On Dec. 22, pop lost one of its true influencers when Thom Bell died at the age of 79. As a producer, songwriter, and/or arranger, Bell was at the forefront of the Philadelphia Sound, the gorgeous R&B that dominated much of the pre-disco Seventies. Along with his peers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Bell injected a level of elegance and sophistication into R&B and pop as heard on records he made with the Spinners (“I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “Mighty Love,” “One of a Kind Love Affair”), the Stylistics (“Betcha By Golly, Wow,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “Break Up to Make Up”), the Delfonics (“La-La Means I Love You,” “Didn’t I [Blow Your Mind This Time]”), and singles with the O’Jays (he arranged the strings on “Back Stabbers”), Dionne Warwick, Deniece Williams, and even Elton John.
One of Bell’s many fans in the music world was future Chic founder Nile Rodgers, who came to Bell’s circle in a roundabout way. In 1973, Bell produced and wrote songs for the R&B vocal group New York City, and thanks to bass player Bernard Edwards, Rodgers was hired to play those songs live as part of the Big Apple Band backup combo. As Rodgers tells RS, that experience, and what Bell brought to pop, not only shaped Rodgers’ music and career, but changed the sound of music in many ways.
I didn’t play on the New York City album, but Bernard Edwards called me and said, “You’re the guy who can [play guitar in the live band].” We were going to be on the road in weeks. We had to recreate that stuff as a band and make the audience feel like they were listening to the record. I think I might have seen on the sheet music that it said “arrangements by Thom Bell.” I was so honored to do it, you have no idea. Thom was the pathway to my relationship with Bernard and the bigger record business.
I worshipped Thom Bell. He was one of the greatest musical geniuses of our time. I think of him in the same way as Stevie Wonder or Burt Bacharach or Lennon and McCartney. He was on that level. Sometimes people take music for granted: “It’s a pop song.” But when you dissect it and really listen to it and take it apart and understand it on a granular level, those records he made have some of the best arrangements you can imagine, up there with Bacharach, Mancini, and Bach.
By listening to his arrangements, instrumentation, and orchestration, you can tell Thom was classically trained, a seriously schooled musician. If you looked at traditional R&B records at the time, they were more gospel and blues based, if you will. That wasn’t where Thom was coming from. He represented an air of sophistication and elegance. It was soul music that was orchestral and beautiful. Whenever I would see the name “Thom Bell” on the records, I knew the music was going to be classy and soulful.
You can play “Mighty Love” or anything else by the Spinners or the Delfonics and you can tell it’s Thom Bell. It’s all coming from a certain vibe and a certain way to approach orchestration and harmonic progression. And those velvety smooth vocals: that whole background-vocal palette thing he had going on was really unbelievable. If you listen to New York City’s “I’m Doing Fine Now,” you hear those sort of lush vocal backgrounds. It’s unbelievable.
Some of the intros to the songs before the singing comes in were absolutely off the charts. “I’ll Be Around”? That’s over the top in the intro. And how many R&B records had electric sitar like “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)”? He liked the sound of exotic instruments.
That sound was so much a part of music I loved and respected that when I finally formed my own band, we believed we were the next generation of Black upward mobility. We were not a gutbucket funk band. We weren’t the Ohio Players or Earth, Wind & Fire. We were totally Thom Bell-inspired, and that’s why we had strings and Luther Vandross as our background singer. It was classy, which is what Thom represented to me and to a lot of other people. This was not just hardcore, sweaty funk and R&B. This was the beginning of a shimmery, very elegant type of R&B, which was the inspiration for everything that I would do in my band Chic.
One of the greatest days of my life was earlier this year or late last year when Thom and I talked for about two hours. I was trying to convince him to work with me on a Chic album. I had never interacted with him until that phone call. I had to do a lot of finagling to get to him. I had to talk with Kenny Gamble and all the Philadelphia International people. I could show you my cell and phone calls to show you the trail. I had pursed him like a bloodhound, believe me!
When he called me it was like, “Oh, man!” We were like old friends. He was fantastic and charming. His vibe was that he had already accepted that that’s the past. He was like, “Nile, what you do, I don’t do that anymore, and I’m OK with that.” He was in such a comfortable place with his life. Once I realized he was not going to say yes, we just talked about music and I had to tell him what he meant to me and that linkage. I said, “Hey, man, why do you think we came out with strings? We were like Thom Bell.” He made me feel like a peer. That two-hour phone call was as important to me as anything that’s ever happened to me musically.