Legendary Philly Soul Hitmaker Thom Bell Dead At 79
Thom Bell, the Jamaican-born producer, arranger, songwriter, and pillar of ’70s Philadelphia soul, has died. The news was confirmed by Philadelphia radio station WDAS-FM. Bell was best known for his work in the “Mighty Three” with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff; together, the trio created what became known as the “Sound Of Philadelphia.” He was 79.
Born in Jamaica in 1941, Bell moved to Philadelphia as a child. He studied classical music, and as a teen sang with Gamble, Huff, and Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates. His first major break in soul music was with Cameo Records, where he worked as a session player and arranger. In the mid-’60s, Bell was introduced to the Delfonics, and he produced two songs for them, “La-La (Means I Love You)” and “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” the second of which was nominated for a Grammy in 1970.
Bell also joined up with Gamble and Huff, who ran the record label Philadelphia International Records. The three men formed a music publishing company, Mighty Three Music, and Bell arranged for acts such as Jerry Butler, Archie Bell & The Drells, the O’Jays, and Dusty Springfield. Bell also joined Gamble and Huff’s production company.
In the ’70s, Bell produced for the Stylistics and teamed up with Philly’s own Linda Creed. Together, they became the area’s premier soul songwriting duo, writing hits such as “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” “You Are Everything,” “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” “Break Up To Make Up,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” and “I’m Stone In Love With You.”
By 1972, Bell produced former Motown band the Spinners for Atlantic Records; the collaboration was so successful, it lasted for seven years and eight albums. Bell produced hits like “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” “Games People Play,” and “The Rubberband Man.” In 1974, Bell won the Grammy for Best Producer Of The Year.
In 1977, Bell recorded The Thom Bell Sessions with Elton John, though the EP was not released until 1979.
In the mid-’70s, Bell worked with Dionne Warwick (1974’s #1 “Then Came You,” a song Bell commissioned for Warwick and the Spinners), Johnny Mathis, Billy Paul, Ronnie Dyson, and Anthony & The Imperials. In the early ’80s, he produced Deniece Williams’ Top 10 remake of the Royalettes’ “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle.” In 1990, he produced James Ingram’s “I Don’t Have the Heart,” which became his second #1 pop hit. Other artists Bell produced in the ’80s included the Temptations, Phyllis Hyman, and Dee Dee Bridgwater.
More recently, in 2008 Bell announced he would compose a piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra, as past Orchestra members had played in MFSB, the house band featured on numerous Bell productions. Likewise, in 2017, Bell was honored by the Recording Academy at the Grammy Salute to Music Legends.
In February 2022, it was announced that the story of Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell would be chronicled in a new feature documentary, The Sound Of Philadelphia, directed by Sam Pollard.
In official statements, Gamble and Huff paid tribute to Bell. “Tommy and I have been best friends for over 60 years. 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’,” said Gamble. “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!”
“Thom Bell was my favorite musician, arranger, songwriter and music producer of all time!” added Huff. “It was my esteem[ed] honor and pleasure to work with him creatively and as a business partner. Rest in peace.”
“When I write, I make sure that my introductions grab you from the first note. I write to grab you; to give you my true feelings,” Bell told Consequence last year. “I don’t want to tell you a love story and only tell you part of a love story. I want to give a complete story. That’s how can always tell one of my arrangements.”