The creative force behind some of Philly Soul’s greatest hits, and stars, has put all that behind him for a quiet life.
AN ENTHUSIASTIC CHEF, Thom Bell has collected some 1,500 cookbooks. Their numbers grow like a soufflé in the Mediterranean-style home he and his wife, Vanessa, built in Bellingham in 2000. They rarely eat out, preferring his mainly Asiatic cuisine.
What you won’t find around their well-appointed home is any trace of his former life. You won’t see walls covered with the 30+ gold records or 10 platinum records he received for the soul-music hits he wrote or produced in Philadelphia from the 1960s to the ’80s. You won’t see photos of him with the groups he made into stars — the Delfonics, the Stylistics, the Spinners. Or the artists he worked with — Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warwick, Elton John and James Ingram, among many others.
He gave all that memorabilia to his kids and grandkids. “That’s another life,” the 75-year-old Bell says. “Good memories, but I’m finished with it now.”
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Bell was playing piano in Chubby Checker’s band in the 1960s when he stopped in Bellingham on his way to Vancouver, B.C., for a show. He was impressed with the beauty of the scenery, the chill of the air and the warmth of the people. “I couldn’t believe how nice the people were,” he says. He kept Bellingham in the back of his mind.
While still working in Philadelphia, Bell moved with his former wife, Sylvia, to Tacoma in 1976 because she had health problems they believed were exacerbated by the tension of living in a big city. They divorced in 1984, and he remarried a year later. He and Vanessa, who was born in Hawaii, lived in the Seattle area and Maui before moving to Bellingham in 1998.
It took them two years to build their home on a heavily wooded 3-acre parcel overlooking Bellingham Bay. “You need a strong house here,” he says. “The wind can be 70, 80 mph. The first year we were here, a tree fell — it was about 40 or 50 feet tall. It missed my house by six feet and crushed my Jeep Cherokee.”
He says this with the chuckle of a man fortunate enough to have had a talent that made listeners’ spirits soar — and allowed him to build a home with a spectacular view.
AS A TEENAGER in 1958, Bell was making fish cakes in his father’s West Philadelphia fish market when he listened, transfixed, to “Tears on My Pillow,” the first hit by Little Anthony and the Imperials. “I fell in love with the whole production,’’ he says. “I listened to the background, the bass, a lot more than just the lyrics.”
In the late 1960s and ’70s, it would be Bell’s music that delighted a generation of Baby Boomers. They sang along with the sweet melodies and tight harmonies he created as a writer, arranger and producer during the heyday of Philadelphia soul music, including the Delfonics’ “La-La (Means I Love You)” and “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) and the Stylistics’ “Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart),” “You Are Everything,” “Betcha by Golly, Wow” and “People Make the World Go Round.”
In 1972, Bell took over a group that had been sorely neglected at Berry Gordy’s Motown Records (the singers had to work as chauffeurs for the Temptations and other groups). Under Bell’s direction, the Spinners became Top 40 regulars with such songs as “I’ll Be Around,’’ “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,’’ “One of a Kind (Love Affair),’’ “They Just Can’t Stop It (The Games People Play)” and “The Rubberband Man.”
Bell helped rekindle Warwick’s flagging career in 1974 by teaming her with the Spinners on “Then Came You.’’ Joe Tarsia, the studio engineer on many of the hits Bell produced, told me he was “the black Burt Bacharach.’’
From the time Bell received a small drum kit for Christmas when he was 5, he knew he wanted a career in music. At his mother’s insistence, he started piano lessons around the same time. As he got older, he played the classics but also was composing tunes in his head. His father, an accountant and businessman, played Hawaiian guitar and accordion. His mother was a pianist and organist who instilled in Bell and his nine siblings a love of music. He performed in recitals and sometime accompanied his sister Barbara’s ballet performances. But he says he got bored playing other people’s music, even Chopin’s.
“I’m a poor imitator,” he says. “I wanted to create my own music.”
Bell and his teenage buddy, Kenny Gamble, tried unsuccessfully to make it as the singing duo “Kenny and Tommy.” But Bell knew his future was at the keyboard. He dropped out of Dobbins High School in North Philly to do club gigs with various bands.
It was Checker’s road manager who urged him to change his name from Tom to Thom to make it more distinctive. Bell played in the house band at the Apollo in Harlem and at Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater, backing up Sam Cooke and others. Producer Luther Dixon heard him at the Uptown and invited him to New York, where he played on Chuck Jackson’s hit “Any Day Now,’’ and with the Shirelles.
SYLVIA, HIS WIFE at the time, wasn’t happy with the unpredictable life of a studio musician. At 22, Bell promised her he’d find another profession if he didn’t make it by the age of 25. He landed a tedious job transcribing songs at Cameo-Parkway Records before getting his big break with the Delfonics. Time was running out on his deal with Sylvia when he co-wrote (with the group’s lead singer, William Hart) and produced the No. 1 record “La-La (Means I Love You).”
In time, he became a major creative force in the burgeoning music empire that Gamble headed with Leon Huff. Bell never partnered with them at their record company, Philadelphia International, preferring to pick his spots with singers, musicians and other record companies. Unlike Gamble and Huff, who wrote and produced dozens of soul hits, Bell could read music. While Gamble and Huff brought songs and chord progressions into studio sessions and worked things out with musicians on the fly, Bell wrote every note to every part. He insisted they be performed exactly as written. In some sessions, he played piano or one of the other 17 instruments he had mastered.
Although success came, he and fame eluded each other. While Gamble and Huff were celebrities in Philly, “I was like a ghost,’’ Bell says. “I didn’t want to be recognized. I’m strictly a music person, 24 hours a day.”
He composed soaring ballads, often with lush arrangements backed by musicians he enlisted from the Philadelphia Orchestra. “Most black people were not supposed to do things like that,” he says. “They’re supposed to write toe-tapping music.’’
In the 1960s, Motown’s chief songwriting tandem of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland were widely known. When success came to the so-called Philly Sound, much of the credit went, rightfully, to Gamble and Huff, who were also Bell’s partners in the Mighty Three music publishing company. The two kingpins of Philadelphia International were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. Bell, in the words of Little Anthony, remains “on the outside looking in.’’ He hasn’t been ignored, though. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006 and received a Grammy Trustees Award last year in New York.
Bell latched on to the Stylistics because he loved Russell Thompkins Jr.’s clear falsetto. He didn’t care for the backup singers, and on most of the recordings, their voices were replaced by studio vocalists, sometimes including Bell himself. As he did for all the singers he worked with, he would record every part on tape and give each singer the part to practice.
“To put it in a nutshell, he’s responsible for everything that’s happened to me in my career,” says Thompkins, who still tours, with a group called The New Stylistics. “He helped me in knowing my vocal range, finding the best way to sing a song. Everyone was his instrument. It didn’t matter if you were a singer, a trombonist or a studio engineer. You were part of his construction.”
Although he ruled recording sessions with a firm hand, Bell says he never saw himself as the star. “I’m just a conduit, part of a chain that makes other people the stars,” he says.
He wasn’t the first soul-record producer to use orchestral arrangements, but he was a pioneer in using unorthodox instruments. He employed a sitar on the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),’’ an oboe on the Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly, Wow.’’ Even wind chimes — he has several around his Bellingham home. They lend mystery to the opening bars of the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round.”
The Spinners were considered underachievers in Detroit and were about to be released from their record contract. Bell had seen them perform at the Uptown in Philadelphia and wanted to work with them.
“They had gone through so much crap with Motown,’’ Bell says. “They treated them like dogs.’’
To lure them, he promised if he didn’t produce a No. 1 record for them, he’d pay each of them $10,000. If he did, they’d have to buy him a custom Cadillac. Sure enough, “I’ll Be Around’’ was a million-seller. But he let the Spinners off the hook. It was just as well, because Bell didn’t learn how to drive until he was 45.
He made a more realistic side bet with Warwick. She had so little faith in the original track of “Then Came You,” which she recorded with the Spinners and Bell produced, that he made her a wager. He ripped a dollar bill in half. If the song hit No. 1, she’d have to send her half back to him and write “I’m sorry” on it. If it didn’t, he’d have to do the reverse. He still has both halves, one inscribed with her apology.
FOR MUCH OF Bell’s career, his main songwriting partner was Linda Creed, who fell in love with black music when she saw Smokey Robinson and the Miracles on TV. She wanted to be a singer and landed an audition with Bell. Her rendition of “Heat Wave’’ by Martha and the Vandellas was “terrible,’’ Bell says.
“You probably are a great singer,’’ he told her. “You’re probably fantastic to somebody, but I don’t think I’m the right person for you.’’ She told him she also wrote lyrics. He offered to give her a melody to see what she came up with, telling her she had to stick exactly to the melody, with no extraneous syllables. The next day she came back with the words, and he was stunned. The song turned out to be “I Wanna Be a Free Girl’’ and was recorded by Dusty Springfield. “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)’’ was the first of many hit love ballads the Bell/Creed team wrote for the Stylistics.
“In those days, people didn’t particularly appreciate a black and white team,” Bell says. It took some people a long time to realize they were partners, not lovers. At the studio, her race was irrelevant to the mostly black artists. Nobody called her Linda; she was simply “Creed.’’
Unlike his other songwriting partners, she grew bored sitting with him at the piano. When he finished the melody, she would work on the lyrics, then sing them to him. The process worked well. Fighting writers block one day, they took a walk down Broad Street in Philadelphia. They saw a well-dressed black man in his late 20s, standing in the middle of a busy street and looking back at a woman headed in the opposite direction. “Cars started to honk,’’ Bell says. “I don’t know how he survived, but he did. He kept looking at this girl. He’s thinking she’s somebody he knows. But it’s not who he thinks it is.”
It was one of the few times Bell came up with the opening lyric: “Today I saw somebody/Who looked just like you/She walked like you do,/I thought it was you …” The million-seller “You Are Everything’’ was born.
“All songs are either about love or escape,’’ he tells me, a contention I think is highly debatable. He and Creed didn’t always agree, either. When he came up with the jarringly unpoetic opening words to “People Make the World Go Round,’’ Creed hated them: “Trash men didn’t get my trash today/Oh why, because they want more pay.” She couldn’t believe he thought that was a good idea. Said Bell, “It sounds right to me.’’ He stuck to his guns, and that was a hit, too.
They avoided religion and politics because they felt those subjects were too personal to appeal to wide audiences. That is, until Creed sang her words for “You Make Me Feel Brand New” and came to “God bless you …’’ Bell objected, leaving Creed in tears. Her mother later told him that Creed had written the lyrics as a tribute to him. He relented. “I felt like about two cents,’’ he says.
They worked for six weeks on an album for Mathis, “I’m Coming Home,’’ sometimes writing two songs a day. Unlike other songwriters, who embraced Mathis’ ability to hit the high notes, Bell preferred “the conversational sound of my voice in the lower register,” Mathis says. “It was enlightening and very pleasing. I love to listen to that stuff.’’ Mathis calls it “one of the best albums I’ve ever done.’’
Mathis says his first meeting with Bell and Creed surprised him. They asked him questions that had nothing to do with music. “What colors do you like? What clothes do you like? What makes you sad — or happy?” Later, he realized they had incorporated his own phrases into the songs. “Linda used a lot of words that only I could understand. That’s the way I talk. It was the most enjoyable experience I ever had with songwriters.’’
A recording session with Elton John produced six songs, including the catchy “Are You Ready for Love” with the Spinners; it was a hit, but only in England. Bell produced songs for a former Stevie Wonder backup singer named Deniece Williams, and “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle’’ became her first No. 1 hit.
Bell and Creed worked together for nine years. One of her last hits was “The Greatest Love of All,’’ recorded by George Benson and later covered by Whitney Houston. Creed left Philadelphia in 1978, unhappy that Gamble and Huff wouldn’t make her a full partner in their organization. She and her husband, record promoter Stephen Epstein, moved to California. After fighting breast cancer for 11 years, she died in 1986 at the age of 37. Bell was among those at her side.
“We were like brother and sister,’’ he says.
WHEN ONE OF his old hits plays on the radio while he’s driving in Bellingham, Bell generally switches the station. He’s already heard it hundreds of times, he says. “I knew every nuance. If you were writing a piece for a magazine, would you want to keep reading the same thing over and over?”
His daughter Tia, a clinical psychologist in Alameda, Calif., has a far different reaction.
“When I hear his music, I hear safety,” she says. “It’s calm; it’s my childhood. If I’m having a day where I really miss him, I’ll put his music on, and I’ll hear his voice. There’s something about him that’s magnetic.
“He is a genius.”