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Thom Bell, Key Architect of Soul Music’s ‘Sound of Philadelphia,’ Dies at 79

"Invariably, when other producers and musicians would say that my sounds were odd for R&B, I would just tell them, ‘I don’t do R&B — I do music,'" said the man behind such hits as "Back Stabbers," "La-La (Means I Love You)," "Betcha by Golly, Wow" and "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love."

dead dies died philly soul gamble huff philadelphia sound NEW YORK, NY - JULY 11:  Honoree Thom Bell attends GRAMMY Salute to Music Legends at Beacon Theatre on July 11, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for NARAS)
Getty Images for NARAS

Producer, composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Thom Bell died Thursday at the age of 79. No cause of death was cited, but Bell’s publicist said he died at his home in Bellingham, Washington.

Bell, a Grammy-winning producer and a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, is best known as one of “the Mighty Three” — a co-creator of the richly-orchestrated “Sound of Philadelphia” brand of soul along with fellow songwriters and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Together, the Philly trio was responsible for smashes from the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “I Miss You.”

Independent of Gamble and Huff, however, Bell was famed for writing and producing creamy, dreamy, harmony-laden R&B hits of the late ’60s and ’70s such as “La-La (Means I Love You)” and “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” for the Delfonics, “You Are Everything” and “Betcha by Golly, Wow” for the Stylistics, and “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” and “Games People Play” for the Spinners.

The two collaborators with whom he was most identified weighed in with statements after learning of his death. “Tommy and I have been best friends for over 60 years,” said Gamble. “When we first met, we decided to start writing songs together and form a singing duo ‘Kenny and Tommy’ and then our band the Romeos. Leon Huff and I were proud to have him as part of our Mighty Three music writing team, which helped create our signature brand of TSOP. He was a great talent and my dear friend. The name of Gamble Huff and Bell will last forever. Rest in peace buddy!”

Said Huff: “Thom Bell was my favorite musician, arranger, songwriter and music producer of all time. It was my esteem, honor and pleasure to work with him creatively and as a business partner. Rest in peace.”

(L-R) Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell

“I never planned on being a songwriter,” Bell told this writer in one of several extensive interviews. “All I wanted to be was a piano player in the rhythm section, then an arranger and a conductor. I was forced to do these other things, like writing, to get noticed. I mean, ‘Who is Thom Bell?’ had to be the question at that time. The only bell they knew in Philly had a crack down the middle. So, I started writing melodies.”

Bell was renowned for his love for, and use of, unusual instrumentation within the framework of highly orchestrated R&B in the 1960s and the 1970s. Along with French horns that added lush cushion to its brass construction, Bell — as arranger and producer — introduced celesta, sitar, oboe, bassoon, bells and more into soul’s ornate equation. Bell played many of the oddest instruments himself during studio sessions for the Delfonics and the Stylistics.

Along with his love of classical instrumentation, the use of the ondioline and the ceterone in his songs came from Bell’s love of Ennio Morricone, the composer and orchestrator of Italian film themes from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “For a Few Dollars More.” “I was definitely influenced by Morricone,” said Bell. “I met and hung out with him too, in Milano, and he introduced me to some of his native instruments.”

Bell’s melodies lived within him long before he put pen to paper.

“Everything I wrote and played, I heard first in my head,” he said. “I didn’t plan it out to be different or set out to do what hadn’t been done before. That was just a byproduct. It was all organic on my part — just what I happened to hear. Once I got a sound in my mind, it would grow and grow, and it would stick with me through the writing process, rehearsal and into the studio. Maybe you call that an obsession, I don’t know. Invariably, when other producers and musicians would say that my sounds were odd for R&B, I would just tell them, ‘I don’t do R&B — I do music.’”

Born January 26, 1943 in Kingston, Jamaica, Bell moved to Philadelphia with his family when he was a child. He began studying classical music in his teens with the goal of becoming a conductor. Instead, he met up with Kenny Gamble and formed a doo-wop vocal group, Kenny and the Romeos, in 1959.

“Kenny used to come to my house on Parrish Street in West Philadelphia so that my sister could help him with his homework,” said Bell. “I mean, that’s what he told me.” 

Along with doing lead sheets for copyrights and penning songs for Cameo-Parkway Records in the early 1960s, Bell went on the road with fellow Philadelphian Chubby Checker, serving as pianist and musical conductor for the man who brought “The Twist” to the world. “I said yes, not knowing anything about being a musical conductor,” he said.

In 1967, Bell was introduced to a local harmony group formed by brothers Wilbert Hart and William “Poogie” Hart: the Delfonics. Around the same time that the brothers Hart began recording a string of Bell-written-and-produced hits on the Philly Groove label, such as “La-La (Means I Love You)” and “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).” the producer-arranger reacquainted himself with Gamble and Huff for their burgeoning record production company in Philadelphia. Along with composing and arranging 1970’s “A Brand New Me” for Dusty Springfield, 1969’s “There’s Gonna Be a Showdown” for Archie Bell & the Drells and 1968’s “The Iceman Cometh” from Jerry Butler, Bell arranged tracks for the O’Jays on Gamble & Huff’s new record label, Philadelphia International Records.

Bell chose not to be part of the label when it was launched in 1971, but he joined Gamble and Huff in setting up a music publishing company for their songs, Mighty Three Music.

“Gamble had the idea of merging our three sounds together, which was good, and we bought a building on Broad Street with a nightclub on the first floor,” said Bell. “Now, I wanted to only be a partner in the building and the publishing company. I didn’t want to be stuck in something I couldn’t get out of, like a label. My job was to build up that production company, not only with the songs that I wrote, but the outside productions I took on. If I had been stuck at that label, with only the label’s acts… that wasn’t for me. I wasn’t interested in holding someone. No one could control the songs or the building. I was the president of the whole thing, but I didn’t want people to know.”

Gamble, Huff and Thom Bell

By 1971, Bell had moved on to produce another Philadelphia group, the Stylistics, for the Avco Records label. Teamed with the Philadelphia-born lyricist Linda Creed and the Stylistics’ highest voice, Russell Thompkins, Jr., the Stylistics created some of R&B’s most heavenly hits in “Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart),” “You Are Everything,” “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” “Break Up to Make Up” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” 

Between what Bell and Creed did for the Stylistics, and then the Spinners with “Ghetto Child,” “I’m Coming Home,” “Living a Little, Laughing a Little” and “The Rubberband Man,” the pair became one of the 1970s’ most prominent soul songwriting teams.

“Creed was a fanatic when it came to words,” said Bell. “FA-NA-TIC. The way that I was a fanatic about the music, she was a stickler for each syllable. Every lyric meant everything to her. We would fight all the time. If she didn’t like something, she’d tear it up in front of you, and put it all back together again. Then again, it usually only took her one day to write a thing.”

After pairing the Spinners with Dionne Warwick for the vocal group’s 1974 hit single “Then Came You,” Bell produced and co-wrote the vocalist’s 1975 album, “Track of the Cat,” a recording that long remained one of the producer’s favorites. “Dionne was going through a divorce at the time, and we knew this album was meant to convey the sort of lonely frustration only she could bring to it at that point,” said Bell. “Look at what she had done with Bacharach and David’s most emotional tracks. This one we did together had even more real-life drama. She made it her own… Man, I love that album.”

Bell also went on to compose and produce albums for Johnny Mathis, Billy Paul, Ronnie Dyson, Anthony and the Imperials and New York City before recording with Elton John in 1977. John’s EP, “The Thom Bell Sessions,” with backup vocals by the Spinners, yielded the top 10 hit “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” in 1979. 

After Elton, Bell had success producing Deniece Williams’ remake of the Royalettes’ “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” in 1982, James Ingram’s “I Don’t Have the Heart” in 1990, and recordings for The Temptations, Phyllis Hyman, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Angela Winbush and Joss Stone, while continuing to see his songs sampled and covered by countless artists.

Bell was the very first winner when the Grammys added a producer of the year (non-classical) category in 1975; in 2017, he received a lifetime achievement honor from the Recording Academy in the form of a trustees’ award. In 1993, he received a star on the Philadelphia Music Alliance’s Walk of Fame. IHe was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006.

“If I can imitate you — the pitch, the phrasing — I can write for you,” said Bell about his prodigious talents.

It was announced earlier this year that director Alex Gibney had filmed new interviews with Gamble, Huff and Bell for a “Sound of Philadelphia” documentary; no release date has been announced.

Bell is survived by his wife, Vanessa Bell, and his children, Royal, Troy, Tia, Mark, Cybell and Christopher.