After having previously celebrated two of his musical inspirations – Burt Bacharach and Teddy Randazzo – with their own volumes, Ace’s Songwriters and Producers series is turning its attention to legendary soul maestro Thom Bell. On June 26, the label’s Kent imprint will release Ready or Not: Philly Soul Arrangements and Productions 1965-1978. As the title indicates, all 23 tracks were either produced or arranged (or both!) by the multi-hyphenate musician-composer-producer-arranger-conductor who brought an unparalleled depth and sophistication to soul music.
Ready or Not, curated by Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley, begins with his earliest days in Philadelphia at the Cameo-Parkway label. It then takes listeners through his era-defining successes with The Delfonics, The Stylistics, and The Spinners, and concludes in 1978, the year he recorded his final album with the latter group, returned to the Philadelphia International Records fold to work with artists such as Teddy Pendergrass, and began work on the soundtrack to The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. One hallmark remained the same throughout the years: Bell’s deep commitment to rich melody, lush orchestration (featuring varied and even unusual instrumentation), and impeccable musicianship.
The collection is titled after The Delfonics’ “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love).” Speaking with this author in 2016, both Bell and guitarist Bobby Eli cited the 1968 top 40 hit as their favorite Delfonics track. (Eli praised it as “adventurous for the times…I really loved the arrangement.”) The Philly trio featuring William Hart is also heard on their pre-fame 1967 Cameo Parkway single “You’ve Been Untrue.” The other two key groups with whom Bell was prominently associated – The Stylistics and The Spinners – are also represented, the former with the single version of “People Make the World Go Round” and the album version of “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” and the latter with “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love.”
Other groups on Ready or Not who benefited from Bell’s musical gifts are The Orlons (1965 B-side “I Can’t Take It”), Archie Bell and The Drells (1969’s “Here I Go Again”), The Three Degrees (1970’s “What I See,” co-written with Bell’s partners in Mighty Three Music, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff), The Intruders (the 1971 flipside “Do You Remember Yesterday”), New York City (the irresistible 1973 hit “I’m Doin’ Fine Now”), and The O’Jays (1972’s explosive No. 1 R&B/No. 3 Pop smash “Back Stabbers”). Among the hidden gems here is The Courtship’s 1972 “It’s the Same Old Love,” the rare Bell credit on a Motown single. While it’s been on CD as part of the box set series The Complete Motown Singles, it makes a welcome reappearance here. (Thom would later helm an entire album for The Temptations.)
Bell also worked his magic on many of the era’s top solo artists including two with whom he forged a close personal and professional bond, Johnny Mathis and Dionne Warwick. Mathis appears with the epic album version of “Life Is a Song Worth Singing” (also the title of Second Disc Records and Real Gone Music’s 2015 complete collection of Mathis and Bell’s collaborations) while Warwick shines on the sleek and sexy “Track of the Cat” from her album of the same name. When Lesley Gore turned to Philadelphia, she was on the receiving end of Thom’s chart for “I’ll Be Standing By.” Likewise, Dusty Springfield’s trip to Sigma Sound Studios yielded “I Wanna Be a Free Girl,” written by Bell, Gamble, Huff, and Thom’s most frequent lyrical partner, the late Linda Creed.
Dusty was first to record “Something for Nothing,” heard here in its purely instrumental form by Philadelphia International’s house band MFSB featuring Bell. He told me in 2017, “That was too tricky for any voice to sing. I didn’t know the difference. I was just getting started. After I worked in arranging for about a year or so, I started better understanding the concept of arranging for a vocal.” The stunning track, with its richly swirling strings, has been sampled many times in recent years. “Something for Nothing” was penned by Bell with Roland Chambers and longtime friend Kenny Gamble; Ready or Not also features Bell’s arrangement with Bobby Martin of Gamble’s then-wife Dee Dee Sharp’s “What Kind of Lady” from a 1968 single.
Of course, this compilation provides ample opportunity to hear just how beautifully Bell understood vocal arranging. Of the male singers here, you’ll hear such all-time great voices as Ronnie Dyson (the touching “One Man Band (Plays All Alone)” from 1973), Jerry Butler (1969’s “Moody Woman”), and Teddy Pendergrass (the single edit of 1978’s “Close the Door”).
The item here that collectors will most savor is Connie Stevens’ ultra-rare single “Tick Tock” in its CD debut. Written by composer-lyricist Walter Marks (Broadway’s Bajour, Golden Rainbow), it’s a super-groovy showstopper helmed by Bell at his brassiest. It was the flipside to the Hawaiian Eye star’s recording of Bell and Creed’s “Keep Growing Strong.” As “Betcha by Golly Wow,” it would reward The Stylistics with a top 5 Pop and R&B hit.
Ready or Not ends in 1978, but Bell’s career certainly didn’t end then. One treat here is his 1971 chart for Laura Nyro and Labelle’s moving rendition of Teddy Randazzo, Bobby Weinstein, and Lou Stallman’s “Gonna Take a Miracle.” In 1982, Thom revisited the composition with Deniece Williams, resulting in a shimmering, contemporary take that reached No. 1 on the R&B chart and top ten Pop.
The package includes liner notes by Bob Stanley including a new interview with Thom Bell and a wealth of photos and memorabilia. Look for it on June 26 from Ace/Kent at the links below!
Various Artists, Thom Bell – Ready or Not: Philly Soul Arrangements and Productions 1965-1978 (Ace/Kent CDTOP488, 2020) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada)
- Here I Go Again – Archie Bell & The Drells (Atlantic single 45-2693, 1969)
- I Can’t Take It – The Orlons (Cameo single C-372, 1965)
- You’ve Been Untrue – The Delfonics (Cameo single C-472, 1967)
- Look The Other Way – Lesley Gore (Mercury single 72867, 1968)
- Tick-Tock – Connie Stevens (Bell single B-922, 1970)
- What I See – Three Degrees (Neptune N-23, 1970)
- Moody Woman – Jerry Butler (Mercury single 72929, 1969)
- What Kind Of Lady – Dee Dee Sharp (Gamble single G-219, 1968)
- Ready Or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love) – The Delfonics (Philly Groove single 154, 1968)
- I Wanna Be A Free Girl – Dusty Springfield (Atlantic single 45-2729, 1970)
- It’s The Same Old Love – The Courtship (Tamla single T 54217F, 1972)
- People Make The World Go Round (Single edit) – The Stylistics
- Back Stabbers – The O’Jays (Philadelphia International single ZS7 3517, 1972)
- One Man Band (Plays All Alone) – Ronnie Dyson (Columbia single 4-45776, 1973)
- Do You Remember Yesterday – The Intruders (Gamble single G 4016, 1971)
- I’m Doin’ Fine Now – New York City (Chelsea single 78-0113, 1973)
- Life Is A Song Worth Singing (Album version) – Johnny Mathis (from I’m Coming Home, Columbia LP KC 32435, 1973)
- Something For Nothing – MFSB featuring Thom Bell (Philadelphia International single ZS7 3540, 1974)
- Could It Be I’m Falling In Love – The Spinners (Atlantic single 45-2927, 1972)
- You Make Me Feel Brand New (Album Version) – The Stylistics (from Let’s Put It All Together, Avco AV-69001-698, 1974)
- Close The Door (Single Edit) – Teddy Pendergrass (PIR single ZS8 3648, 1978)
- It’s Gonna Take A Miracle – Laura Nyro & Labelle (Columbia single 4-45537, 1972)
- Track Of The Cat (Album Version) – Dionne Warwick (from Track of the Cat, Warner Bros. LP BS 2893, 1975)