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MORE MAGIC FROM THOM BELL


The highly-talented Thom Bell is one my heroes in music, so I was delighted to receive a copy of a new CD titled Thom Bell – Didn’t I Blow Your Mind? – The Sound of Philadelphia Soul 1969-1983 (Kent, CDTOP 522; https://www.acerecords.co.uk. In my review below you’ll find many quotes from the master himself, Mr. Thom Bell, from my interviews with him, as well as from Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough and Bobbie Smith of the Spinners, Deniece Williams, Jerry Butler and Preston Glass.

THE TRACK LISTING:

The Delfonics: Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) / The Chargers: You Gotta Be A Lady / The Spinners: The Rubberband Man / Eloise Laws: Got You Into My Life / The Stylistics: You Are Everything / Ronnie Dyson: Give In To Love / Elton John: Nice And Slow / New York City: Take My Hand / Deniece Williams: Silly / Dionne Warwick & the Spinners: Then Came You / Lou Rawls: Will You Kiss Me One More Time / Little Anthony & the Imperials: Lazy Susan / The Stylistics: Betcha By Golly, Wow / Nancy Wilson: Joe / Johnny Mathis: Loving You – Losing You / Jerry Butler: Walking Around In Teardrops / Bell & James: Nobody Knows It / Phyllis Hyman: Let Somebody Love Me / Dee Dee Bridgewater: One In A Million (Guy) / The O’Jays: Brandy

 The title track and also the opening song is a Thom Bell/William Hart written ballad called Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) by the Delfonics. Thom recalls how he met the group in the first place in 1966. Thom: “During one of the auditions for new groups Stan Watson brought in five guys – and they were called the Five Guys. He asked me to take a listen to them, because I was a studio musician. I went around, listened to them and I thought they were pretty decent. I told Nate McCalla about them, he put the money up and I recorded them. That was my first production. It was on a label called Moonshot. It did decently in the area, but it wasn’t really big nationally. The first song was He Don’t Really Love You.” The song was recorded in the summer of 1966, but released only next year and re-released still in 1968 to cash in on the group’s first big hit on Philly Groove, La – La – Means I Love You. During the next three years William and Thom would produce many hits for the group, including their memorable gold ballad, Didn’t I. After Thom left in 1970, William Hart took over.

 On the track # 2, Thom is in the capacity of an arranger on the obscure and probably only one-single Chargers’ dancer titled You Gotta Be a Lady, released on Vanguard in late 1971. The song was written by Grover Mitchell, Len Barry and Sherman Marshall and produced by Len and Sherman for John Madara Enterprises Ltd.

THE RUBBERBAND MAN

 Thom Bell and Linda Creed formed one of the most successful writing pairs in the 70s. Thom: “Randy Cain, one of the Delfonics, went to high school with Linda. Randy had become big as one of the Delfonics. Linda was also singing and she kept bugging him about getting her to record, but he didn’t know anything about it, so he put her on me. I listened to her and she was decent, but she wasn’t a great singer. She sounded like me – a decent singer, but not really terrific.” Linda, however, was good at writing poems. Thom: “The first melody I gave her was a song called Free Girl. I did it for Dusty Springfield, because Kenny Gamble was looking for songs for Dusty. That’s how she and I got started.” The song appeared on Dusty’s A Brand New Me album on Atlantic in 1970.

  Linda and Thom wrote a huge disco hit and a gold single for the Spinners in the fall of 1976, The Rubberband Man. Thom: “That was a novelty. If you look in my history, I don’t do novelty songs. Leiber and Stoller, they’re the greatest novelty writers that ever were – for the Coasters, the Drifters and things… I was never a novelty writer. That particular tune was called The Fat Man first. It was written about one of my sons, but then he got so big that we had to change it from The Fat Man to The Rubberband Man. I wanted the lyrics to be about a big, fat, jolly guy, who’s happy and who could dance. It wasn’t meant to be any other than novelty.” On stage, Billy Henderson played the character. Billy: “Being a little short, chubby guy, they made me a rubberband man.”

   A joyful and light dancer called Got You into My Life by a Texas-born singer Eloise Laws comes from her eponymous album on Liberty in 1980. Written by Ronald Bell, produced by Linda Creed and arranged by Thom, Kool & the Gang had recorded this song a year earlier for their Ladies Night album.

YOU ARE EVERYTHING

 Russell Thomkins Jr’s distinctive falsetto is one of the most recognizable voices in our music and also one of the key elements in the Stylistics music. The group’s first single, You’re a Big Girl Now, was initially released on Sebring Records in 1970 and later distributed under Avco’s banner. Thom: “That record was a big record, and they sent them back into the studio again, but they couldn’t come up with anything. Someone told them to call me. They called me and I said ‘okay, let me see what I can do.’ I liked them and so I started recording them from there, and the first record was Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart).” A beautiful love ballad called You Are Everything, which is included on this compilation, followed a few months later, and – besides Russell on lead – on background vocals there are Bunny Sigler, Phil Hurtt, Carl Helm, Kenny Gamble and Thom himself – but not any member of the actual group. It became the first gold single for the group. Also, their next single, another gold disc called Betcha by Golly, Wow, can be found on this CD.

  Thom and Linda wrote You Are Everything, as well as the next beautiful ballad named Give in to Love, performed by Ronnie Dyson in 1973. Famous for his roles in such musicals as Hair and Salvation, he hit the top-ten in 1970 with the lively (If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I touch You? If you like sparkling uptempo music side by side with beautiful ballads, then all Ronnie’s seven albums are worth listening to. Ronnie’s heart failed him in 1990.

  In October 1977 at Kaye-Smith Studios in Seattle, Thom cut the Spinners together with Elton John on a song titled Are You Ready for Love. Thom: “The first time I did it was with Elton John and the Spinners. Then Elton’s company, MCA, said ‘he sounded a little too black.’ ‘What? Elton John too black!’ That was something new to me. He loved it and I loved it, but the company didn’t like it. In fact, of those six songs that I did with him some stayed in the can for many years.” Actually, only in 1989 MCA released in a CD format all six Thom Bell produced sides, including a melodic and catchy uptempo ditty called Nice and Slow, which appears on this set.

  A smooth and melodic, slowish toe-tapper named Take My Hand – written by T.G. Conway, T. Life and Phil Terry – was the last single for the group New York City in 1975, and it failed to chart. Having charted with I’m Doin’ Fine Now in early 1973, the group now complained that on their two albums Thom made them sound too much like the Spinners, but after this last single they didn’t sound like anyone anymore. They disbanded.

SILLY

  After the Spinners, in my book the next highlight in Thom’s career was his work with the wonderful Deniece Williams, especially on their most beautiful collaboration called Silly in 1981. Thom: “Deniece had the song and she was trying to figure out how to do it, so I said ‘let me work on it a couple of minutes’ and I musically rewrote it. I just rewrote it as an arranger, not as a songwriter. She had written that song years ago with another girl, a very nice girl, who was a school-teacher. They went to college together.”

  The other girl Fritz Baskett had in the 1960s been a member of the Hi-Fi’s, which turned into the Vocals and recorded one single on Ray Charles’ Tangerine Records. In the early 70s she sang in a group called Sweet Salvation. The third co-writer of Silly was Clarence McDonald, a renowned keyboardist, producer, arranger and composer. Deniece: “Some of my favourites of the songs I did with Thom Bell were probably the songs that people don’t hear. I thought Sweet Surrender was wonderful. Others that I liked were My Melody and Silly.”

  Henry Fambrough of the Spinners: “We did a lot of tours together with Dionne Warwicke, and it was great for us, because we got a chance to enter places and events that we weren’t able to do by ourselves.” Their biggest hit together, Then Came You, was in 1974 first released as the B-side to Just as Long as We Have Love. Thom Bell: “They released the wrong side. The company decided that they knew better than me, which sometimes they do. I said ‘just do me a favour. After you promote your side for a while and when you’re finished, then play the side I want to.’ The first single was okay, but then people started falling asleep on it. They turned it over – bang! – Then Came You. Number one. In fact, that was the first number one of all the hits that Dionne Warwick had.” Bobbie Smith of the Spinners: “Dionne was trying to convince Thom that Just as Long as We Have Love was the hit song. Thom Bell betted her one dollar. She lost.”

  The pulsating Then Came You was written by Philip T. Pugh and Sherman Marshall. Thom: “Sherman Marshall was Barbara Ingram’s husband. He also was one of the best bass players in the city, plus he was tall. And he was sharp. He got tired of playing bass, tired of clubs and things and asked, if he could write songs. He came down and started working in an office next to me. Then Sherman said ‘you know, I’m not that great on lyrics. I would like to bring another guy that I know, who’s a lyricist - - So with Philip they started working together, and they came up with Then Came You. Soon after that Phil disappeared. I haven’t seen him since.”

  One result of the Thom Bell & Deniece Williams collaboration in the early 80s was a smooth and romantic song called Will You Kiss Me One More Time, which Thom produced, arranged and conducted for Lou Rawls on Epic in 1982.

 Thom: “I love the arranging that Don Costa did for Little Anthony & the Imperials. That was the first guy that turned me on – Don Costa! They had I’m on the Outside (Looking in), Hurt So Bad, Goin’ out of My Head… After that came Burt Bacharach, another one I loved. They were applying their classical training, I believe, to so-called r&b, modern music. I didn’t know anything about the so-called r&b music at all, until I was about seventeen-eighteen, because that’s not where my family was leaning me. I come from the classical end of it.” Thom Bell finally produced Little Anthony & the Imperials in 1973 on a catchy and easy-going song that he and Linda wrote called Lazy Susan.

  One song on Nancy Wilson’s classy Philly album called Now I’m a Woman in 1970 is a plaintive ballad called Joe, written by Allan Felder, Kenneth Gamble and Norman Harris and arranged by Thom Bell.

LOVING YOU – LOSING YOU

  A very pleasant and sweet ballad titled Loving You-Losing You comes from the second album that Thom Bell and Johnny Mathis did together, Mathis Is… (1977). Thom recalls their first collaboration in 1973: “He was a fantastic singer, but his sales had been dropping down to about 80,000 albums. He’s a legend, but he wasn’t giving the people what they wanted as far as something new. I had to convince Clive Davis, who wasn’t too sure of me. I guess it was because I’m black and all I do is so-called r&b. I never did r&b in my life – I just did music! I finally got to see Johnny’s manager, we talked business and we made a deal. That was the best move he could have made, and he was so happy after that. After the sales of 80,000 albums, when I got finished with him, the first album was something like 750,000. That was a big jump for him.” The album in question was I’m Coming Home (in 1973).

 Produced by Gamble & Huff and arranged by Thom Bell, Jerry Butler’s poignant Walking Around in Teardrops is the last song on his Ice on Ice LP, which was released in his peak year of 1969 and was preceded by the magnificent The Ice Man Cometh. Jerry himself also cherishes those times: “That period was so short, but it was so spontaneous. It was like a burst of fire and energy. I mean, Leon being an Aries, Kenny being a Leo, and Jerry being a Sagittarius, there was a whole bunch of fire in the room. Whenever we started on something, it just blew. All of those songs that were written for the first two albums were written probably in less than six months.”

  A soft ballad named Nobody Knows It comes from the second album by Bell & James called Only Make Believe (1979), which they produced and Thom appears here in the capacity of an executive producer. Thom: “Leroy (Bell) was my nephew, who I had been training and working with for about three or four years before that. The other was his partner Casey James, who was a musician and a writer also. It takes a while to build up to go writers and arrangers and producers. You just don’t jump out there and hand them a number one artist. You build them up first till they become very good at what they do.”

LET SOMEBODY LOVE YOU

  Two dignified ladies are featured towards the end of the set. Thom Bell arranged and conducted an Alan & Preston Glass song titled Let Somebody Love Me for Phyllis Hyman for her sixth album in 1983. Preston’s mentor was Thom Bell. Preston: “Some of my music was sent out to different publishers and I found out that he was doing a music seminar, when I was sixteen years old. I flew three thousand miles just to meet him, because I loved his music. He kind of liked the direction I was going in. He told me some things to work on, and he said ‘when you finish high school, look me up.’ I certainly did that and right after he signed me and my brother Alan Glass to a publishing deal. That’s how we started getting songs on people like Deniece Williams, the Temptations, Phyllis Hyman and the Stylistics.” Let Somebody Love You is a high-class sophisticated gem of a song.

  For a short period at the end of the 1970s and early 80s the Elektra company was trying to guide the jazz diva Dee Dee Bridgewater into more mainstream. Thom produced her eponymous album in 1980, and one of the songs was a gentle toe-tapper called One in a Million (Guy), which the O’Jays had introduced on PIR a year earlier. A creditable and soft performance from Dee Dee, but later in one interview she stated that she disliked the whole album. She is and always will be a jazz artist. The very O’Jays close the set with their restrained performance of the melodic Brandy from 1978.

  Thom: “If you look back on my history, when I leave the artist, I try to leave them in a better position financially, career-wise, than I found them. I always felt that what they don’t need is somebody to drag them down. If you look back on the Delfonics, I left them in 1970 with the biggest song in their career, Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time). When I left the Stylistics, I left them with their biggest record, You Make Me Feel Brand New. I always try to leave them better than when I find them. Being a producer you’re responsible for their career, their families, their whole lives, so I have to take that into consideration, when I work – to give them my very best. If I feel I can’t give them my best, I let them go, because otherwise it’s not fair to the artists.”

© Heikki Suosalo


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