Yesterday, Philadelphia soul architect Thom Bell passed away at the age of 79, leaving an extraordinary legacy of music for such artists as The Delfonics, The Stylistics, The Spinners, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis, Deniece Williams, and Elton John among his greatest and most enduring accomplishments. TSD's Joe Marchese got to know Thom in the last few years of his life, and shares his memories of, and an interview with, the legendary producer and songwriter.
I picked up the telephone with trepidation. I knew the caller on the other end was Thom Bell, a true multi-hyphenate: Grammy Award-winning composer, producer, orchestrator, and conductor of so many of the songs on the soundtrack of my life.
"Is this Joe Marchese?"
I was in shock. Thom Bell had pronounced my last name correctly as mar-KAY-zee. Trust me; that's more unusual than you might think. I stammered, "Mr. Bell? You got my last name right!"
"You kidding?" he asked me. "That's an Eye-talian name. And the blacks and the Eye-talians - we stick together. I know we're going to be friends, Marchese! And it's Thom, none of that Mr. Bell stuff!" That initial interview, scheduled for thirty minutes, extended to over two hours. Though we were ostensibly talking about his association with The Delfonics - one which yielded such timeless hits as "La-La (Means I Love You)" and "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)," both of which extended the musical vocabulary of soul music - the conversation happily detoured to everyone from Mantovani to James Brown. By the end of the call, I felt confident enough to agree with his initial assessment. We were going to be friends. For the next six years, Thom was always there for me, answering every question I put to him, and making sure to call around the holidays to wish me a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. He was as talented a raconteur as he was a composer, with a vise-like memory and an infectious sense of humor. Thom had a story for every song, and was always willing to share with high spirits and true generosity.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Thom moved with his family to the Philadelphia area as a child. Classical music was a constant in his household, and he learned the piano. As a teenager, he discovered the music of Little Anthony and The Imperials and The Flamingos, and his life changed. He counted them, and producer-arranger Don Costa, among his earliest musical heroes. Then fate intervened. "I saw an ad in the paper [from Cameo-Parkway Records] for a person to write lead sheets," he remembered to me. "And nobody wants to write lead sheets...nobody! You have to write the exact thing. They'd throw so many things at you. You can do anything with your voice, but try to write it! So, I went down there to apply for the job. They grabbed me immediately, because nobody else was coming out there for that job!" He laughed heartily, "Five dollars per lead sheet! Boy oh boy! The hours I put in writing lead sheets for Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell and Dee Dee Sharp and The Dovells! Who else was down there?" He started to sing Charlie Gracie's "Butterfly," adding, "That was their first big national record."
The Sound of Young America was emanating from Detroit, and Cameo-Parkway wanted in. Thom continued, "So when Motown started kicking everybody's backside, including theirs, they tried to find out exactly: What does Motown have? They found out that Motown had an in-house rhythm section. [The Cameo-Parkway heads wondered:] 'How are we going to get that? Do we have anybody around here that can do anything like that? They didn't have any black guys; that was the first thing! They thought Motown was all black, but it was not! Just like my rhythm section, they thought they were all black, but they were not! So they said, 'There's a black guy down there [writing lead sheets] in the packing department! Get him up here! Hurry it up!' So they asked me if I could put together a rhythm section. I said, 'Sure! Anything with music. Even if I had never done it, I can do it!' I knew what to do. I put one together, my own staff. So, a guy comes in [soon after]. 'Hey man, can you produce records?' Of course, I can! I'd never produced a record in my life - but that's not the point! It's can you do it, not do you do it! Of course! Are you crazy, man?' That man was Stan Watson, the owner of Philly Groove Records. Thom was off and running.
His first major successes came at Philly Groove with The Delfonics. Thom's brand of symphonic soul, inspired by both his classical roots and his love of romantic pop, expanded the palette of so-called rhythm and blues. He took inspiration from his "leaders" - Don Costa, Burt Bacharach, Teddy Randazzo, Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone - in crafting rich charts with strings, flugelhorns, French horns, tack piano, and other instrumentation atypical of soul and R&B. Thom pushed back against preconceived notions that soul needed to be rhythmic, not lush. "At one time," he recalled, "words were put to me that I didn't believe: 'Black people don't want to hear that. They don't listen to that kind of music, man. They want James Brown.' [I asked,] 'What's wrong with my music?' The only reason why they love that kind of music is that's all that's presented to them, and that is [geared to] their natural ability to hear beats. [If] I introduce something else to them, and give them the right feeling of something, they'll like that, too! And white people like James Brown!" Thom's music had feeling in abundance, with grandly sweeping, ornately decorated melodies that singers couldn't wait to wrap their voices around.
But after three albums and a string of hits with The Delfonics, Bell sensed it was time to move on. After "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)," he recalled that "something happened. I said, 'I don't think I can do a better job than that. I would much rather move on. I'll leave the guys in better shape than I found them rather than drag them down.' I felt that I would go as far as I could go. If I can't hear you a year from now, in my mind, it's time to give them notice. Consequently, when I think about it later on, I was pretty much right on time. Because I left them with the biggest record of their career. Then I went on to other arranging. I didn't want to produce anymore. I was kind of burnt out with it." Thom went to his best friend and former singing partner Kenny Gamble. "[He] asked me to do some arranging for [him and Leon Huff]. And away we went! Gamble and Huff and I were stuck together like glue, for the rest of our lives!"
Thom became a partner with Gamble and Huff in the publishing firm Mighty Three Music and a mainstay at the duo's Philadelphia International Records, arranging and orchestrating for such artists as The O'Jays ("Back Stabbers," "992 Arguments"), Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes ("I Miss You"), MFSB ("Something for Nothing"), The Ebonys ("You're the Reason Why"), Dick Jensen ("32nd Street"), and Billy Paul ("This Is Your Life"). He arranged and also played piano and keyboards in the band for Gamble and Huff on sessions for Lesley Gore, Dusty Springfield, Nancy Wilson, and Laura Nyro with Labelle, among countless others.
Outside of PIR, he further honed his craft working with such artists as Connie Stevens, Vivian Reed, and Peaches and Herb. In 1971, he began his second major affiliation with a vocal group when he shepherded The Stylistics to success. Working primarily with lyricist Linda Creed, Thom crafted even bigger, more cinematic productions which proved to be a spiritual successor to the sophisticated soul of the songs Burt Bacharach and Hal David penned and produced for Dionne Warwick.
"Coming from the classical field and not even hearing a rock-and-roll or R&B or pop record until I was about fourteen or fifteen, classical was in my mind," Thom explained. "I played for ballets - my sister was a ballet dancer - with a trio, or an octet, everything. All the rehearsals, all the practicing, everything I heard was classical. When it came time to do The Delfonics, I wasn't doing anything different. I was doing what I heard. With all of the artists I've ever done, the only thing typical is the rhythm section: two guitars - or at first with The Delfonics, one guitar, because we couldn't afford two - a bass, drums, and keyboard, which was me. And a percussionist. That was the basis. After that is when I would add the other things I would hear. French horns were very prevalent in everything I did, and the reason why I did everything with French horns was because saxophones bother me! If you get five brass players, say three trumpeters and two trombones, then take five saxophones...there's no comparison in volume, in roundness, in softness, in brashness, the two don't even match. Those brass players will blow you right out the room where the saxophones won't! That's not the character of the instrument. The saxophone is a reed. I didn't use the saxophone [except] maybe one time as a solo instrument."
"With The Stylistics, things got bigger," Thom reflected. "Twelve strings and the harp all the time. You're hearing instruments that walk hand-in-hand with the artist. With [lead singer] Russell Thompkins, I heard an English horn, a bassoon, I heard the double reeds. That's what I heard in his voice. That was the first time you'll hear an oboe. From then on, I used it quite a bit because I could hear it in his voice. And the songs represented that sound, too. It was in the way I used to voice the strings. I voiced it low. I always voiced things low because you want to hear the strings, but you don't want 'The Philadelphia Strings Starring The Stylistics!' The star is The Stylistics, and we are the ones who have to play behind them to give them the best sound that we can do."
"Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)," "You Are Everything," "Betcha by Golly Wow," "People Make the World Go Round," "I'm Stone in Love with You," "You Make Me Feel Brand New": Thom's hits with The Stylistics took the sound of The Delfonics to a new level: aching, wistful, euphoric, wise, sweet, vulnerable, moving, and always overflowing with heart and soul.
Soon he was producing for Johnny Mathis, whom he described as a "male angel. When you're talking about Mathis, you're talking about somebody that is still the top dog in the pound! In the dog pound, he's gone from Cage 1 to Cage 100 - and jumped past Cage 10 to the end! He is the best. If you were to take 100 singers, turn your head and close your eyes, and have someone sing, you'd pick Johnny Mathis out. Let's say there were 101 singers or 500 singers. If he sang, you'd pick him out. If you put 5,000 singers out there, you'd still pick him right out as soon as you hear him." Thom and Linda (or, simply, "Creed" as Thom always called her) extensively interviewed Johnny to personalize the material they wrote for him on I'm Coming Home while Bell also persuaded the veteran singer to sing in his lower register, opening up a whole new dimension in Mathis' vocal style.
In 1972, Thom moved on from The Stylistics to The Spinners. He injected a more rhythmic quality into his writing as both a composer and an orchestrator. The No. 1 hits began racking up: "I'll Be Around," "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," "One of a Kind Love Affair," "Mighty Love," "Games People Play," "The Rubberband Man," and the crossover smash "Then Came You" with Dionne Warwick. Like Mathis, Warwick was an artist whom Bell had long admired. Now, he was producing her with The Spinners and for her acclaimed solo album, 1975's Track of the Cat. Never one to sit still, Thom found time while producing hit after hit for The Spinners at Atlantic Records to add the luminous horns and strings to Bette Midler's breakthrough hit "Do You Wanna Dance?" and to helm albums by Ronnie Dyson and the group New York City. He took home the first Producer of the Year trophy at the 17th Annual Grammy Awards in 1975.
The second half of the seventies would find Thom working with Elton John ("Mama Can't Buy You Love," "Are You Ready for Love?") and scoring his first major motion picture, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. As the eighties dawned, he busied himself with productions for Deniece Williams, The Temptations, Chuck Mangione, Fish co-star Dee Dee Bridgewater, and childhood friend Phyllis Hyman (who had appeared on the Fish soundtrack). His 1982 co-production with singer Williams on "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" paid homage to the song's co-writer, Teddy Randazzo. Thom took pride in paying it forward by finally turning "Miracle" into the major hit it always deserved to be.
Thom's final major association with an artist was with James Ingram, whom he named along with Mathis and Warwick as his favorite singer. As producer with Ingram of "I Don't Have the Heart" from the 1989 album It's Real, Thom gave James his first solo No. 1. They reunited on 1993's Always You, on which Thom produced his own songs as well as those by his old inspiration Burt Bacharach. Much as Thom had paid homage to Teddy Randazzo by revitalizing "It's Gonna Take a Miracle," he saluted Burt by returning the elder composer to his classic sound - one which the elder composer had underplayed in recent years in favor of a contemporary style - on the touching "Sing for the Children."
But Thom felt he had accomplished all he sought to do, and he quietly retreated to his Washington home to spend more time with his family. His primary lyrical collaborator, Linda Creed, had died in 1986 of cancer. Deeply affected by the loss and keenly aware of the passage of time, Thom began enjoying a semi-retirement. He occasionally re-emerged in the 21st century to collaborate with artists such as Joss Stone ("Spoiled"), David Byrne ("Like Humans Do," "Neighborhood"), and Nikki Jean ("How to Unring a Bell," perhaps the last song he ever composed). (Daryl Hall, one of many musicians who counted Bell among his heroes, sang a killer version of "How to Unring a Bell" with Nikki Jean on his Live from Daryl's House show; it can be viewed here.)
Though I'd grown up with his music, Thom Bell came into my life as Second Disc Records was preparing its first-ever release with Real Gone Music. Johnny Mathis' Life Is a Song Worth Singing: The Complete Thom Bell Sessions featured both of Mathis' albums produced by Bell - I'm Coming Home (1973) and Mathis Is (1977), with the latter in its CD premiere - as well as a host of bonus tracks. I'll never forget the effusive call from Thom: "You said all those nice things about me?!? I said,' 'Who is that person he's writing about?'" I responded that everything I'd said was simply the truth. He thanked me for rekindling his memories of recording with Johnny and let me know how much he'd like to work with him again. I repeatedly encouraged him, but unfortunately, a reunion wasn't meant to be.
My relationship with Thom continued, though, as Second Disc Records brought the soundtrack to The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh to CD, and Real Gone anthologized The Delfonics on 40 Classic Soul Sides. Thom generously contributed to my other projects for such artists as Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, and Burt Bacharach, while I was thrilled to share Mary Wilson and Blinky's versions of his songs, from their respective Motown Anthologies, with him. Dionne's upcoming Sure Thing: The Warner Bros. Recordings (1972-1977) from SoulMusic Records and Cherry Red features previously unpublished quotes from my interviews with Thom. Over and over, throughout our friendship, he more than lived up to the lyrics that Phil Hurtt wrote to his famous melody: "Whenever you call me, I'll be there...I'll be around."
I never expected my last conversation with Thom would truly be my last. At the end of each of our chats, I would gently nudge the great man to write just one more song. "I've got my sheets of staff paper right here," he would gleefully cackle, "and a pen! The music's already in my head, Buster! One day I'm going to call you and write it down! You'll see! Love you, brother." I had no doubt I would receive that call and hear that song. And like everything else Thom Bell wrote, it would have been pure magic.
Love you, too, Thom.