Musical Genius Thom Bell Dead At 79

by Kevin Burton

   Just as Philly Soul is unfairly overshadowed by Motown and Stax, Thom Bell didn’t always get the credit he deserved. 

   The producer, arranger and songwriter died Dec. 22 at the age of 79.  I never heard his name mentioned in the 70s when I was soaking in his Sound of Philadelphia.

   I want to share part of a Rolling Stone tribute to Bell.  I’m doing so because of one of his songs that I consider a true treasure. 

   “Betcha By Golly Wow,” by The Stylistics, written by Bell and writing partner Linda Creed, is a song I always liked a lot.  But later in life I re-heard the song. Now it won’t let me go.

   This was during my engagement with Jeannette and even before, when I knew I was going to propose but hadn’t yet. 

   This song’s introduction always made me slow down, relax. That was a hallmark of Bell’s writing.  The feel of the song and the lyric “Betcha by golly wow, you’re the one that I’ve been waiting for forever” hits me where I live, because I waited so long in life to marry (I was 48 on our wedding day). 

   Now I can’t hear the song without tears of joy and gratitude.

   Surely there are thousands of similar stories from fans who appreciated Bell’s artistry.

   “Bell was at the forefront of the Philadelphia Sound, the gorgeous R&B that dominated much of the pre-disco 70s,” Browne wrote.

   “Along with his peers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Bell injected a level of elegance and sophistication into R&B and pop, as heard on records he made with The Spinners (“I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “Mighty Love,” “One Of a Kind Love Affair,” The Stylistics (“Betcha By Golly Wow,” “You Make Me feel Brand New,” “Break Up to Make up,” The Delfonics, (“Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)”  “La La Means I Love You,”) and singles with the O’Jays (he arranged the strings on “Back Stabbers,”) Dion Warwick, Deniece Williams and even Elton John.”

   “I worshipped Thom Bell. He was one of the greatest musical geniuses of our time,” said Chic Founder Nile Rodgers. “I think of him in the same way as Stevie Wonder or Burt Bacharach or Lennon and McCartney. He was on that level.”

   “Sometimes people take music for granted, ‘it’s a pop song.’” Rodgers said. “But when you dissect it and really listen to it and take it apart and understand it on a granular level, those records he made have some of the best arrangements you can imagine, up there with Bacharach, Mancini and Bach.”   

   “By listening to his arrangements, instrumentation and orchestration, you can tell Thom was classically trained, a seriously schooled musician,” Rodgers said. “If you looked at traditional R&B records at the time, they were more gospel and lues based, if you will.  That wasn’t where Thom was coming from.”

   “He represented an air of sophistication and elegance. It was soul music that was orchestral and beautiful. Whenever I would see the name Thom Bell on the records, I knew the music was going to be classy and soulful.”

   “You can play Mighty Love or anything else by the Spinners or the Delfonics and you can tell it’s Thom Bell. It’s all coming from a certain vibe and a certain way to approach orchestration and harmonic progression. And those velvety smooth vocals: that whole background-vocal palette thing he had going on was really unbelievable.”

   “If you listen to New York City’s ‘I’m Doing Fine Now,’ you hear those sort-of lush vocal backgrounds,” Rodgers said.

   “Some of the intros to the songs before the singing comes in were absolutely off the charts. “I’ll Be Around, that’s over the top in the intro. And how many R&B records had electric sitar like Didn’t I (Blow your mind this time”?  He liked the sound of exotic instruments.”

   “That sound was so much a part of music I loved and respected that when I finally formed my own band, we believed we were the next generation of Black upward mobility,” Rodgers said. 

   “We were not a gutbucket funk band. We weren’t the Ohio Players or Earth Wind & Fire. We were totally Thom Bell-inspired, and that’s why we had strings and Luther Vandross as our background singer. It was classy, which is what Thom represented to me and to a lot of other people.”

   Tomorrow on Page 7 we pay tribute to Jerry lee Lewis, Olivia Newton-John and some of the other artists who died this year.

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