New Music for Old People: A Thom Bell Retrospective

By , Columnist

Thom Bell

As a songwriter, arranger and producer, Thom Bell has been a powerful influence on me and on music in general. For a guy who studied classical music originally, his first venture into modern music at the age of 22 was as Chubby Checker’s bandleader on the road. After a lifetime of meaningful participation with artists such as Dionne Warwick, Teddy Pendergrass, New York City, Ronnie Dyson, Lou Rawls, Little Anthony and The Imperials, Dusty Springfield, Elton John, The Spinners, The Stylistics, The O’Jays, Joss Stone, Deniece Williams, Angela Winbush and even Johnny Mathis (!), his influence will be felt forever. I have included some of my favorites, trying to skirt the obvious, but that, I realized in mid-compilation, is impossible. I included two demos of my own songs to show the debt I owe to the great Thom Bell — now 70 years old, living pretty quietly in Seattle, Washington. If you love soul music, this is worthy of your precious time.

Below is a jukebox containing all the songs I picked this week. After you read about them below, go back and listen to whatever you like by just clicking on that title in the jukebox, or stream the whole playlist by clicking on the "play" icon at the top. It's free and it's the entire song. We're not selling anything. We're just in the business of hopefully making your days better by listening to great music.

We apologize to our readers/listeners who are trying to enjoy the playlists via mobile devices like iPhones/iPads and are finding that they can't; these are, unfortunately, circumstances beyond our control. At present, Grooveshark is not compatible with those operating systems, and in order to stream the playlist, you will need to use a PC or Mac.

TMR0308 by Lisa on Grooveshark

1. “Are You Ready for Love” — Elton John (2:31)

Here’s another gushing fan who jumped aboard. This track was excluded from John’s initial Bell-produced album, but snuck out some 20 years later to great acclaim.

2. “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” — The Delfonics (3:17)

Why YES, Thom, you most certainly did, and here’s why...

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The Delfonics

3. “I’ll Be Around” — The Spinners (3:10)

This is from their debut album on Atlantic Records that became, in hindsight, one of the top ten soul albums of all time. This would have been impossible without the contributions of Thom Bell and marked the beginning of a partnership that fostered many hits and unforgettable tracks together that will last forever.

4. “Do You Remember Yesterday” — New York City (3:46)

This group was every bit as good as the famous ones Bell shepherded into the top ten, but their smaller label did not get them out to the public and this great album is comparatively unknown. I have included two other tracks here today from that album because it is still one of my faves. These tracks have appeared in past columns of mine as well, but they honor the Thom Bell sound and repetition, in this case, will not harm you.

5. “Rock ‘n Roll Baby” — The Stylistics (2:33)

Imagine what the Jackson 5 and Thom Bell could have done together. This might give you a small idea.

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The Stylistics

6. “Happiness Is” — New York City (3:07)

In the world of arrangements, this track is amazing. The guitars and string parts are quite original and it’s a great piece of songwriting as well.

7. “You’re As Right As Rain” — The Stylistics (3:21)

The production and engineering really shine on this major hit from the ‘70s. I still learn something every time I listen to this.

8. “Can’t Survive Without My Sweets” — New York City (3:07)

As a diabetic, this is a sadder song for me than it is for most people, BUT it is quintessential Thom Bell work. I just focus on the other goodies beside the lyrics. You can do that with his records because EVERY area is perfectly wrought.

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New York City

9. “I’ll Be Here” — Freddy Henry (3:03)

These last two tracks are demos from my files that show just how long I attended Thom Bell University and how much I tried to learn. These are home studio jobbies where I played all the instruments and, in this case, had one of the artists I produced in the ‘70s sing the lead vocal. Freddy is one of my favorite singers and the album we made together is out of print and never made it to CD. His album is the closest I ever came to joining my various heroes. This is a demo of a song I wrote for Teddy Pendergrass but unfortunately got turned down.

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Thom Bell

10. “There Is No Way” — Al Kooper (3:53)

This was my term paper in graduating from Thom Bell University. Only a demo like the preceding track, it shows me how much I learned in my studies. That knowledge will always be with me and I will forever be indebted to the great Thom Bell for teaching me how to write better songs, arrangements and produce better-sounding records. Thanks, Thom, and if you’re ever in Boston and have time — dinner at my house!

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