Thom Bell is the beloved record producer behind much of the “Philadelphia soul” subgenre of music in the 1970s. While working for Atlantic Records, he produced artists such as Dionne Warwick, James Ingram, Johnny Mathis, Billy Paul and Elton John, and even teamed up, briefly, with the Stylistics.
Dan Kimpel conducted this interview in March 1992 for the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase Musepaper.
Growing up in the Midwest in the late 60s the AM radio was my connection with a world beyond the cornfields and oil refineries. Soul music and R&B provided a soundtrack to my teen years-in the winter of 1969 as I was driving my dad’s Buick Special across the tracks the car radio played a song so dramatic that I had to pull over to the side of the road to listen. The song was “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” by a group from Philadelphia, the Delfonics; written and produced by Thom Bell. The lush, arch romanticism of Bell’s work was everywhere in the next couple of years, and when I was old enough to go to bars my friends and I would drive to the big city of Toledo to dance the night away to the Spinners and the Stylistics hits pumping out of a jukebox. Thom Bell’s subsequent work with Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis, James Ingram, and Elton John was always a breath of fresh air in oft-stagnant musical times.
When Songwriters Musepaper editor John Braheny was unable to interview Thom Bell, I leaped at the chance to meet a longtime hero. On a beautiful winter day I drove to a Studio City motel. Thom Bell was waiting for me at the desk, and he carried my briefcase up to his room. He lit the first of many Benson & Hedges 100s (“my only bad habit”, he explained), and we began.
DK: I didn’t know you were from Jamaica.
TB: Yeah, I’m from Kingston. I was born there, but I was brought to the United States when I was five when my parents moved to Philadelphia. But I have tons and tons of relatives still living in Jamaica. I don’t get down there too often. It’s too hot.
DK: Have you recorded down there at Compass Point?
TB: I worked with I-Threes at Compass Point. I also worked with Marley. Marley and I were good friends. That was before he got sick in 1979 and 1980. In fact, I was represented by the same cat. Him being a Rastafari, he didn’t believe in white people, in banks. He hid all his money and stuff in the mountains, and they’re looking for his money to this day. No banks, no checks. In the eyes of Rastafari, you don’t fix up with any money, accept checks of any kind, no drafts, all cash. But then the poor boy died. I kept telling him to go to the hospital, man, but he thought that roots and herbs and things would cure him.
DK: Did you watch the Grammys last night?
TB: No, I didn’t watch for a reason. Back in 1968, when I won my first Grammy for a song called “La La Means I Love You,” they didn’t allow any black acts on stage. Most people don’t know that. What they would do is advertise the Grammys, but they would have the “chocolate version” somewhere in a corner and have the white version on television. They never told you that until you got there and you’re looking to be in the audience. They would tell you later on, “I’m awfully sorry, but your version will not be on TV, but thank you for coming anyway.” They didn’t want to give me tickets for the show. And I said, “But I thought I was nominated for a Grammy.” I finally did get one ticket, because at that time–I don’t know if the companies still do it–but the companies sponsored the tables and things. I wormed my way in. They made one special seat by the door in the back. When they announced the Grammy for Song of the Year, which was “La La Means I Love You,” somebody else went up and got it. It was the president of the company who went and got it.
He had nothing in the world to do with it. I decided never to go to another Grammy show as long as I lived. And I haven’t. Here’s another bit of history for you: Until 1973 or 75, they didn’t even have a producer’s award. It wasn’t until I had gotten so many hit records. I was the first one they created the award for.
DK: And so you received a Grammy?
TB: I received the first Grammy for Producer of the Year and then I later received Producer of the Year two years in a row. I was the only one that beat Stevie Wonder. Stevie never forgot that, either!
DK: So what are you doing right now with James Ingram?
TB: We’re working on a new album, new tunes. We’re going to keep him in the same direction, but take him to another level now. The songs that we’ve been getting have been clones of the hits he’s had before. So we’re taking our time, and we’re coming up with different kinds of songs. Still good songs, because he’s got that kind of voice…it’s amazing to have a voice like that and not to have operatic training. He has a vast range and he breathes extremely well, and he works hard on his voice.
DK: “I Don’t Have The Heart” which you produced, was an incredible hit for him, the writers, Alan Rich and Judd Friedman, are members of our organization.
TB: Those guys worked real hard on that tune. That song took eight or nine months from the break, if it had not been for a guy named Steve Rosen at Peer. He believed in the song, and they believed in the song, and we believed in the song, and they got independent people on it.
DK: Did you pick that song for James?
TB: What happened was that Karen Jones–who worked for Benny Medina–picked that song and sent it to James. James and I were sitting down listening to songs and I said, “There’s the song.” And he believed in the song himself. It wasn’t just me.
DK: When did you live in New York?
TB: I was studying to be a conductor and a concert pianist. I went to New York to study further, but they weren’t taking any chocolate conductors on Broadway at the time. We’re talking about the ’60sabout 1961–and they said “Well, here’s what you do. There’s a fantastic place up in Harlem. It’s called the Apollo. They really could use you up there. What you do is…” And I said, “Wait a minute, you didn’t give me a chance.” But again, nothing stopped me.
DK: When did you go back to Philly?
TB: I moved back in about 1963, 64. I became a conductor for Chubby Checker. I did that for two years. I got tired of conducting the twist all over the world, so I left and went to a record company called Cameo/Parkway Records. At that time Motown was doing real well, so Cameo thought that since Motown has a bunch of black artists there, all they had to do is get a bunch of black musicians and they could do the exact same thing. That didn’t work out very well. I became the head of the studio musicians because I was the one who could read the best. During that time, a guy came to me with a group who said, “Man, you produce records?” I said yes even though I didn’t know the first thing about producing records. He said he had a group he wanted me to listen to. They weren’t so hot. He wanted to know when we could get a hit record with this group. I said, “Well, I don’t know if I hear anything here. Let me hear the drummer sing.” He couldn’t sing. The bass player couldn’t sing. The guitar player sang. I said, “From now on, you don’t play guitar no more, because you’re now the lead singer.” I took the group. I couldn’t use the rest of the cats because they were like a drain. I chopped them down from eight in the group to three. They were called The Five Guys then. When I chopped them down to three, we made the The Delfonics.
The first record I did with them in 1965 was with Cameo Records. Cameo didn’t know anything about black music at the time, and neither did I. But the record did well in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Virginia area. The second record did well in the same area, and then the company folded. When the company folded, the guy went out and got a loan and put some money up and said “Man, you’ve got to give me a hit record on this group.” So I called around different publishers and told them my name. “Who?” “Thom Bell.” “No, I’m afraid the only Bell we know is Bell Telephone and the Liberty Bell with the crack in it.” And I said, “I’m looking for songs.” “Well, no.” And if they did send you songs, they’d send you the junky songs. I said, “This can’t be. I’m going to write my own doggone songs.”
And that’s what I did. Same as I started writing arrangements. I know enough music and all I have to do is go down to the library, get some more music, get some books on orchestration, theory and composition. It cannot be too much different from what I studied on piano. I got myself some books, and nobody has ever written another arrangement for me. I write my own everything.
DK: How big were the string sections you were working with at that time?
TB: Usually there were 20 strings–12 violins, six violas and two cellos. But when I started in 1968, I didn’t have any money, and we had four violins, one viola, one cello. But as things got bigger, the sounds got bigger and people starting copying it. Then, of course, your instrumentation has to get bigger. No one really knew what an oboe sound was until they heard the introduction to “Betcha By Golly Wow.” They weren’t even into a bassoon until they heard things like “Make Up To Break Up,” where I used a bassoon. Because guys were starting to catch up to my sound, I said, “that’s okay, that’s all right.” I started digging deeper into my own background and deeper into the symphonic orchestra.
DK: You used french horns with the Delfonics. Celeste–was that what was doing the bell sounds?
TB: Yeah, that was celeste. I don’t even know if they make a celeste anymore. On those first sessions, 80 percent of the instruments I was playing myself because I didn’t have the money. Like timpanies and things of that nature. I didn’t have the money, so I got myself some books, read about timpanies. I would get the timpani and practice timpani. I started as a drum major, actually. So when it came to different types of rolls–I started out that way.
By the time I was six, I played drums and piano. By the time I was 11, I got into fluglehorn, but it hurt my mouth. Then I got into trumpet; that hurt my mouth. Then I got into the big drums in the drum and bugle corps and them things used to kill my back walking down the street. I said, “no, no, no, I can’t have no instrument that hurts me.” By the time I was eight or nine, I was playing harp. My brother was in Germany and he sent me the big chromatic harps, which you call a harmonica. I made my own little guitars out of cigar boxes and a piece of wood and some rubber bands. Music was essential in our family because my mother is a concert pianist, my father plays pedal steel guitar, piano and also accordion. By the time I was nine or ten, I was playing accordion. Most people don’t know that on a lot of records, I was playing accordion.
DK: As a songwriter you’ve collaborated with people like Linda Creed.
TB: Linda Creed was my collaborator for a time. William Hart and I wrote “La La” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind,” and then Creed and I wrote until she died. My next collaborator after that was Deniece Williams, who is a very good lyricist by the way. And after that came my nephew, Leroy Bell. Then after that was with James. I did one with Phil Hurt which was “I’ll Be Around.” I really haven’t collaborated with that many writers. Only five or six. Until you find the right one that fits your thoughts; it’s like making love, man. You could have a bunch of ladies in your sheets, one every hour until the right one comes along that fits you.
DK: Linda Creed was obviously right on the money. Was she the lyricist?
DK: Do you write lyrics too?
TB: Yeah, but I always classified her as being the lyricist. Lyric, to me, is a very serious art. I’m talking about when you’re really writing lyrics, like “The Greatest Love of All.” Those are lyrics. That’s not some poof puff nonsense that anybody can write. I can sit down and write, yes, but–
DK: Did she bring you completed lyrics or how was it?
TB: She couldn’t stand sitting around waiting for me to come up with melodies and things. So she’d go home and I’d call when it was ready. I would call her the next day and make a tape of it, give it to her and whatever I wrote–if I wrote the first verse, or sometimes I didn’t write anything but the hook of the song, like “Betcha By Golly Wow” or “People Make The World Go ‘Round” or something like that. Then I’d give it to her and the next day, she’d have it.
DK: You would put the hooks in the titles when you were involved in those?
DK: A lot of your hooks in the titles came from real, everyday situations.
TB: I was never one for writing fantasy. I always wrote about very material things. I don’t live in the past. I live today and tomorrow. Being an Aquarian, I always live in the future.
DK: What do you think when you turn on the radio and hear your licks being copped? Do you like it?
TB: I think it’s funny. When you put your things out there, if someone likes them–I feel that they borrow them. They borrow the licks. Like the guys from Toto said, ” ‘Africa’, that was you and the Spinners, man.” To me, that’s nothing like the Spinners, but to them, it was the Spinners. If I put it out there, I put it out there for people to enjoy. If you can make something from it, God bless you.
DK: Now there’s an electric sitar thing that you were using.
TB: That was, in actuality, the real sitar. Because my folks are from the West Indies, I was into the sitar a long time before the Beatles were. That and the African hairless drum and the African finger piano and things of that nature. I was into all those instruments years ago.
My mother used to work at the University of Pennsylvania as the coordinator of exchange students. My grandfather was a teacher of botany and a horticulture at UP. So we would get exchange students all the time, from all over the world. And they would bring instruments. These learned scholars would come to my house and play music. And when you’re a little kid, you’d be right there, listening. I was playing a gourd at seven years of age; the kind that wraps around your arm and comes all the way up like this. They were about four feet high. I was into all those instruments so that when it came time to hear that kind of music, it came natural to me. I never had to sit down and wonder what can make that sound.
Of course, there were times I would ask “how can I get that sound I want to hear?” And there were instruments that I was not familiar with. I had The Harvard Book of Musical Instruments to find out the characteristics of the instrument and the sound that I wanted. I was lucky because my mother and my grandfather were involved with the University of Pennsylvania, with these exchange students, to hear all these different kinds of instruments. So when you hear all these sort of odd instruments, that’s something like breathing out and breathing in for me. Just part of the way I grew up.
DK: Are you using samplers now to do those things?
TB: No. I have four keyboards. I use them for certain sounds just for myself. Like on “I Don’t Have the Heart,” that was not a real bass. That was me playing the upright bass on the D50. I don’t rely on them totally. I’m rather lucky that I came up in an era where I was able to get knowledge from real instrumentation, the real ambience of the instruments, and also lucky enough to make the transition to the keyboards and sequencers and different things that can give you a reasonable facsimile.
I find that going into the studio with a lot of electronics, you waste more time. I’ve gone into the studio with cats who said, “Play so and so. That’s enough.” “But I didn’t play nothing.” “Well, we can sample the rest.” “Look man, turn the machine off. By the time you get finished sampling this thing, I could have played the thing 50 times already.” I come from another school where you put the music down and you play it. You either play it right or you get out. That’s the reason I practiced for years and years, to learn my craft. That’s nerve-wracking to me.
DK: I hear you’re producing Jordan Knight from New Kids on the Block
TB: They wanted to come back to the sound they love, like “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind.” I’ve had cats ask me, “What do you think about that white cat taking your sound?” I stop right there. Why can’t he love something that I do as well as a Chinese or German person likes what I do? It’s reverse discrimination–the same crock I went through. Now you want to put somebody else through it. Music is music. Look at the music I’ve done. It had to come from somewhere, from some of the masters of the 17th century and the 1940s and 1950s. I was with Ferlin Huskey and cats like that long before most black cats knew anything about it.
DK: Ferlin Huskey?
TB: And Roy Clark. Yeah, I love those cats to death! Garth Brooks–my main man! Travis? Love him. I love all kinds of music. And one day, I’m going to do a country tune.
DK: Who would you like to work with?
TB: One would be Rod Stewart. He did one of my tunes too called “You Are Everything, Everything Is You” which is on his new album. I’d also love to work with Steve Perry. Fantastic voice. He sings exactly like Sam Cooke. Charles Aznavour, I love that cat’s voice, man. Another cat I love is a composer and conductor, Ennio Moriconne. Did you ever see the picture, “JFK?” That’s some of his newer music. Remember “The Good, Bad And The Ugly”? He scored all that. “Once Upon A Time In America,” “The Untouchables.” Ennio Moriconne again. One of the world’s greatest. I’d love to work with Henry Mancini, the Bergmans. I’d love to work with Julio Iglesias. A lot of great singers out there, man. I’d love to work with Tony Bennett…maybe Sinatra one day.
DK: That’s a great list of people. Be careful, a lot of people read this magazine.
TB: Van Halen’s another one. I got a tune for them too, that the world isn’t ready for. Have you ever heard a tune called “Rock And Roll Baby?” I’ve got a rock version of it I wrote ten years ago, man. I can’t wait to find a rock band to do it.
DK: (sings) “Tootsie roll soul in little white shoes.”
TB: I did that tune for Van Halen or David Lee Roth. Another cat I think is fantastic is Sting. Paul Simon. There’s a lot of great cats out there. And girls. I did well with Deniece Williams. I wouldn’t take her until–it’s not nice to say, but it’s a fact–until she stopped making hit records. Because there would be no need for her to come to me. Don’t bring ’em to me unless they’ve got bombs. That’s my job, to keep you from getting bombs.
DK: Did you put the Spinners together with Dionne Warwick? Was that your idea?
TB: Yeah. Dionne wasn’t doing anything at the time and asked if I would record her. I told her I didn’t have the time. I don’t think she’d ever done a duet, and I’d never done a duet with nobody before. So I wrote this tune. I guessed at their key, neither one heard the song, came out to L.A. and took them to the old Beach Boys studio. That turned out to be a total experience. Yucca and Argyle. I recorded them both for the first time, got one record. That’s it. Number one record, man. I had fun. I had a great time.
DK: You have eight kids. How old is the youngest?
TB: Nine months old. The oldest one is 25. And I’ve got two grandchildren. My one grandchild is older than my youngest baby.
DK: Where do you live now?
TB: I live on Snag Island. There are about 30 families up there and it’s all surrounded by water and you can see deer walking around and you find some elk and every now and then you might find moose.
DK: How did you get to live up there?
TB: I wanted to get away. I never liked the city. I always wanted to be away, because I don’t like the nonsense most people talk. They always have a game, always some nonsense.