DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Thom Bell, one of the principal architects of the Philly sound, died late last month at the age of 79. Today, we’re going to listen to Terry’s 2006 interview with him. Bell was a songwriter, arranger and producer and a classically trained pianist. You could hear that influence in his work. He brought violin, harp, French horn, oboe, sitar, timpani and other instruments to his arrangements. He arranged “Drowning In The Sea Of Love” by Joe Simon and “Backstabbers” by The O’Jays. Before that, he worked with the Philadelphia label Cameo Records. He co-wrote The Stylistics hits “You Are Everything,” “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Break Up To Make Up” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” For The Spinners, he co-composed “I’ll Be Around.”
When Bell was a teenager, he conducted and arranged for fellow Philadelphian Chubby Checker, whose dance records included the No. 1 hit “The Twist.” Bell was born in Jamaica and moved to Philly as a child. In 2020, a compilation album of Bell’s work called “Ready Or Not: Philly Soul Arrangements And Productions” was released by Ace Records. Bell was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award. Terry Gross spoke with Thom Bell in 2006. Let’s start with a song he co-wrote for The Delfonics, “La La Means I Love You.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “LA LA MEANS I LOVE YOU”)
THE DELFONICS: (Singing) Many guys have come to you with a line that wasn’t true, and you passed them by. Passed them by. Now you’re in the center ring, and their lines don’t mean a thing. Why don’t you let me try? Let me try. Now, I don’t wear a diamond ring. I don’t even know a song to sing. All I know is la, la, la, la, la, la, la means I love you. Oh, baby please now. La, la, la, la, la, la, la means I love you. If I ever saw a girl that I needed in this world, you are the one for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: That’s The Delfonics, recorded in 1968, produced, arranged and co-written by my guest, Thom Bell.
THOM BELL: And conducted.
GROSS: And conducted. Thank you. Thom Bell, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BELL: Well, thank you. Thank you. We appreciate being here.
GROSS: Well, we just heard one of your early hits. Would you talk a little bit about your concept for that record, “La La Means I Love You”?
BELL: I’ve always – because I was studying to be a concert pianist from the time I was 6 until I was 22…
GROSS: You’re talking about classical music.
BELL: Yes. That’s what I was studying to be. I worked with Andre Watts at the time…
BELL: …Which was, you know, the No. 1 – not only the Black pianist, but a concert pianist, period.
GROSS: And one of the few African American, very successful classical musicians of his generation.
BELL: Right. Right. When we were kids, we used to do – in those days, they were called recitals. Now they’re called concerts. We’d do our little – play our little things and our little prelude in C Sharp and play Chopin and different things like that. And by the time I was 18, I found that articulating someone else’s music was not quite what I wanted to do. There are people who can articulate and articulate it well. I got bored with that. I’d keep playing the same thing over and over and over and over again. And three hours, four hours a day from the time I was 6, 8, 10, 12 years of age, keep doing the same thing over – new pieces, but you keep doing everything to perfect it. When is it perfected? It is the perfected when you don’t make mistakes? Is it perfected when you have the tonality correctly? Is it perfected when you have the fingering correct?
So I started – I was hearing different chords, different progressions, different variations of the themes of what I was doing, and I started doing that. But you can’t really do that with the master’s creations. So the question you asked me about – what sound was I looking for and different – it was a sound in my mind – because of the classical background in which I had come from, I was hearing things more like that because until I was about 13 or 14 years of age, I didn’t even listen to radio. I never heard of this so-called rock ‘n’ roll – so-called or…
GROSS: So you didn’t know pop music? You didn’t know soul music, rhythm and blues?
BELL: No. No. What I heard was strictly coming from the symphonic end.
GROSS: So you kind of brought both. You know, you had strings and harps and…
BELL: I did. I brought all of that. I brought all those things from what I would – had come from, the world I had come from. And that the very first thing I heard that really made me believe what I was hearing was fantastic was a guy named Don Costa. Don Costa was a fantastic arranger, fantastic. I heard him. He had arranged “Goin’ Out Of My Head” by Little Anthony & the Imperials.
GROSS: Did he do that? He’s most famous for his Sinatra arrangements.
BELL: Yeah. And Teddy Randazzo was the writer. He and I think Weinstein (ph) – I believe that was his name. But I always remember Teddy Randazzo because I met him once, and that was the highlight of my life – “Goin’ Out Of My Head,” “On The Outside Looking In.” And that’s when I was really turned on to hearing what I was hearing. That’s why you hear The Delfonics had that tenor voice. And also too because my voice is rather high. I’ve been confused many times of being a female on the phone. They talk to me, I say, hello. They say, hello, Mrs. Bell, is your husband there?
GROSS: Did you sing in falsetto?
BELL: Yeah, I’m a natural tenor. I don’t have a falsetto. But I’m naturally high like that, so I hear high artists.
GROSS: Well, let’s hear another record that you arranged. And you’re talking about the classical influence on your music because you were brought up playing classical music.
GROSS: OK. So we’re going to hear something from The Stylistics, which is another band that you worked with. And this is the early ’70s we’re talking..
BELL: A group.
GROSS: A group. A band, right. Yeah. OK. So we’re going to hear “Betcha By Golly Wow,” another song that you co-wrote. And this has a kind of long symphonic introduction. So before it we hear it, I want to ask you…
BELL: How I came…
GROSS: Yeah. Did you think that this would be a good thing, a long symphonic introduction? Or did you think, well, the soul music crowd might get a little impatient while this introduction is playing?
BELL: First place, there are areas of music that people do want to hear. They were – I’ve heard many people say Black people don’t want to hear that, and Black people don’t do this, and Black people don’t do that. That’s a misconception. And these were Black people who were telling me they don’t hear that kind of music. Man, I ain’t interested. I didn’t believe that. It sounded good to me. So how the “Betcha By Golly Wow” came about – and meanwhile, in the history of songwriters, there have been many songs written, I love you and a lot of different versions of those same words or any reasonable facsimile of those words. But there’s only one “Betcha By Golly Wow,” only one in history, only one because I was the only one crazy enough to write something like – Linda Creed myself. And I came up with the “Betcha By Golly Wow.”
GROSS: Oh, you did?
BELL: Oh, yeah. It takes a nut to do something like that.
GROSS: She’s a lyricist, so I was thinking it was her.
BELL: Oh, she was the best. That’s one of the rare times she didn’t write the lyric. I came up with it, and she looked at me like I was crazy. She said, Bell, you’re nuts. And no one ever called Linda. We always called her Creed. Creed, listen to the idea, the concept of what I’m talking about. All of those words are words – elements of express – of surprise. Golly, gee, wow, ooh – and the words, similarly, like, that they were elements of expressions. So I’m wondering, I wonder if I can put those together and – to come up with a concept of writing with that – so that’s where that came – so there was a – they were a twofold factor, why they came about.
GROSS: Did anyone say to you, those are corny expressions?
BELL: Of course. They – but over the years, I had learned never to let people hear my thoughts. It’s like in “The Godfather.”
BELL: My man told his son, hey, what’s wrong with you? You never let people know your thoughts. Well, I had been called whacked in the head as a child.
BELL: And – now, they wanted me – the teachers wanted me – the principal of the school wanted my mother to take me to the psychiatrist because – here’s this little kid; he hears music. And that’s…
GROSS: Oh, you just heard music in your head.
BELL: I just heard it in my mind. And I’m singing and tapping on things. They thought something was wrong with me. So I had learned to keep all those kinds of thoughts, even to this day, to myself. And you never know what lyric or melody is running through my mind.
GROSS: And one more thing before we actually hear “Betcha By Golly, Wow” – is that an oboe in the beginning?
BELL: Yes, that’s – let’s see. Was that an oboe or was that cor anglais? (Humming). That was an oboe. A cor anglais is an English horn. I would use them interspersed – I would intersperse the two, depending on the key.
GROSS: OK, well, let’s hear “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” co-written by my guest, Thom Bell. He also arranged it, produced it and conducted it.
BELL: And conducted it. And prayed for it. You name it; I did it (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, big hit from 1972. And this is The Stylistics.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BETCHA BY GOLLY, WOW”)
THE STYLISTICS: (Singing) There’s a spark of magic in your eyes. Candyland appears each time you smile. Never thought that fairy tales came true. But they come true when I’m near you. You’re a genie in disguise – ooh, ooh – full of wonder and surprise. And betcha by golly, wow. You’re the one that I’ve been waiting for forever. And ever will my love for you keep growing strong, keep growing strong. If I could, I’d catch a falling star to shine on you…
GROSS: That’s The Stylistics, and the song was co-written, produced, arranged and conducted by my guest, Thom Bell. You know, we talked about the oboe at the beginning there. What’s the most unusual instruments that you’ve ever used?
BELL: Let me say this. Each instrument is designed for a specific kind of reaction that you’re trying to get or a feeling that you’re trying to relay. So when you say unusual, they all are unusual if you don’t put them in the correct…
GROSS: Right, right.
BELL: …Places where they’re supposed to be. I think the most – one of the most different instruments would be the Ondioline (ph) or the ceterone (ph). Those are Italian instruments that not too many people used – Ennio Morricone, the great conductor and creator of stuff such as “Good, Bad, And Ugly” (ph), “A Fistful Of Dollars,” “A Few Dollars More,” “The Untouchables” – things of that nature. He was one of my inspirations. And I met him over in Milano (ph). And, you know, Morricone introduced me to a few of those – like I said, the ceterone, Ondioline. Those are different kinds of instruments.
BIANCULLI: We’re listening to Terry’s 2006 interview with Thom Bell, one of the architects of what became known as the Philly sound. Bell died last month at the age of 79. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “PEOPLE MAKE THE WORLD GO ROUND”)
THE STYLISTICS: (Singing) But that’s what makes the world…
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to Terry’s 2006 interview with Thom Bell, one of the architects of the Philly sound, who died last month at the age of 79. Before he joined Philadelphia International Records, he worked with The Delfonics and The Stylistics.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: When you take a group like The Stylistics into the studio, and you want them to get a sense of your concept for the sound of the record, how would you describe it to them? Would you sing them all their parts?
BELL: Yes. What I do – once I narrow that melody down, once I work on it, work on it, work on until I cannot get any further – and Linda Creed or William Hart or Denise Williams or Phil Hurt and the writers, but mostly Creed, would work on it and do their part – work hard. We worked real hard. And get – hone it till it’s pinnacle. It’s apex. It’s the top. It’s sharp. It’s about the best we can. Then I in turn bring the artists in, and I explain the song to them, and then I sing the song to them. Now, once you know the song, once you sing the song and you get the concept in your mind of what exactly what I want to do, I put it on tape for you. And they don’t even hear the music until it’s time to record. Once I bring them back in, I put them on the piano again, so they’ll know exactly where to come. So when they hear the – they’re so ready. They’re so charged. They’re so energized when they hear that music. That’s my moment. That’s when I know I’ve done the right thing – when they hear that music and their eyes light up and they just can’t wait, they can’t wait to add their part to it.
GROSS: Well, Thom Bell, let’s go a little deeper back into your career before we get to your work with Philadelphia International Records. Let’s start with some other Philadelphia-related work, and that is one of your first real major music jobs was – what? – conducting for Chubby Checker.
BELL: Oh, yes.
GROSS: Who – this was before or after he had his big hit, “The Twist”?
BELL: Oh, this was after.
GROSS: This was after.
BELL: Not only did I conduct, I was a songwriter for his company
GROSS: Oh, for Cameo Parkway?
BELL: No, for his publishing company.
GROSS: Oh, for his own company?
BELL: Yes, for Chubby’s. He had Evans – I think it was Evans Music (ph) – Evansville (ph) – one of the two. And I made $29 a week as a writer for his company.
GROSS: Wow. Don’t spend it all in one place.
BELL: I was scared.
GROSS: So what was your job working with Chubby Checker?
BELL: Actually, I was a writer for his publishing company and also writing music for his – some of his shows and doing a little conducting for him.
GROSS: And I think you were the house pianist for Cameo Parkway Records, which was a Philadelphia label that had a lot of hits with the help of getting played on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” which, like the record label, was in Philadelphia. Working as a house pianist for a record label, did you learn things not only that you wanted to do when you got into the studio but things that you did not want to do? Did you learn some of the wrong ways as well as the right ways?
BELL: What I did was – yes, I did. I learned. I watched. I watched the things that took a long time to do because things weren’t prepared correctly. And I watched things that went smoothly because things were prepared correctly. And I learned that – don’t waste time in a studio. Waste time before you get to the studio, where it doesn’t cost anything. If you’re going to do anything, practice, rehearse, practice, rehearse, get it all down pat and put it on that paper, so when you bring it to that studio, it’s ready – doesn’t cost a lot of extra money to do things. And don’t waste a lot of time. Wasting time is what costs a lot of money, and it gets boring.
GROSS: Let’s get to something that you’re very well known for, which is your work for Philadelphia International Records, which creates what became known as the Philly sound, label created by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. And you were a key arranger in there. You met Gamble in a singing group – right? – in the Romeos. You sang with his…
BELL: No, no, I met him before that.
GROSS: Before that?
BELL: Yeah. My sister – I have a sister that was in his room in school at high school. And he happened – she happened to help him do his homework – at least that’s what they said. I have a feeling…
GROSS: I see where you’re going.
BELL: And he came in. And I was at the piano rehearsing. He said, hey, man, you play piano? I said, yes. He said, I write songs. I said, that’s great. He said, my name is Kenny Gamble and you’re who? I’m Tommy Bell. That’s what everyone knows me as, was Tommy Bell all my life until I got big. And all of sudden they said, well, let’s change it to Thom Bell. OK. OK. As long as you don’t call me too late for dinner, what the heck. And so he said maybe one day we can write together. Do you write too? I said, yes, I have a couple ideas. He said, maybe we can. And then, do you sing too? Yep. And he came by a couple of weeks later. And we started writing and singing. And away we went. In fact, we even made a record together called “Someday.”
GROSS: So when he started the record label, he asked you to work there, too?
BELL: Yes. I was working for another company, Philly Groove Records, with The Delfonics at the time. And I was leaving that situation because they were going in another direction, the company was. And I was going in another direction. So in 1970, after I did the last one with The Delfonics, which was “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” he asked would I come down and help them form this company and do the music. I say, OK, I’ll give it a shot. What the heck? And so that’s – we started from there.
GROSS: Did you have different resources when you were working for Philadelphia International than you did before that? Did you have more money to produce things? Did you have a bigger orchestra at your disposal, different kind of rhythm section?
BELL: Well, you – they had the rhythm section. What they would do – I was in the rhythm section. And that was when it was Baker-Harris-Young and Vince Montana and a few more than – Larry Washington (ph) and Bobby Eli and myself. And I was on – and Huff. And we were the rhythm section. So they were doing Jerry Butler at the time and Wilson Pickett and a few other artists. And then when it came time for me to do the sweet – what we call the sweetening, the strings and horns, things – I had a little bit bigger budget, whereas when I started with – in 1968, I would use six violins – four violins, one viola, one cello. When I got with them, I started using nine violins, four violas and a cello. And then as we grew and grew again, we got to be 18, 19, 20 violins, six violas and two cellos. Then you start using the contrabass. So, yes, your pocketbook, your expenditures got bigger, and your budget got bigger.
BIANCULLI: Composer, arranger and producer Thom Bell speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. He was one of the architects of the Philly sound. Bell died last month at the age of 79. Here’s a track he arranged in 1971, Joe Simon’s “Drowning In The Sea Of Love.” I’m David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DROWNING IN THE SEA OF LOVE”)
JOE SIMON: (Singing) I’ve down one time and I’ve been down two times. But now I’m drowning, drowning in the sea of love. Let me tell you all about it. I’ve been out here so very long. I’ve lost all of my direction. Baby, when you came my way, I thought I had found my protection.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. Let’s get back to Terry’s 2006 interview with Thom Bell, one of the key architects of the Philadelphia sound. He died last month at the age of 79. He was an arranger for Philadelphia International Records and also wrote and produced hits by The Stylistics, The Spinners and The Delfonics. Here’s a song he co-wrote that became a big hit for The Stylistics in 1974.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “YOU MAKE ME FEEL BRAND NEW”)
THE STYLYSTICS: (Singing) Only you, care when I needed a friend, believed in me through thick and thin. This song is for you, filled with gratitude and love. God bless you. You make me feel brand-new. For God blessed me with you. You make me feel brand-new. I sing this song for you. Make me feel brand-new.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: When you think of the Philly sound, what comes to your mind?
BELL: What comes to mind is cheesesteaks.
GROSS: That’s cheating.
BELL: And when I say cheesesteaks, I mean that there’s only one place in the world that you can get a fantastic cheesesteak, and that’s Philadelphia. And I don’t care where you go. You can find the mom-and-pop store on the corner or you can buy Pat’s or you can go to any of the large places. They’re all great cheesesteaks. And some are a little different. Some use shank. Some use the butt. Some use chuck. Some use a rump roast. It’s cut down real thin. Some use mozzarella cheese. Some use regular American cheese. You’ll take some with lettuce and tomatoes on it. Some will take it with meatball sauce. But you can’t beat Philadelphia steak sandwich. And when you think of the – of our PIR and that whole Philadelphia thing, we were a version of the steak sandwich, the only one of its kind. Now, you had great, great companies, but we were the only one like ourselves.
GROSS: When you’re asked to describe what the Philly sound means to you, can you break it down musically into something that you think is unique about those Philadelphia productions?
BELL: You can break it down musically into different modes of chord structures, augmented and diminished, and major minor chords. Other cities were doing the same – they were doing – see, there are 88 keys on a piano. Why is it that one can come and make it sound like one thing, another person come along and make it sound like something else? We get – but it’s the same 88 keys. The keys haven’t changed. What has changed is the depth of field, their variations and the feel of the person who’s creating them. So our sound and what we did was a part of us. It’s a part of you. It’s part of what you – I always said it was something you felt, you smelt or you dealt. It’s something – you did something, you felt something. It’s all part of you and what you see.
For instance, real quick, one day, when Creed and I wouldn’t – couldn’t come up with anything, we would just get up and walk on the street. So we walking down the street. We’re looking around because there’s always something in the street to write about. There’s always events. And I happened to see this guy – I was at Broad and Chestnut. And I saw this guy crossing. We were all crossing. And the guy stopped in the middle of the street and looked back. And he went a couple more, but then he looked back again. He’s looking at this woman. And he called out this girl’s name. Hey, so-and-so – I couldn’t hear the name – and was chasing. The girl looked at him like he was crazy. He said, oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But he couldn’t believe it wasn’t who he thought it was.
I was watching this. I said, Creed, I got it. I got an idea, went back and wrote it. Today, I saw somebody who looked just like you, walk like you do. I thought it was you. As she turned the corner, I called out her name. I felt so ashamed when it wasn’t you. I saw that because you’re everything. Everything – I saw that happen. It’s like we saw that when people make the world go round, a trashman didn’t get my trash today, those things happen. We were the kind of writers that we were very – we weren’t abstract writers. And we were – we weren’t – we were futuristic and very real. The things we wrote – very rarely did we write anything that was odd, things that were non-realistic.
GROSS: I want to play what was one of the first big hits of Philadelphia International Records. And it’s a record that you arranged. And it’s The O’Jays “Backstabbers,” which has a very dramatic introduction. Talk about the introduction that you put together for this record.
BELL: When they gave me the track, the tracks were done. The rhythm tracks were done already. And some of those things, the guitar parts were in there, something like that. And what all I did was to broaden those things. And the beginning was what I – what we call mysterioso – very mysterious, very dramatic and had a very – when that thing hit, it made your – opened your eyes, made your ears open, made your body say, whoa, what was that?
And to me, I always felt that, from the very beginning, from the first time you put the needle down – that’s when they had records, of course – when you put the needle down on the record, it’s supposed to say something. And when you’re dealing with the civilian, dealing with the customer, what I call the civilians and customers, you give them something – when they’re paying for something, give them your best, your best creative things. And from the very moment that needle goes down, you want it to be a memorable occasion. You want it to grab them, say, well, what was that? And the next – but each bar means something.
GROSS: So what kind of mood did you want hear and what kind of sound in that dramatic rendition?
BELL: I did – let’s see. In the beginning, the strings were doing tremolandos and – the very beginning did a sweep, did a glissando with the harp. And, I mean, that grabbed you – dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun (ph). And it was meant to be that. You’re talking about stabbing somebody in the back. It’s meant – whatever you’re saying, the music had to walk hand in hand. They can’t be talking about backstabbers and you’re writing “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” The two – everything has to match.
GROSS: Well, it actually has a kind of action film sound to it.
BELL: Right, backstabbing is action. When you talk about – you listen to the, smile on your face, all the time, they want to take your place, those backstabbers. That’s mysterious, man. That’s dangerous stuff, boy. So you want the music to amplify what it is that they’re talking about and what they’re singing about.
GROSS: OK. Here’s the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers,” arranged by my guest, Thom Bell.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BACKSTABBERS”)
THE O’JAYS: (Singing) What they do? They’re smiling in your face. All the time, they want to take your place, the backstabbers. Backstabbers. They’re smiling in your face. All the time, they want to take your place, the backstabbers. Backstabbers. All you fellas who have someone and you really care – yeah, yeah, – then it’s all of you fellas who better beware, yeah, yeah. Somebody’s out to get your lady. A few of your buddies, they sure look shady. Their blades are long, clutched tight in their fist, aiming straight at your back. And I don’t think they’ll miss. What they do? They’re smiling in your face. All the time, they want to take your place, the backstabbers.
GROSS: The O’Jays’ big hit “Backstabbers,” a Philadelphia International Records hit, helped establish the record label. And my guest, Thom Bell, arranged that. And you’re associated with the Philly sound. You moved to Philadelphia when you were about 5. You were born and spent the first five years of your life in Jamaica.
BELL: Yeah. I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. But I was moved – my parents moved me here when I was about 3, 3 or 4 years of age.
GROSS: Three or 4. OK.
GROSS: So your parents were Jamaican.
GROSS: So did you feel culturally different when you were growing up?
BELL: Well, at times – at times because my mother talked funny. And my father – most people never saw my father because he used to work 12, 14 hours a day. Culturally, coming up – because I remember when the kids would meet my mother and look at me, what’s wrong with your mother, man? What do you mean what’s wrong with my mother? Why she talk so funny? Hold it. They weren’t used to hearing Black people speaking like that, speaking the king’s English in a certain kind of way. And so they thought something – what’s wrong? Now you’re going to fight. You don’t talk about somebody’s mother now. Hold it. What do you mean something wrong with her? Why she dress funny and stuff, man? What kind of family do you come from? And then you meet my grandfather, which is even worse. And he’s…
GROSS: (Laughter) Why was he worse?
BELL: He would wear the top hat and wear the long coats and the boutonniere, what you call a flower in the lapel. And, oh, man, oh, man, oh, man, he was a doozy. And guys would really laugh at him.
GROSS: And he taught botany, didn’t he?
BELL: Yeah. He was a botanist. He was a botanist and a horticulturist. He had two Ph. degrees.
GROSS: And what did your mother do?
BELL: Mother was – actually, she was an executive secretary to the – one of the principal people at the university. She could type, like, 140 words a minute on a manual typewriter. She does not like electric. And she takes dictation.
GROSS: So tell me – you know, you grew up. Your parents were Jamaican. You listened mostly to classical music until you were in your teens.
BELL: Yeah. Yes.
GROSS: So when you started producing soul music and rhythm and blues, did you feel like you had just, like, a different frame of reference than the singers and musicians, particularly the singers that you were working with?
BELL: I didn’t know the difference. I didn’t – I don’t know the difference. And they might have known the difference. But they didn’t talk about it. They didn’t say, what is this? They didn’t say that because they were in the same boat. We were all coming up and had nothing to – we had nothing to lose because we were all poor together. And we were all – were hungry together.
GROSS: Were you poor when you were growing up…
BELL: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: …Because it sounds like your mother had a really decent job?
BELL: Yeah. But that doesn’t mean anything because you have decent bills. Remember, there was a lot of us. There was 10 of us. So we didn’t have the best of – let’s put it like this, we didn’t have the best of anything, but we had what we needed. We got – I didn’t have the – most of my clothes and things, I got them handed down from my older brothers. I don’t think I had my own first pair of underwear – underwear – until I was about 18 or 19 and I started on my own because my brother was in the military. And so I thought everyone wore green underwear. That’s military underwear. I didn’t know. We had what we needed. We didn’t have any extras. And we didn’t know the difference. We did not know the difference because everybody in the neighborhood didn’t have anything either. So we were all happy, happy as a termite in a lumberyard.
BIANCULLI: We’re listening to Terry’s 2006 interview with Thom Bell, one of the architects of what became known as the Philly sound. Bell died last month at the age of 79. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD MELVIN AND THE BLUE NOTES SONG, “THE LOVE I LOST”)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to Terry’s 2006 interview with Thom Bell, one of the architects of the Philly sound. He died last month at the age of 79. Before he joined Philadelphia International Records, Thom Bell worked with the Delfonics and the Stylistics and, later, the Spinners.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Let’s get back to your production and songwriting work. I want to play something that you did with the Spinners. Now, they had their first Top 40 hit in 1961. But you were working with them in the ’70s.
GROSS: What state was their career in when you started to work with them? And how did you get matched up?
BELL: Their career wasn’t in great shape. At the time, I don’t think the company that they were with – in fact, I know that the guy had gotten rid of them, or they had left. Somewhere along the line, they parted company. Motown and them parted company, which is very easy to do. When you become as big as a CBS, an Atlantic Records, you have so many artists. You don’t really have the time to devote to every last artist. You have to have an amount of producers, an amount of arrangers, an amount of everything. And things can slip through the cracks.
So when I found them, they were on Atlantic Records, and Atlantic Records was going to get rid of them because they weren’t – a lot of times, the companies want something that’s going to make fast money. And a lot of time, that’s not what you’re going to get. It takes time to build an artist. And they felt that they were – they had spent a few dollars on them, very few. And when they sent me the list of artists that they had, I happened to see – the very last page, it was, like, a typographical error that the word – all the artists, boom, boom, boom, boom – they must have had 60, 70 artists. Last page, very last bottom of the page, I saw S-P-I-N. That’s it. It was going off the page. I said, I wonder, are they those Spinners that I used to play piano for in the Uptown Theater?
BELL: So I called them and said, are these – is that – do you have the Spinners from Motown? They said, oh, yeah, we’re getting ready to get rid of them. I said, please, whoa, don’t get rid of them yet ’cause that’s who I’d like to do. And when I got them, I was only – and they didn’t want to spend any money on them. So they allowed me to do three songs. I said, you know, I’d really like to do an album. No, we don’t – our budget doesn’t call for that. We only want to do three songs. I said, all right. I said, but I think you’re going to be sorry. And of course, later on, they were sorry because they had only had three songs, and now they had two No. 1s – out of a crowd (ph) – and didn’t have an album. They lost money.
GROSS: Before we hear the Spinners, I have to ask you – this is the era where a lot of rhythm and blues groups are wearing orange jumpsuits and the big hats and the big hair with the big, bushy sideburns and gold medallions. And, you know, what’d you think of that? Did you ever dress that way? And what did you think of that as stage clothing? Did it work for you?
BELL: I never paid any attention to it. I never dressed…
GROSS: How could you not pay – it’s so unmissable (laughter).
BELL: My mind – I’m a weird guy. My mind is on music all the time. And the things that most people see, I don’t even see. I don’t pay attention to it. I don’t pay any attention to the shoes, the socks, the sound, the style, the lingo. I just don’t pay any attention to it. It’s not – it doesn’t affect me. I don’t hear it.
GROSS: It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.
BELL: Well, thank you for asking me to come. It’s been my pleasure coming back to Philadelphia and sitting with you guys. WHYY used to be at 46th and Market Street.
GROSS: That’s right.
BELL: Dick Clark and them boys. I remember those days a long time ago.
BIANCULLI: Composer, arranger and producer Thom Bell, one of the architects of the Philly sound. Bell died December 22 at the age of 79. Here’s the Spinners’ 1972 hit, “I’ll Be Around,” which he co-wrote.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “I’LL BE AROUND”)
THE SPINNERS: (Singing) This is our fork in the road, love’s last episode. There’s nowhere to go. Oh, no. You made your choice. Now it’s up to me to bow out gracefully, though, you hold the key. But, baby, whenever you call me, I’ll be there. Whenever you want me, I’ll be there. Whenever you need me, I’ll be there. I’ll be around.
BIANCULLI: Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers reviews “White Noise,” the new film from Noah Baumbach. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS’ “BONGO’S WALTZ”)
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