How Thom Bell created a sound for a city, a record label, and generations of fans

The post How Thom Bell Created a Sound for a City, a Record Label, and Generations of Fans first appeared on Consequence.

50 years ago, the Philly Soul sound was born on the legendary Philadelphia International Records. With the talent of The O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, The Three Degrees, McFadden & Whitehead and more, the label has rewritten the standards of soul music. In light of Bell’s death on Dec. 22, 2022, her 2021 interview with Marcus Shorter.

For some families, a Sunday morning consists of certain sounds. The sizzle of a couple of strips of bacon cooked just right. That crack an egg makes before it gets scrambled or ends up on the sunny side. And, of course, a tune by The Stylistics that echoes through every room. Or the Delphonians. Or the spinners.

What defined these songs, besides the incredible performances, was the production courtesy of singer, songwriter, arranger and record producer Thom Bell. Beginning in the 1960s, Bell provided soundtracks for love, heartbreak, regret, and distant memories using techniques that, at the time, were more common in classical music than R&B. His dedication to “the basics,” as his late mother called them, defined an era and helped create the sound of Philadelphia International Records.

According to Bell, that was just the sound of the city.

“The environment created the sound,” Bell said Consequence by telephone at the end of October. “It was what I felt and smelled. You’re just guessing; go listen. You hope that if you appreciate it, someone else will appreciate it. And a lot of people were on the same page as me when I wrote the songs, and still are today.”

For Bell, the music he created as an adult goes back to things he experienced as a child. Like most kids his age, Bell was adamant about playing the drums. Who doesn’t want to have a license to make all that noise? But his mother, the landlady, insisted that he start on the piano, a battle of wills he won easily.

philadelphia international records giveaway vinyl me please anthology box set sony stereo system contest

philadelphia international records giveaway vinyl me please anthology box set sony stereo system contest

Editors Choice

Win The Story of Philadelphia International Records Vinyl Anthology and Sony Stereo System

“He said I’m going to learn to play the piano because the piano is the heart of any orchestra,” he recalls. “The piano teaches you every conceivable note known to mankind, and if I can master the piano, I can master anything.”

Bell not only mastered the piano, but the drums as well, using both to play the only music they had in the house: classical music. Bell didn’t know rock or R&B existed until one fateful day at his father’s fish shop: “The first rock record I heard was ‘Tears On my Pillow’ by Little Anthony [and the Imperials]. And from that point on, I was drawn to this style of music.”

If there was one song an 18-year-old Thom Bell heard that served as a precursor to what eventually made him famous, it was “Hurts So Bad” by Little Anthony and The Imperials. The 1959 song featured timpani accompanied by a full orchestral arrangement. Even though the genre was foreign to him, the music behind the words spoke to him in a language he understood all too well. Today, Bell has no problem recognizing how artists like Little Anthony, Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach influenced a resume longer than a line of two hundred Philly Cheesesteaks.

“When you think about it, there’s nothing new under the sun,” he says. “When you hear things that you like, you don’t realize that you’re either going to copy those things or you’re going to make a rendition of that sort of thing. I was subconsciously making a surrender. I’ve borrowed things I’ve heard and loved and nurtured my own style.

As he grew older, the city of Philadelphia became a muse for Bell. The people, the food (“Nobody’s steak sandwich coming”), and his sense of urgency all crept into his compositions.

“When I write, I make sure my presentations grab you from the first note. I write to grab you; to give you my true feelings. I don’t want to tell you a love story and only tell you part of a love story. I want to tell a complete story,” Bell explains. “That’s how you can always tell one of my arrangements.”

Bell’s work has a cinematic quality that, like any good film, begins with an introduction that makes it impossible to stop listening. One listen to songs like “People Make the World Go Round”, “La-La (Means I Love You)” or “Back Stabbers” demonstrates the man’s point of view. For a track like “Back Stabbers,” his Philadelphia International Records partners Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff approached him for a special sauce that only he could create.

“When I heard the original version of the song, I [envisioned] it is bigger than it was at the time. I’ve improved things so many times and never let it go [Gamble and Huff] down. Never. I told Gamble to have the engineer add eight bars to the intro and I guarantee you he’ll make it sound completely different. They never disputed what I said,” Bell says. a common record into something more classic.And sold about a million more records based on what I added.

Job well done by Bell, as the O’Jays song is as adored today as it was in 1972. Partly because, in his view, it finds a way to create action through musicality. The best composers channel emotion through their music. Bell delivered the perfect amount of danger, suspense, and paranoia for a song about backstabbing friends who scheme to steal wives or girlfriends. And it only took him nine seconds to do it.

PIR purposely didn’t sound like any of their contemporaries. Bell saw no reason to copy others, because he wasn’t creative. This is a mandate he passed on to the musicians who worked with him. Bell made sure they played the notes they were given rather than improvising. This was a way to keep the popular sounds of the time from rearing their head in his compositions.

“My favorite line: Play what’s on that paper. Don’t give me anything you heard before. You never had to think for me. Play what you see. I’m very careful about this because I don’t like copying,” she says.

That devotion to originality helped Bell and lyricist Linda Creed make records that made the world sing. Let’s check out a few more to add to those already mentioned: “Betcha By Golly, Wow”, “The Rubberband Man”, “You Make Me Feel Brand New” and “You Are Everything”. Bell wanted the sound of PIRs to spread not just across the country, but across every ocean in neighborhoods with people who could relate. Even if they didn’t speak the same language.

“Motown didn’t spread like we did. And Motown was great at what they did. But we were different [overseas] markets. The Stylistics were number one in England and stayed there for a year. They stayed in the top 10 in Japan for over a year.”

Bell’s love and appreciation of classical music gave its sounds universal appeal. And the ability to tap into any emotion in the blink of an eye has made his songs eternal about him.

“What gets me,” he says, “is when someone comes up to me and tells me they made babies with my music or got married to ‘You Are Everything’ and it feels good.”

How Thom Bell created a sound for a city, a record label, and generations of fans
Marcus Shorter

Popular posts

Sign up for Consequence’s email summary and get the latest breaking music, film and television news, tour updates, access to exclusive giveaways and more straight to your inbox.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *