even dimmed all the lights in the studio when she recorded it, and let her go through all of its emotions on her own. Even when we went to another place with something like ‘World of My Dreams,’ you could hear Dionne moving between something beautiful and something sad. That comes directly from Creed’s lyrics and what I was trying to evoke through my melodies and arrangements. Man, I love that album,” he says of Track of the Cat.
Making the World Go Round and Right
Ask the writer-producer-arranger about the song that almost got away, the one that works, but really shouldn’t, and it is Creed and Bell’s “People Make the World Go Round,” with the Stylistics on their self-titled 1971 debut album. A whoosh, some shimmering strings, and talk of trashmen not getting paid, striking workers, and Wall Street titans sucking on fat cigars against a bed of xylophone and cymbal rides—the title verse and its off-chord finale shouldn’t work in the same way that the chord structure of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” shouldn’t work: theirs is not a logical progression.
“You’re right. That’s correct. It didn’t feel like it could work. Not even a little bit,” says Bell. “In fact, I almost dumped it several times. I worked on that song for eight months. I never work on a song for more than eight minutes, man. I walked around with that for weeks. Months. People. Make the. World. Go Round. No, no. It wasn’t working.” Bell sings this like ten different times over the phone, each one cleverly catchy in their own fashion. “Yeah. But, it wasn’t it. Until one day, it was simple. But not simple. It didn’t sound right. Until now. It took forever. Even this moment, it is odd. But it makes sense, even when it does. The only reason I actually got it together came down to something that my grandfather always said, ‘It’s harder to make things easy. It’s easy to make things hard.’ Once I stopped forcing it, I found it. It wanted to do what it wanted to do. It told me what it wanted to be. Music tells you what it wants to be. That’s why listening is important. It’s also why writers drink a lot. Then you add Creed’s lyrics, the striking workers, and the Wall Street fat cats, and it was a trip. She wouldn’t change a word. The melodic structures, chromatics, and dynamics, I can shift. She wouldn’t budge. She’s a Top 10 lyricist and she wouldn’t change that. I mean, she gave the Stylistics ‘Rockin’ Roll Baby,’ and the whole ‘Tootsie Roll soul and doodle-white shoes’ line. I had that chorus in my head, but she had those lyrics. I wouldn’t have thought of that line any sooner than I would think up the man in the moon. My forte is the music. I hate lyrics. They get on my nerves. If you ask Bacharach, he’ll say the same thing. That’s why when you find someone when you can pair with—a match, you make it work. Its fits you like the fingers on a hand. I mean, William Hart had it with [the Delfonics’] ‘La-La (Means I Love You),’ and ‘Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).’ And ‘Ready or Not,’ which is still being used by Gillette as their theme music. Man, that was my theme, fifty years ago,” says Bell, reflecting on the song he cowrote, arranged, and produced. I make a living off that song, and I was lucky I took care of business early. Think of all the writers, Black, white, pink, and green, that have written these classics, got fifty dollars then, and were happy. They never studied the art of publishing. I’m glad I learned the business when I did—had I not learned the correct way of doing business, then, who knows? That’s how I survived and thrived into today, you know?”