February 6, 2023

La Ronge Northerner

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Tom Bell, a force behind the sound of Philadelphia soul, dies at 79

Tom Bell, the prolific producer, songwriter and arranger who, as an architect of the lush Philadelphia sound of the late ’60s and ’70s, was a driving force behind historic R&B recordings by the Spinners, Delfonics and Stylistics, died Thursday at his home in Bellingham, Washington. He was 79 years old.

His death was confirmed by his manager and attorney, Michael Silver, who gave no cause.

Along with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Mr. Bell was a member of the songwriting and production team—the Mighty Three, as they called them (and as they called their publishing company)—that gave birth to what became known as the Sound of Philadelphia. Known for its groove-rich basslines, cascading string choruses, and gospel-soaked vocal arrangements, the Philadelphia sound rivaled music made by the Motown and Stax labels in popularity and influence.

A classically trained pianist, Mr. Bell brings an uptown sophistication and melodic creativity to Top 10 pop hits as Delfonics “La-La (Means I Love You)” (1968) and The Spinners “I will be around” (1972). He was particularly skilled as an arranger: on records such as “Delfonics Theme (How Do You)”, Strings, trumpets and timpani build up, like waves crashing on a beach, to evoke emotional impact.

The O’Jays’ Tour de Force Afro-Latin drive arrangement also wrote, “backstabs” Pop hit #3 in 1972.

Mr. Bell had a knack for incorporating devices into his arrangements not usually heard on R&B records. He used French horn and sitar in the Delfonics’ Pain (Blow Your Mind This Time) (1970) The Oboe on Method’ “Betcha by Golly, awesome” (1972). Both numbers were Top 10 singles, and “Didn’t I”, later covered by New Kids on the Block, won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group in 1971.

“The musicians looked at me like I was crazy. Violin? Timpani?” Mr. Bell spoke about his first session with Delfonics in a 2020 interview with Record Collector magazine. “But that’s the world I come from. I had three hand ukuleles, and I played that. I played electric piano and a zither, or something wild like that.”

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He continued, “In every session, there was always one experiment.”

Mr. Bell, who usually collaborated with a lyricist, said his main influences as a songwriter were Teddy Randazzo, who wrote weepy ballads such as “the pain is so bad” For Little Anthony and the Imperials, and Burt Bacharach.

“Randazzo and Bacharach, these are my leaders,” said Mr. Bell. “They set me up for what I was listening to in a more modern way.”

Mr. Bell said in the same interview that Mr. Becharach “was also classically trained”. “He was doing things at strange times, in strange keys. He was doing things with Dionne Warwick that he had never heard of.”

Recording engineer Joe Tarcia, founder of Sigma Sound Studios, where most of the songs associated with the Philadelphia sound were made, was fond of calling Mr. Bell “Black Burt Bacharach”. (Mr. Tarcia passed away in November.)

Coincidentally, Mr. Bell’s first single as producer was Mrs. Warwick “then you came” 1974 collaboration with Spinners. (It also won the 1974 Grammy Award for Producer of the Year.)

His first single as a producer was James Ingram’s 1990 Grammy Award-winning song, “I don’t have a heart,” Co-produced by Mr. Ingram.

Mr. Bell has produced dozens of Top 40 singles, many of them gold or platinum. His influence on subsequent generations of musicians was profound and widespread. Many contemporary R&B and hip-hop artists, including Tupac, Nicki Minaj, and Mary J. Blige, have sampled or interpolated his work.

Thomas Randolph Bell was born on January 27, 1943 in Philadelphia. His father, Leroy, a businessman, played the guitar and accordion. His mother, Anna (Burke) Bell, a stenographer, played piano and organ and encouraged little Tom (only later beginning to spell his name Tom) and his nine brothers and sisters to pursue music and other arts—in Tom’s case, piano.

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He was in his early teens when he first thought about pop music. The precipitating event was the hearing of Little Anthony and the Imperials Tears on my pillow on the radio while working at his father’s fish market.

“I fell in love with the entire production,” he said of the epiphany he experienced in a 2018 interview with The Seattle Times. “I listened to the background, the bass, so much more than just the lyrics.”

Mr. Bell and his friend Kenny Gamble team up and try it out as a singing duo named Kenny and Tommy. They met with little success, but the experience confirmed Mr. Bell’s desire to pursue a career in pop music. He soon found work playing piano in the house band at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, eventually being invited to play on soul singer Chuck Jackson’s 1962 hit, “What day is it?”

But he got his big break—when he was working at Cameo-Parkway Records in Philadelphia, among other things, the tour leader for Chubby Checker—when he wrote “La-La (Means I Love You)” with William Hart, lead singer of the Delfonics.

In the late 1960s, while continuing to collaborate with Delfonics, Mr. Bell re-established relations with Mr. Gamble and his creative partner, Leon Huff. He became part of their team at Sigma Sound Studios and, eventually, the Sigma Sound house band, MFSB (the initials stood for “Mother Sister Brother”).

By the early 1970s, Mr. Bell began working as a producer, arranger, and songwriter (mostly with songwriter Linda Creed), first for the Stylistics and later with the Spinners, whose career he helped revitalize after it stalled at Motown.

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He remained energetic as the ’70s progressed, even as the Philadelphia sound was overshadowed by disco and rap. But aside from successful collaborations with Johnny Mathis, Elton John, Deniky Williams, and Mr. Ingram, the results have stalled.

Mr. Bell had moved to Tacoma, Washington, in 1976 with his first wife, Sylvia, who had health problems that her doctors thought might be mitigated by climate change. The couple divorced in 1984, and soon after, Mr. Bell married and moved to the Seattle area. He settled in Bellingham in 1998, after retiring from the music business.

He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Musicians Hall of Fame 10 years later. In 2016, he was awarded the Grammy Trustees Award, an honor that recognizes notables who have made significant contributions to the recording field. (Mr. Gamble and Mr. Huff received the award in 1999.)

Mr. Bell was survived by his wife, Vanessa Bell, of nearly 50 years; four sons, Troy, Mark, Royal, and Christopher; two daughters, Tia and Sybil; Barbara’s sister. Four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Early in his career, Mr. Bell was met with questions about his often unorthodox production and arrangements, particularly his extensive use of European orchestral conventions on his R&B records.

“Nobody’s in my mind but me, which is why some of the things I think about are crazy,” he told Record Collector magazine. “I hear oboes and bassoons and English horns.

An arranger said to me, ‘Tom Bell, black people don’t listen to that. I said, ‘Why do you limit yourself to black people? I make music for people.'”