Along with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Thom Bell was one of the three people responsible for The Sound Of Philadelphia, a lush, orchestrated take on soul music that dominated the charts in the early to mid-70s. Using the most unusual instrumentation – harpsichords, French horns, sitars – Bell’s arrangements built the careers of the Delfonics and the Stylistics, and reinvented acts as varied as the Spinners, Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis.
The distinctive sound of a Thom Bell arrangement is largely down to an upbringing devoid of R&B. Growing up in a middle-class Philadelphia household, he was playing piano, drums and flugelhorn by the time he was nine. “We didn’t have any radio or anything, we were trained classical musicians,” says Bell. “From when I was five ’til I was 17, I studied two or three hours a day. First thing I heard on the radio was Little Anthony & the Imperials’ ‘Tears On My Pillow’. I thought, What kind of music is this? This is nice music!”
He became a singer in a duo with Kenny Gamble. A year later the duo expanded to a five-piece, Kenny Gamble & the Romeos, and started to pick up work as session musicians at Philadelphia’s hot Cameo and Parkway labels. It was another Little Anthony & the Imperials hit, ‘I’m On The Outside (Looking In)’, that inspired him in 1964. “[Writer and producer] Teddy Randazzo, he was my leader – ‘Outside Looking In’, ‘Hurt So Bad’ … now we’re talking. I never got to meet Teddy Randazzo, and I’m sorry about that. Randazzo and Bacharach, those were my leaders. They tuned me in to what I was listening to in a more modernistic way.”
Cameo-Parkway eventually gave Gamble, Bell and Leon Huff (Bell’s replacement in the Romeos) more of a free hand, resulting in some beautiful 45s for Eddie Holman, the Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp and the Delfonics that helped to foment the lush, atmospheric Philadelphia sound. When the label folded in 1967, Bell took the Delfonics with him, and when the group moved on a few years later, he began to work with the Stylistics and then the Spinners, creating even bigger hits. Throughout these years, he kept a close-knit team around him, and the lyricist he worked with the most was Linda Creed. They worked together for nine years – when she died in 1986, aged 37, he was at her side.
As a writer, producer and arranger, Thom Bell’s originality and the quality of his work deserves the same acclaim as that heaped on Nile Rodgers or Burt Bacharach. He prefers to stay in the shadows, though, and over the years has allowed Gamble and Huff to take the Philly soul limelight. Still, when he talks about his work, there’s an acknowledgment of lucky breaks but there is no false modesty. “Some people were like ‘Are all these strings necessary, why don’t you make regular R&B?’ Because I’m not R&B. I make music. Nobody else is in my brain but me, which is why some of the things I think about are crazy – I hear oboes, and bassoons, and English horns. But I’m lucky, I cross styles. I was enthusiated. Not enthused, enthusiated. I had my own language, and I was able to do what I wanted to do.”