Much of Soul music history over the last half century has revolved around great producer/artist combinations. But no combination was more pleasing than the work of various artists and producer Thom Bell beginning in the late 60's through the 1970s and beyond. With "Mighty Three" partners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Bell created the Sound of Philadelphia, the most important and dominant sound of the early and mid 70s, and the heir to the Motown sound of the 60s. And as a songwriter, musician, producer and arranger, Bell established himself as one of the most important R&B/Soul music figures of all time.
Born in 1943, Bell studied classical music as a child. As a teen, he met up with and joined Gamble in The Romeos. He learned to play multiple instruments and planned to become a classical conductor. But instead, at age 22 he became a staff writer and touring conductor for "The Twist" singer Chubby Checker. He then earned his first production gig for a local group called the Delfonics in 1968. The combination yielded two big hits, writing in 1969, "La La Means I Love You" and "Didn't I Blow Your Mind," and enhanced Bell's reputation beyond Philadelphia.
Bell's early work set the stage for his style of production and arrangements. He was known as being extremely organized and precise, but more importantly was quite adventurous. He generally came to the studio with a specific sound in mind. His exacting work was groundbreaking, as he created unique arrangements using seemingly odd instruments, such as sitars and bassoons, to create first-of-a-kind Soul sounds that others would try to ape for years afterward. His productions tended to be lush and orchestral (influenced by his classical background), but with hot, pulsating beats and excellent vocal arrangements. While his work may have owed a debt to the Motown sound of the 60s, he clearly took Soul music to a new and different level, and his work became the template fordozens of acts throughout the 70s.
1972 was a major year for Bell. He produced the debut album by the Stylistics, considered by many to be one of the greatest sweet Soul albums of all time, and, with his songwriting partner, lyricist Linda Creed, contributed such classics as "Betcha By Golly Wow" and "You Are Everything" to that seminal album. He also provided production and arrangement work on the O'Jays' Backstabbers album and completed one of his greatest works, the Spinners' self-titled Atlantic Records debut (which included "I'll Be Around," "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love" and "Ghetto Child," among others), in the view of many, the decade's greatest album. It was also be remiss to fail to mention Bell's magnificent work on The Spinners' second album "Mighty Love" (including the transcendent title track). Bell won the Grammy award in 1975 in the category of "Best Producer of the Year."
Over the course of the decade he became one of R&B music's most prolific hitmakers, working with numerous acts including Dionne Warwick, Teddy Pendergrass, New York City, Ronnie Dyson, Lou Rawls, Little Anthony and The Imperials, Dusty Springfield, and Johnny Mathis. He was also approached by Elton John for a album collaboration that resulted in a delayed EP and the hit "Mama Can't Buy You Love" at the time and over twenty years later the re-release of the collaboration "Are You Ready For Love?" as a dance remix by Fatboy Slim which soared to the top of the charts in Europe.
Bell later moved to Washington State and slowed down his pace, working less frequently but helping acts such as Deniece Williams, the Temptations and Phyllis Hyman. He also briefly reunited with the Stylistics on their Closer Than Close album. Perhaps his best work of the decade was on Hyman's Living All Alone album (he co-wrote and produced the chilling ballad, "Old Friend").
In the 90s and beyond, Bell worked with artists as diverse as James Ingram ("I Don't Have the Heart"), Angela Winbush, David Byrne and Joss Stone, while continuing to see his hit songs sampled and covered by countless artists.