The artists who worked with Thom Bell generally benefitted from his expertise
by Marshall Bowden
Thom Bell was one of a distinctive group of black musicians who became arrangers and producers in the sixties and seventies, whose music completely shifted the course of black soul and R&B, and by extension introduced white pop music listeners to the sound via records like Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees. Along with luminaries like Gene Page, Charles Stepney, Kenny Gamble, and Leon Huff, Bell helped create a direct line in popular music’s evolution from Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn, creating settings of musical depth for listeners who were interested.
Bell was always about creating the perfect setting for an artist, and he reportedly lobbied Clive Davis for a year to work with Johnny Mathis. Davis was cautious, worried that Bell’s sound would be too black for the singer’s (primarily white) audience, but the two proved to be a winning combination, crafting two remarkable records together. For Bell, the important thing was to locate the place in the modern music landscape where Mathis could reasonably be re-branded rather than foisting modern pop trappings on a legacy act. The approach proved less successful from the standpoint of Bell’s work with Elton John, probably because Elton didn’t think he had top billing in the recording. Elton John was used to working with his own musicians and producers and he didn’t easily give up control of his sound, so he sat on the tracks he and Bell produced for a few years. In retrospect, he probably missed an opportunity, but what’s one or two more hits in a career like Bell’s? (Yes, or Elton’s).
My point is this: the artists who worked with Thom Bell generally needed and benefitted from his expertise if they could contain their egos enough to follow his advice. He was soul music’s Owen Bradley, bringing in a sophistication previously associated with jazz and lounge singers but he was mindful that much of the music he created was used for dancing (stepping, and later disco) and he was mindful that the beat needed to be there. It didn’t need to pummel listeners over the head, but it still drove the show, as on the O’Jays’ spectacular “Back Stabbers,” a record for which Bell did the arrangement.
The Bradley comparison seems fitting given that in similar fashion, he took a sound that was already there–in this case the harmonies and stylings of street corner style singing groups–and filled in the details of sound that their performances suggested to create a smooth, wide-screen performance that changed the soul soundscape forever. It helped to elevate a sound to a genre, ‘quiet storm’, and eventually a radio format.
The sounds of artists like Page, Stepney, and Bell eventually made their way throughout the world of popular music, at first via soundtracks for both film and television, then into the mainstream pop music market where they were adapted by artists like Scaggs. Their musical style was also heard in the jazz world via Taylor Creed’s CTI Record label. By the end of the seventies, the Sound of Philadelphia had run its course, having lived in the service of disco as well as instrumental music that had become known as smooth jazz. In the hands of these masters, their musical sound had flourished, but when rendered soul-less by marketing profiteers it became kitschy, even kind of square.
I used to watch the Time Life soul music collection infomercials, giving a nod of approval or a snort of derision to each track as it scrolled by. I remembered most of these songs from their appearances on the Super WCFL surveys, and I began to notice that a surprising number of thumbs up tracks were by The Spinners. I realized that I was a Spinners fan, and that was down to Thom Bell.
As with all super producers who develop a name as well as a sonic identity, there can develop the question of whether the star of the show is the artist or the producer himself. I think that is one of the issues that may have arisen between Bell and Elton John. In 1975 John recorded ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ a hit non-LP single that featured a Sound of Philadelpia arrangement by Gene Page. Perhaps he was expecting something more of that nature, although the songs were written, not by Elton and Bernie Taupin, but by Bell’s brother Leroy, his songwriting partner Casey James, and in the case of “Are You Ready For Love” Thom Bell himself. On the version released on The Complete Thom Bell Sessions in 1988 (not the three track remix EP Elton released in 1979), Bobby Smith and John Edwards of The Spinners sing backup vocals, and on this track they sing the second verse rather than Elton.
With Bell, there was also the fact that he was a solid songwriter in the Brill Building/Motown tradition. Together with songwriting partner Linda Creed, he wrote a phone book’s worth of classic soul songs. Some of these would be covered by artists on albums that he produced, but other songs were originals that first appeared on that artist’s record. For example, on I’m Coming Home from 1977, Mathis does solid covers of two Stylistics songs, “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” and “I’m Stone In Love With You,” but he really distinguishes himself on new Bell numbers like the title track, “I Think That’s What I’ll Do,” “I’d Rather Be Here With You,” “Sweet Child” and “Foolish.” Bell offered Mathis the advice of restraining his vocals, not using some of the flourishes that had become part of his popular vocal style. Mathis seems to have followed this advice, with the result that his performances on these songs have a real sense of intimacy and honesty without any of the false drama that sometimes creeps into seventies soul and later, pushes it into Adult Contemporary territory.
Another artist who Bell’s production and advice guided her to a soft landing in the pantheon of eighties soul is Deniece Williams. Williams was a total package–great singer, talented songwriter and arranger, and she worked with the best on her way into the business. Her first record, This is Niecy, was produced and arranged by Maurice White and Charles Stepney and backed by Earth Wind and Fire. The same was true of the excellent follow-up, Songbird, with the exception of Stepney, who died suddenly leaving White to produce the record on his own. In 1979 she released When Love Comes Calling, which switched up her sound to a more contemporary production, with some tracks produced by Ray Parker Jr and others by David Foster. It was a strong, contemporary sounding record that peaked at number 27 on the US R&B charts, but it ultimately comes across as a search for a change in sound that sets up the singer’s next couple of records.
Thom Bell produced Deniece’s next two records, 1980’s My Melody and Niecy (1982). These records provide a sensitive and well-constructed bridge between the early, mid-seventies material played on ‘quiet storm’ radio programs and the more open, commercially lucrative format that the format blossomed into in the eighties. All of the usual Thom Bell elements of Philly soul are there, but Bell begins to add some elements that had begun to assert themselves in the eighties. Synthesizers begin to be integrated into the Bell sound, bolstering or adding detail to his sweeping string lines, especially on Niecy. Adding to the freshness is the fact that Williams wrote nearly all of the songs on these two records, cowriting some with Bell.
Bell’s work with these artists paid dividends for them beyond the sessions they recorded with him. Mathis recorded “Too Much Too Little Too Late” as a duet with Deniece Williams, and the two artists recorded a fairly successful album of duets together. After her work with Bell, Williams moved on to work with producer/musician George Duke and scored a hit with “Let’s Hear It For the Boy.”
And Elton John? He found room for one track from the Bell sessions (“Shine on Through”) on his next album, A Single Man. The album wasn’t bad, but it definitely wasn’t up to the standards John had set for himself throughout the seventies. The Complete Thom Bell Sessions were finally released by EMI in 1989, by which time Bell’s style of soul had become passe, overrun by banal imitations of its smooth, widescreen sound, and by hip hop. Listening now, it’s clear that the work Bell did with these three artists helped spread the sound of Philadelpia soul far, both geographically and in time and space, where it continues to serve as inspiration to many music listeners and artists.