How Thom Bell Created a Sound for a City, a Record Label, and for Generations of Fans

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50 years ago, the sound of Philly Soul was born out of the legendary Philadelphia International Records. With the talents of The O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, The Three Degrees, McFadden & Whitehead, and others, the label rewrote the standards of soul music. In light of Bell’s passing on December 22nd, 2022, his 2021 interview with Marcus Shorter.

For some households, a Sunday morning consists of certain sounds. The sizzle from a couple strips of bacon cooked just right. That crack an egg makes before it gets scrambled or goes over sunny-side. And, of course, a tune by The Stylistics echoing in every room. Or The Delfonics. 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 ’60s, 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 to create the sound of Philadelphia International Records.

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

“The environment created the sound,” Bell told Consequence by phone in late October. “It was what I felt and smelt. You’re just guessing; you go by feel. You hope that if you appreciate it, someone else will appreciate it. And a lot of people were on the same wavelength I was when I wrote the songs, and they still are today.”

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

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“She said I’m going to learn to the piano because the piano is the heart of any orchestra,” he recalls. “The piano teaches you every conceivable note that’s 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 their house: classical music. Bell didn’t know rock or R&B existed until one fateful day at his father’s fish store: “The first Rock record I heard was ‘Tears On my Pillow’ by Little Anthony [and the Imperials]. And from that moment 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 ultimately made him famous, it was “Hurts So Bad” by Little Anthony and The Imperials. The 1959 song contained timpani drums backed by an entire orchestral arrangement. Even if 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 acknowledging how artists like Little Anthony, Henry Mancini, and Burt Bacharach influenced a resumé longer than a line of a couple hundred Philly Cheesesteaks.

“If you think about it, there’s nothing new under the sun,” he says. “When you hear things that you appreciate, you don’t realize that you’ll either copy those things or do a rendition of those kinds of things. I was subconsciously doing a rendition. I borrowed things that I heard and loved and cultivated my own style.”

As he grew up, the city of Philadelphia became just as much as a muse for Bell. The people, the food (“Nobody’s steak sandwich comes close”), and its sense of urgency crept into his compositions.

“When I write, I make sure that my introductions 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 give a complete story,” Bell explains. “That’s how can always tell one of my arrangements.”

Bell’s work has a cinematic quality that, like any good movie, starts with an intro 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” proves the man’s point. For a track like “Back Stabbers,” his Philadelphia International Records partners, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, came to him for a special sauce only he could create.

“When I heard the original version of the song, I [envisioned] it bigger than what it was at the time. I improved things so many times and never let [Gamble and Huff] down. Ever. I told Gamble to tell the engineer to add eight bars to the intro and I guarantee you that will make it sound altogether different. They never challenged what I said,” Bell says. “They knew I was only going to do what I thought was better for the product. Once those eight bars came in, I put a crescendo and a tremolando on the front. That turned a common record into something more classical. And it sold about a million more records based on what I added.”

Job well done on Bell’s part, as the O’Jays song is just as adored today as it was in 1972. Partially because, to his point, he finds a way to create action through musicality. The best composers channel emotion through their music. Bell conveyed the perfect amount of danger, suspense, and paranoia for a song about backstabbing friends scheming to steal wives or girlfriends. And he only needed nine seconds to do it.

PIR purposefully didn’t sound like any of their contemporaries. Bell saw no point in copying others, because it wasn’t creative. That’s a mandate he passed down to the musicians who worked with him. Bell made sure they played the notes they were given rather than improvising. This was one way to avoid popular sounds of the era rearing their heads in his compositions.

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

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

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

Bell’s love and appreciation for classical music gave his sounds a universal appeal. And his ability to tap into any given emotion at the drop of a dime made his songs eternal.

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

How Thom Bell Created a Sound for a City, a Record Label, and for Generations of Fans
Marcus Shorter

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