Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Betcha By Golly Wow - The Exclusive Thom Bell Interview (Part One)

Peter, a 47 year old Teacher, is driving his Nissan Astra through the Basildon rush hour to School. He turns on the wireless, which is already on his local radio station Reem FM “and that was Elton John and his last UK number one hit Are You Ready For Love.”  Just as DJ Dave was getting into it an insurance ad begins, audio-spam, so Pete twists the dial to Radio 2 and instead happens to catch a Spinners song in mid-flow: “… you say that you are so helpless too, and you don’t know what to dooo hooo,” He cranks it “… could it be I’m falling in love?”  and he wails along, “… WITCHA BABY!!!” Checking the car rear mirror to make sure no-one saw his sing-face he sees Theo fading into the distance. Theo is ambling along to school, wearing his older bruv’s oversized headphones (without permission). He’s listening to Shot Caller by rapper French Montana, not that he’d know the title let alone that there is a sample on the track (*‘Theme From LA’s Team’ by The Thom Bell Orchestra). Outside of form room, and keeping an eye out for Theo is Alyssa. With no Teacher present (probably down to the traffic) her BFF - that’s best-friend-forever - has got her bright pink blackberry playing the Sugababes song Betcha By Golly Wow... 

Peter, Theo, Alyssa, you, me, all of us have something in common. Everyone on this Island does, no matter what age, taste or eye colour. We all know the music of Thom Bell. It surrounds us, every day. On TV and radio, playing in shops or posted to the social media sites we frequent. It’s everywhere; it’s the underscore to our lives.  Yet somehow the name of the man who created this music has never gone household. The sweet soul genius producer, writer, arranger & conductor of artists ranging from the Delfonics to the Stylistics to the Detroit Spinners to Johnny Mathis to Elton John to Dionne Warwick to Phyllis Hyman to New York City (the list is bloody endless) somehow this fella is not as well-known as Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector, George Martin, Brian Wilson or Holland, Dozier, Holland. The maestro of the world’s most magical love songs including You Are Everything, Break Up To Make Up, La, La Means I Love You & Betcha By Golly Wow is still unknown to the 2.4 family of X-Factor voters. So in the best pretend X-Factor voiceover… “Winner of the first ever Producer of the Year Grammy Award … it’s THOM BELL!”

"Man, you saw right through that immediately!”

Thomas Bell dropped into the world in 1943, in Kingston - Jamaica. He was made aware of the family rules before he’d even started whistling. There were 3 of ‘em:
1) You had to be a musician
2) You had to be an artist & 3) you had to learn a trade.
“Being a musician was just apart of growing up in my family. All ten of us, my mother, father, sisters & brothers were all musicians. With one of the three rules they would help you throughout your life, I chose early & got my first drum set when I was four on Christmas. Still have the photo – my Grandkids laugh at me when they see it” says Thom; taking a break from cutting his lawn in Washington State, North West America. Not far from the Canadian border. “My mother said ‘you must also play that piano because all other instruments will come easy to you if you can play that.’ Thing is you can use all your fingers & play all the notes on a piano. Whereas other instruments don’t work like that, trumpet you can only play with one hand, guitar two hands but one for rhythm. There is no harmony with the notes. But if you learn to master the piano then you are able to see the whole world in harmony.”
Bell was still a child when his family upped sticks (and Piano) to Philadelphia. His playing improved so much he began performing recitals, though quickly discovered it wasn’t for him - “I kept hearing Brahms & Beethoven one way and would deviate!” explains Thom, so a promising classical career, playing all over the east coast of America and as an accompanist for his sister’s ballet, was cut short. Though he’d still accompany his sister and became in demand with her friends.
“Girls would ask me to play whilst they danced. But playing other peoples music was so boring.” Thom knows the real reason he used to play for his sister’s friends. “Yes of course, ahh playing for the girls was very good!” Thom laughs, “Man you knew when you asked that - you hit the nail on the head, you saw right through that immediately!”
We could be talking about Thomas Bell the classical conductor had it not been for a little fella called Anthony Gourdine who blew a teenage Thomas Bell’s mind.
Tears On My Pillow by Little Anthony & The Imperials… now that grabbed me, I mean wow, I was in my teens, not listening to any r&b or pop, but I was hooked from there boy!” That was the first pivotal moment; the 2nd was meeting a young Philadelphian called Kenny Gamble.

'Someday' said Kenny, 'I'll Get By' said Tommy

"Kenny went to school with my sister, one night she was helping him with his homework at our house. I was over on the piano having lessons and Kenny came over and introduced himself as a songwriter, he said ‘hey, maybe we could get together sometime?’ And that was it. I was 17, he was 16 and a week later we sat down at my house and started writing.”  Influenced by pop duo Don & Juan they formed their own  called Kenny & Tommy, writing a first song together - released on the Heritage label – a haunting, bathroom sink echo doo wop number titled Someday, quickly followed up with the more plaintive, though equally shoo wop doo wopp’d I’ll Get By. “I tell you, we were gonna be singers boy!” Thom laughs. Kenny & Tommy sang in clubs by night, though somewhat reluctantly on Bell’s part: “I chose to be a pianist, but Gamble was set on being “a singer” so off he went and I carried on playing piano!  I’ve had most success producing tenors, like The Delfonics & The Stylistics, because I sing in that key so it’s much easier. It’s harder for a writer/producer to explain a song (if they can’t sing) because a note on an instrument can be heard so differently. But I’m not a singer as such.” 
If you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere – that’s what they say. And Thom Bell was a regular as part of the Harlem Apollo house-band. As he was at the Philly’s Uptown Theatre, Chicago’s The Regal & The Howard in DC – playing behind The Dells, Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke & Jerry Butler (along with a little known group of chauffer’s & auto workers from Detroit called The Spinners). Gaining his chops playing Gospel, Jazz, and Bebop – whatever he could to pay the mortgage. “If you played a wrong note on stage or the wrong tempo then you wouldn’t get paid!”  Remembers Thom who, at his lowest, struggling to make ends meet, got his first gig playing on a session up in New York.
Luther Dixon
“Luther Dixon – writer of the The Crests doo wop classic Sixteen Candles & producer of the Shirelles – he was the one who believed in me. Luther was the very first guy that took me as a writer and worked with me in New York. He heard me playing in a nightclub, on this new thing called an electric Fender piano. All the other pianos had been acoustic and I thought this thing was the world’s worst piano, but at least you could hear it at the back (where Luther was) and he loved the way it sounded. So he said to me, “Can you read music?” I said, ‘Of course I can man. I can read it, write it, sing it—you name it.’
‘Well, I’ll give you my card, and I’d like for you to come to New York and bring that sound to the studios.’"
Luther utilised Thom’s playing on songs Any Day Now the Chuck Jackson hit and songs by The Shirelles. The first song Bell collaborated with Dixon on was Watch Your Step for the gravel voiced Brooks O’Dell. “Man oh man, You Better Watch Your Step was a hit!  I had a fit the first time I heard it on WDAS spun by Georgie Woods. I didn’t get any money for it, but at least I heard it,” Thom laughs, adding “that’s what you call paying your dues. I worked with Luther for a couple of years but that was it. He was a little too slick for me. I didn’t know anything about publishing, and so I said, “Now let me stop while I’m ahead. Let me learn about this business.”
In the meantime Kenny & Tommy’s group, which by now had morphed into The Romeo’s (not the Detroit version featuring Lamont Dozier), were struggling for a hit of their own. “Kenny was saying ‘it doesn’t look like I’m going to get anywhere’ and you know sometimes some people want to get there a little faster than others. I felt that I was going to be successful - but you can’t rush success or rush failure, they come in their own good time.”  Also Thom, newly married, was getting grief at home.  “I told her ‘I’m gonna keep on ‘til I’m twenty five and in 3 years, if I haven’t done something by that time I’ll quit and go on and do something else.’ But she felt she wanted more, we had a house but no car. Me and Quincy Jones used to laugh because neither one of us drove.  My 2nd wife taught me to drive later on but back then my first wife thought I should be driving and making more money. That was before I even had any children!”
Mrs. Bell the 1st needn’t have worried as success was just a stroll around the Philly street corner. “Before my 25th birthday I had my first #1 record with La, La Means I Love You on The Delfonics. That was in 1968.”

“We didn’t have money to get an orchestra … so i did it myself.”

Thom took a job as a studio musician at Cameo Parkway who were riding high with Chubby Checker & Italian heartthrob Bobby Rydell. “When I started at Cameo they had this receptionist who kept saying to Bobby Rydell, you see that Frankie Avalon (one of Rydell’s rivals) I’m going to marry him. She said it every single day. Her name was Fran. Anyway Rydell was like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ and he laughed at her. But you know what? She’s been married to Avalon now for 47 years.” Thom laughs, though it wasn’t always so jovial round the corridors of Cameo - the Philly based company was getting its arse kicked by a small upstart company in Detroit.  “Motown was whippin' everybody, so they (Cameo) found out one of their secrets was having a studio band. Initially my job there was as a lead sheet writer, but Cameo figured that Motown was a black company, with a black rhythm section so they looked around in the building to see who was black & also a musician! And guess what, they we’re looking at me. ‘Can you start a rhythm section?’ and I said ‘sure. Of course I can!’ But I didn’t know the first thing about being a studio musician. So I put the band together & people like Curtis Mayfield & Barbra Streisand came through, but the company still wasn’t doing very well. Sales were low. So I was there one Saturday audition and a Stan Watson brought in a group called ‘The 5 Guys’ to audition. ‘Can you produce records?’ they asked me, so again I said “sure I can” but of course I couldn’t, but I figured I’d learn. So first I chopped them down to a trio, because one of ‘em really couldn’t sing and the other was going into the army. And there guitar player, well I convinced him to stop playing (he wasn’t very good), and told him 'you need to sing lead instead.'”
That guitarist was William Hart. “Together we came up with He Don’t Really Love You but when I took him into the studio we didn’t have any money to pay for string players & an orchestra so I played most of the instruments myself.”
Almost unheard of at the time, the instruments Thom overdubbed included timpani, piano, a celeste and orchestra bells. Eat your heart out Prince. Though constant overdubbing gives the song He Don’t Really Love You an under the covers transistor radio soul feel, the catchy chorus is a taster for the songs to come. Thom also produced a number of Motown/Vandellas style sides on The Four Larks for the Tower label. Another Chance stinks of Detroit, as does Rain which hints at Bell’s 2nd major influence after Little Anthony. “Best of all was Smokey Robinson, you listen to his lyrics to Its Growing – ‘like a snowball rolling down a hill … it’s growing’ I mean man, he was fantastic. Motown was the hottest thing out there & that’s what people wanted. A lot of things can influence you and it sounds similar until you start putting things in & taking things out and honing it to where you want it.” One of the things Thom put in was the falsetto vocal that was a signature of the early 60’s Philly sound on cuts like This Is Magic by The Ballads. “Undoubtedly, thats a Philly sound, oh yeah. We had Donnie Elbert too and Little Joe who sang Peanuts, man those tenors were synonymous with Philadelphia.”

“We didn’t get into black, white, pink & green - only who could play.”

Co-producer Stan Watson (more a producer in the movie sense - i.e. the man with the cash) felt encouraged enough by The Delfonics next Hart/Bell collab You’ve Been Untrue, to form the Philly Groove label. Backed with a fuller production, Thom & his first great songwriting partner William Hart had the circumstances to pen one of the most devastatingly romantic soul songs ever made.  La La Means I Love You was garage band soul drenched in lush instrumentation – Thom Bell had found his own magic formula. Along with subsequent Delfonics recordings, Bell & Hart had that rare ability, like the Brill Building & Hitsville pop-soul writers, to reach in and pluck the emotional heartstrings, showering a sweet melody with a full orchestra without drowning the artists' performance (or the song).
Bobby Eli (leather jacket) with Thom Bell
(centre) at a Reginald Dwight session
Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time, another smash, is melancholy yet triumphant. Sweet revenge, like an oft rejected William Hart is singing to every girl that ever broke his heart, from a stage on top of the soul world. The French horn soul siren was just a touch – the real genius was Thom’s use of the sitar to skip across the melody.
“The idea came from The Beatles & Ravi Shankar because I listened to East Indian, Greek & Russian music and they use a guitar called the balalaika.” Explains Bell “it’s a sound that turns me on. When you’re raised and brought up in the environment of an oboe, or a bassoon, or an English horn that would be how you’d hear it. Like r&b records made in Nashville by Joe Tex & Joe Simon, who used steel guitars, cut with country musicians. Our rhythm section in Philadelphia, along with the black players, had Bob Babbit (James Jameson’s bass understudy at Motown), Bobby Eli, Bill Neale & TJ Tindall. Because we didn’t get into black, white, pink & green - we only got into who could play!” It was Bobby Eli and occasionally Norman Harris who played the sitar on Thom’s records. “We used to try things to see if it would work. George Martin (The "Fifth Beatle") was a fantastic arranger/producer because he comes from a classical end but applied it differently (to pop) and one of the great tunes was Eleanor Rigby – that string quartet playing the picato line (he sings) “duum duum duum duum”, Martin arranged contrary motion lines going with his violas and that was something else boy!” Talent borrows and genius steals - the picato arrangement is used to great effect on the dramatic nursery rhyme epic Ready Or Not Here I Come (later covered by The Fugees). But the purple patch didn’t last forever and Philly Groove began to have problems with distribution. Whilst The Delfonics we're soaring at the top charts, Thom made surprising choice. “I decided that’s it – I’m off. All I want to do now is be an arranger.”

“You can’t make chicken salad from chicken manure”

Silence please ... Gamble & Huff
Gamble’s Someday had also arrived, but like Bell it wasn't his singing but his writing and producing - in a formidable partnership with keyboard player Leon Huff - that brought a wall full of gold records. A wall inside the offices of their own label Gamble Records. Earning hits on roster act The Intruders (Cowboys For Girls) and as chartered producers for hire by Atlantic Records & Mercury.  Cutting hits on The Soul Survivors (Expressway To Your Heart) and Archie Bell & The Drells (I Can’t Stop Dancing). With work offers flooding in Gamble & Huff needed a good arranger.
“They had work coming up with Jerry Butler (Only The Strong Survive), The O’Jays (One Night Affair), Wilson Pickett (Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You) & Dusty Springfield (A Brand New Me) and I felt I needed the experience. They thought I’d help take them from a more r&b thing, smooth it out and get it onto the pop charts. So I went and worked with them full time.” Bell’s masterful arrangement of A Brand New Me provides the amazing melodic keyboard line played just behind the beat … where does the arranger’s job stop and the producers begin?
“A song can go in 200 different directions but all you do is write the music onto the page, arrange the (instrumental) parts and then you’re out. But a producer does the rhythm, the voices, the strings - the producer puts the whole thing together. As an arranger you can mess up a song too.  If what you’re writing is completely left of what the song is doing you’re gonna mess up and they are gonna get rid of you. Eventually at Neptune/Philadelphia International, I didn’t have time to do it anymore; neither did Bobby Martin (another Philly legend, most notably producing Baby Washington & The Manhattans). Other guys came in, like Jack Faith & Roland Chambers, but there are arrangers and there are arrangers.  Just because you write it down it doesn’t mean it’s gonna fit and vice versa for the song. If that’s not right all the arrangements in the world weren’t going to help it – you cannot make chicken salad out of chicken manure!”
Bell would go on to arrange many soul killers including I Miss You for Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes & Backstabbers for The O’Jays (Thom said to Kenny “man, give me eight more bars at the front & I’ll give you a new beginning” - the rest is history.)

“BBGW! = Betcha By Golly Wow”

In 1959 America’s sweetheart Connie Stevens hit with a song entitled Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb. So you can understand Thom being a little surprised when her label baulked at the "corniness" of the title to Bell's latest production masterpiece. After all Connie had previous.
“Larry Uttall (who also later signed Gary Glitter & Showaddywaddy) had gotten Connie Stevens on Bell Records and he asked me if I’d produce her. Well I was still doing arranging at the time. But said: ‘Well, let me take a listen to her.’ Which I always do - If I’m not going to add to it, then it’s a waste of your time and a waste of mine. So I said, ‘Yes, I believe I can do a great job with her.’ He said ‘You got her.’ Of course, no one knew I was producing her, because no one ever knows what I’m doing until it’s done.”

Thom wrote the song Betcha By Golly Wow with new writing partner Linda Creed, their second collaboration together after writing Free Girl for Dusty Springfield.
“Oh man, we wrote Betcha By Golly Wow specifically for Connie and she loved it. So we took it to Larry Uttall and he laughed at us!”
Larry said 'get outta here Thom, that’s corny. Nobody does stuff like that.'
‘But Larry, don’t you think it’s a similar title to the Kookie hit?’ and he said ‘Are YOU crazy?’ They just wouldn’t listen to me and decided to change the name to Keep Growing Strong. And I told him, I said ‘You’re making a mistake man.’

So they did it, and the thing bombed … no one wanted to play that. So I said ‘Well, gentlemen, I just wanted to let you know that I’m leaving to do the record.” Thom had produced four songs in total on Stevens including a cover of La, La and a catchy pop tour-de-force titled Tick Tock - and they told him, “Good luck to you, and sure you can take this piece of junk (Betcha By Golly Wow)” I said, “Okay, no problem.”
Thom couldn’t resist calling Bell Records after Betcha By Golly Wow went gold on The Stylistics.

“'Larry Uttall there? Hi Larry, have you seen Billboard Magazine? Take a look at it and see what’s number one.' He said, ‘Yeah, let’s see, some song called ‘Betcha By Golly, Wow’.' I said, ‘You do know what song that is, don’t you?’ 'No.  He said. 'Well, that's same song I did with Connie Stevens, and you changed to ‘Keep Growing Strong’. I told you then to leave it alone, but you just refused to listen. Funny thing is it’s almost identical!!!’"

“Creed I got it, let’s go!”

Thom Bell & Linda Creed's writing room
(picture courtesy of Nelson George)
Reinvigorated, Thom once again had the taste for being a Producer. “In 1971 Avco Records called me,” explains Bell. Owned by Della Reese (La Plume De Ma Tante) & Sam Cooke's (Chain Gang) old RCA production duo Hugo & Luigi, Avco was financed by the Avco Embassy Motion Picture Company. They had picked up on a local hit out of Philadelphia called You’re A Big Girl Now by old fashioned doo wop group The Stylistics.
“They sent the producers of that song into the studio to do a follow up and they couldn’t do it. So now they’re in bad shape and losing money. That’s when they called me.” Someone had told them about a hotshot producer called Thom Bell who had worked with the Delfonics.  "So I said, as always let me 'listen to them.' And I heard the guys, Russell Thompkins Jr, Airron Love & Herb Murrell and I felt I could do a job with them. Especially Russell, his voice really set my creative juices flowing. So they set the deal and then we started – the first song we did was Stop, Look & Listen. We could only do three sides because Hugo & Luigi didn’t want to spend a lot of money with strings and horns. But that was my sound! So I told them ‘Look fellas, if you don’t have the money then you don’t want me to produce because that’s what I do!’ But it didn’t take long – when Stop, Look & Listen hit they got their cheque books out.” 
Linda Creed
The album, The Stylistics, is one of the truly great soul albums. Completely devoid of pretension, even the social commentary People Make The World Go Round sounds like two neighbours having a natter of the garden fence. For all the hits and beautifully crafted album tracks one song, the one many believe to be one of the finest in all of soul music particularly stood out.
“Creed and I we’re odd writers,” Bell admits. “If we sat down and didn’t have any ideas we couldn’t write anything. Other writers would go to the bar and drink some whiskey or take some dope but not me and Creed. We weren’t into that. We we’re straight up and down square people. Instead what we’d do is get out and walk around. Because I always believed that the best way to write was by putting down what you felt, smelt or dealt …” Thom laughs, long and hard “… or to explain – what was done to you, somebody else or you did to somebody! But we we’re having a hell of a time with this song. So we got out and walked a few blocks and began crossing the street and there was this guy coming in my direction who kept looking at an individual. With the traffic stopped, the lights changed and he’s out in the middle of the street looking around at this person. The drivers we’re honking horns “Get out of the street bum – what are you lazy drunk?” But this guy was mesmerized so he came back after this person, and he’s right by me now and I’m watchin' him. All the time. And he says “Miss, Miss, Yoouu hoo, Miss?” and she said “Yes?” and he said “oh, I’m sorry I thought you we’re somebody else.” And he looked, well I dunno – he just could not believe it was not who he thought it was. And I said “Creed I got it. Let’s go!”
We went straight into the office and I wrote “Today I saw somebody, who looked just like you. Walked like you do. I thought it was you. As she turned the corner I called out your name … I felt so ashamed when it wasn’t you.”
That was my lyric and that’s how You Are Everything came about. Linda Creed & I actually wrote from things we saw or we did – like I say felt, smelt or dealt.” 

Part One originally published in Manifesto Magazine December 2011. Part Two (which features the lowdown on the Spinners, Johnny Mathis & Elton John to name a few)  follows in February 2012.


  1. Thank you so much for tracking the great man down... Thom Bell is a stone soul genius.

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  3. He's the reason I became an arranger!!!

  4. Hi work with Denise WIlliams is sublime!

  5. Thom's music is interwoven into my soul as a teen and I only just realised he is Jamaican!!!!!