Let’s Groove! Big Break Records has recently made that enticing invitation as the title of its new anthology dedicated to the 50+-year career of one of America’s favorite party bands, Archie Bell and the Drells. Let’s Groove: The Archie Bell and the Drells Story, charts on two CDs the group’s journey from Houston, Texas to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and all stops in between. It includes album tracks, singles, and extended mixes from the Atlantic, Glades, and Philadelphia International Records labels to create the only career-spanning chronicle of the group’s history.
Naturally, this anthology begins with Bell’s admonition to “Tighten Up.” It wasn’t the Texas-born singer’s first single, but it’s the one that sent his career into the stratosphere. Originally issued as a B-side for the small Ovide label, it was then reissued in the same position on Atlantic before the national label flipped it over and created a No. 1 Pop and R&B hit in the United States. It also became the title of the Drells’ first album. Co-written by Bell and Drells member Billy Butler, “Tighten Up” set the template for Bell’s loose, funky party jams. (The original A-side, the brassy, pulsating “Dog Eat Dog,” is here, too, and it’s not half-bad.) Not that Bell could party much at the time. When “Tighten Up” was ascending the charts, he was serving his country and stationed in Germany. The ballad “A Soldier’s Prayer,” another one of his Ovide singles reissued on Atlantic, captures this moment in time for the soulful singer with the distinctive pipes.
The next landmark moment in Archie Bell and the Drells’ career came when Atlantic paired them with up-and-coming Philadelphia-based writer-producer-entrepreneurs Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. On two albums and a handful of singles, Gamble and Huff surrounded Bell with a cadre of talents soon to make their own marks in popular music including Thom Bell. Thom (no relation to Archie) arranged the title song of the Drells’ album I Can’t Stop Dancing, earning the group another Top 10 hit on both U.S. charts. “I Can’t Stop Dancing” built on the “Tighten Up” rhythm as did the follow-up single “Do the Choo-Choo.” (Bell quipped at the beginning of the song, “Here we go again!”)
The Gamble and Huff-penned “(There’s Gonna Be a) Showdown,” title of the band’s third Atlantic LP and second produced by the Philly contingent, had the by-now-familiar spoken intro from Bell and another dance theme, but upped the ante with another sophisticated arrangement (this time by Bobby Martin). The catchy track made it to No. 6 R&B and a none-too-shabby No. 21 Pop berth. Let’s Groove also has a smattering of lesser-known, but still exemplary, tracks showcasing Archie and the Drells’ versatility, such as “Go for What You Know” from future “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” writers Marvin and Melvin Steals; the happily buoyant “My Balloon’s Going Up;” and a couple of Thom Bell/Kenny Gamble co-writes, “I Love My Baby” (with its unusually adventurous rhythms and time shifts), and the swinging, street-corner-harmonizing “Girl, You’re Too Young.” The sitar sound on the uptempo album track “Here I Go Again” looks forward to co-arranger Thom Bell’s future work with The Stylistics.
Gamble and Huff produced a couple of non-LP sides (arranged by Roland Chambers) heard here before Archie Bell and the Drells were dispatched to work with another hot pair of producers working at Atlantic. Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro’s soul credentials were rock-solid thanks to their work with Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, The Sweet Inspirations, Jackie Moore, and numerous others. From their frequent home base in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Crawford and Shapiro reinvented the Drells’ style for a number of singles. The band sounds reinvigorated on the lively “Get It from the Bottom” and have a rootsy soulfulness on “I Wish.” A cover of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Wrap It Up” is effortlessly funky, and “Deal with Him” is pure urgency. The Drells’ final two A-sides produced by the Crawford/Shapiro team, the pretty, string-drenched “I Just Want to Fall in Love” and the exuberant “Archie’s In Love,” were both written by “Prince” Philip Mitchell. He would prove key to the Drells when he wrote and produced a series of A-sides for their next label affiliation, with Henry Stone’s Glades Records.
The four Glades tracks (of six tracks issued on 45s by the label) here are among the least-known on this collection and therefore among the most welcome inclusions. The slick and swaying “Dancing to the Music” returned the group (actually Bell plus Mitchell and two more vocalists) to the upper reaches of the R&B chart with its No. 11 placement. “Ain’t Nothing But a Man in Love” had Archie back in “Tighten Up” territory with his brief spoken intro but the track was otherwise a chugging, contemporary dancer. Its B-side, “You Never Know What’s on a Woman’s Mind,” allowed Bell to do some of his most melodic singing, while “Girls Grow Up Faster Than Boys” (the final song on this compilation’s packed 28-song first disc) was a smooth, throwback ballad.
The second disc of Let’s Groove is dedicated to the Drells’ return to the Gamble and Huff fold. They joined Philadelphia International Records in 1975 and were assigned to the TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) imprint for their first LP in over six years; all told, they would release four albums on PIR through 1979. Label debut Dance Your Troubles Away brought Archie Bell and the Drells full circle with a terpsichorean-themed set harkening back to their early hits, imbued with the plush orchestration associated with the Philly sound.
Four charting singles from that album are included on Let’s Groove including the song by Leon Huff, Victor Carstarphen and McFadden and Whitehead which gives this compilation its title. “Let’s Groove” began with a spoken introduction (“Hi, everybody, this is Archie Bell, and these are The Drells…”) before the rhythmic, bass-driven track kicked into high gear. It’s heard in its extended mix. Gamble and Huff’s faith in Archie Bell paid off when the track reached the Top 10 of the R&B chart and went to No. 3 on the Disco survey. Ron Tyson, Bunny Sigler and Allan Felder collaborated on the jubilantly melodic “I Could Dance All Night,” arranged by MFSB bassist Ron Baker, and it went to No. 25 R&B. The sleek No. 42 R&B hit “The Soul City Walk,” reuniting the Drells with arranger Bobby Martin, is also presented in its 12-inch mix. Rounding out the selections from Dance Your Troubles Away is its title track, which barely missed the Disco top 10 at No. 11.
The group’s 1976 album on the Philadelphia International label proper posed the question: Where Will You Go When the Party’s Over? But the party wasn’t ending anytime soon based on the four tracks from that LP reprised here. MFSB flautist Jack Faith put on his dancing shoes as arranger of three of these songs including the disco-flavored title song. Bunny Sigler, as writer-produced, teamed with arranger Richard Rome for a song that could have been a Drells mandate: the breakneck “Everybody Have a Good Time.” 1977’s Hard Not to Like It continued the group’s relationship with McFadden, Whitehead and Carstarphen on such fine tracks as the sweet groover “It’s Hard Not to Like You” and the atypical ballad “I’ve Been Missing You.” Let’s Groove closes out with Archie’s one-off for the PIR compilation Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto (the empathetic “Old People,” by Dexter Wansel and Bunny Sigler) and three tracks from the group’s swansong LP, Strategy. Though the Gamble and Huff-written “Show Me How to Dance” is one of the most lightweight items in the duo’s discography, Strategy gave the group their final chart hit with its McFadden/Whitehead-penned title song; both “Strategy” and “We Got ‘Um Dancin'” are presented here in their extended 12-inch versions.
This comprehensive look at Archie Bell and The Drells’ career is housed in a double Super Jewel Box, and boasts a 20-page full-color booklet with Christian John Wikane’s engaging history of the group and numerous photos and album and single images. Reissue producer Wayne A. Dickson and Nick Robbins have handled the sound here. Let’s Groove, the latest in Big Break’s superlative series of artist anthologies, is a potent instruction that fans of R&B, Philly soul, disco and just plain great dance music shouldn’t ignore. Everybody tighten up now!
- Tighten Up (Part I)
- Dog Eat Dog
- A Thousand Wonders
- A Soldier’s Prayer, 1967
- I Can’t Stop Dancing
- Do the Choo-Choo
- Love Will Rain on You
- (There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown
- Go for What You Know
- I Love My Baby
- Just a Little Closer
- Girl, You’re Too Young
- My Balloon’s Going Up
- Here I Go Again
- A World Without Music
- Don’t Let the Music Slip Awa
- Get It from the Bottom
- I Wish
- Wrap It Up
- Deal with Him
- I Just Want to Fall in Love
- Love at First Sight
- Archie’s in Love
- I Can’t Face You Baby
- Dancing to Your Music
- Ain’t Nothing for a Man in Love
- You Never Know What’s On a Woman’s Mind
- Girls Grow Faster Than Boys
- I Could Dance All Night
- Let’s Groove
- The Soul City Walk
- Dance Your Troubles Away
- Nothing Comes Easy
- Don’t Let Love Get You Down
- Where Will You Go When the Party’s Over
- Everybody Have a Good Time
- Glad You Could Make It (12″ Disco Version)
- It’s Hard Not to Like You
- I’ve Been Missing You
- On the Radio
- Old People
- Show Me How to Dance
- We Got ‘Um Dancin’ (12″ Disco Version)
CD 1, Tracks 1, 3-4 from Tighten Up, Atlantic SC 8181, 1968
CD 1, Track 2 from Ovide single 228, 1967 – reissued Atlantic 45-2478, 1968
CD 1, Tracks 5-7 from I Can’t Stop Dancing, Atlantic SD 8204, 1969
CD 1, Tracks 8-14 from There’s Gonna Be a Showdown, Atlantic SD 8226, 1969
CD 1, Track 15 from Atlantic single 45-2693, 1969
CD 1, Track 16 from Atlantic single 45-2721, 1970
CD 1, Tracks 17-18 from Atlantic single 45-2744, 1970
CD 1, Tracks 19-20 from Atlantic single 45-2768, 1970
CD 1, Tracks 21-22 from Atlantic single 45-2793, 1971
CD 1, Track 23 from Atlantic single 45-2829, 1971
CD 1, Track 24 from Atlantic single 45-2855, 1972
CD 1, Track 25 from Glades single 1707, 1973
CD 1, Tracks 26-27 from Glades single 1711, 1973
CD 1, Track 28 from Glades single 1718, 1973
CD 2, Tracks 1-4 from Dance Your Troubles Away, TSOP PZ 33844, 1975
CD 2, Tracks 5-8 from Where Will You Go When the Party’s Over, Philadelphia International PZ 34326, 1976
CD 2, original version of Track 9 and Tracks 10-12 from Hard Not to Like It, Philadelphia International PZ 34855, 1977
CD 2, Track 13 from Philadelphia International single ZS8 3651, 1978
CD 2, Tracks 14-15 and original version of Track 16 from Strategy, Philadelphia International JZ 36096, 1979