Thom Bell, a Force Behind the Philadelphia Soul Sound, Dies at 79
Thom Bell, the prolific producer, songwriter and arranger who, as an architect of the lush Philadelphia sound of the late 1960s and ’70s, was a driving force behind landmark R&B recordings by the Spinners, the Delfonics and the Stylistics, died on Thursday at his home in Bellingham, Wash. He was 79.
His death was confirmed by his manager and attorney, Michael Silver, who did not cite a cause.
Along with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Mr. Bell was a member of the songwriting and production team — the Mighty Three, as they were called (and as they branded their publishing company) — that gave birth to what became known as the Sound of Philadelphia. Renowned for its groove-rich bass lines, cascading string choruses and gospel-steeped vocal arrangements, the Sound of Philadelphia rivaled the music being made by the Motown and Stax labels in popularity and influence.
A classically trained pianist, Mr. Bell brought an uptown sophistication and melodic inventiveness to Top 10 pop hits like the Delfonics’ “La-La (Means I Love You)” (1968) and the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” (1972). He was particularly adept as an arranger: On records like “Delfonics Theme (How Could You),” strings, horns and timpani build, like waves crashing on a beach, to stirring emotional effect.
He also wrote the arrangement for the O’Jays’ propulsive Afro-Latin tour de force, “Back Stabbers,” a No. 3 pop hit in 1972.
Mr. Bell had a knack for incorporating instrumentation into his arrangements that was not typically heard on R&B recordings. He employed French horn and sitar on the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” (1970) and oboe on the Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly, Wow” (1972). Both records were Top 10 pop singles, and “Didn’t I,” which was later covered by New Kids on the Block, won a Grammy Award for best R&B vocal performance by a duo or group in 1971.
“The musicians looked at me like I was crazy. Violin? Timpani?” Mr. Bell said of his first session with the Delfonics in a 2020 interview with Record Collector magazine. “But that’s the world I came from. I had a three-manual harpsichord, and I played that. I played electric piano and zither, or something wild like that.”
“Every session,” he went on, “there was always one experiment.”
Mr. Bell, who typically collaborated with a lyricist, said that his chief influences as a songwriter were Teddy Randazzo, who wrote tearful ballads like “Hurts So Bad” for Little Anthony and the Imperials, and Burt Bacharach.
“Randazzo and Bacharach, those are my leaders,” Mr. Bell told Record Collector. “They tuned me in to what I was listening to in a more modernistic way.”
Mr. Bacharach “was classically trained also,” Mr. Bell said in the same interview. “He was doing things in strange times, in strange keys. He was doing things with Dionne Warwick that were unheard-of.”
The recording engineer Joe Tarsia, the founder of Sigma Sound Studios, where most of the hits associated with the Sound of Philadelphia were made, was fond of calling Mr. Bell the “Black Burt Bacharach.” (Mr. Tarsia died in November.)
Coincidentally, Mr. Bell’s first No. 1 hit single as a producer was Ms. Warwick’s “Then Came You,” a 1974 collaboration with the Spinners. (He also won the 1974 Grammy for producer of the year.)
His other No. 1. pop single as a producer was James Ingram’s Grammy-winning 1990 hit, “I Don’t Have a Heart,” co-produced by Mr. Ingram.
Mr. Bell produced dozens of Top 40 singles, many of which were certified gold or platinum. His influence on subsequent generations of musicians was deep and wide; numerous contemporary R&B and hip-hop artists, among them Tupac, Nicki Minaj and Mary J. Blige, have sampled or interpolated his work.
Thomas Randolph Bell was born on Jan. 27, 1943, in Philadelphia. His father, Leroy, a businessman, played guitar and accordion. His mother, Anna (Burke) Bell, a stenographer, played piano and organ and encouraged young Tom (he only later started spelling his name Thom) and his nine brothers and sisters to pursue music and other arts — in Tom’s case, the piano.
He was in his early teens when he first gave thought to pop music. The precipitating event was overhearing Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Tears on My Pillow” on the radio while working at his father’s fish market.
“I fell in love with the whole production,” he said of the epiphany he experienced in a 2018 interview with The Seattle Times. “I listened to the background, the bass, a lot more than just the lyrics.”
Mr. Bell and his friend Kenny Gamble teamed up and made a go of it as a singing duo called Kenny and Tommy. They met with little success, but the experience confirmed Mr. Bell’s desire to pursue a career in pop music. He soon found work playing piano in the house band at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, and he was eventually invited to play on the soul singer Chuck Jackson’s 1962 hit, “Any Day Now.”
But he got his big break — coming while he was working at Cameo-Parkway Records in Philadelphia as, among other things, the touring conductor for Chubby Checker — when he wrote “La-La (Means I Love You)” with William Hart, the lead singer of the Delfonics.
In the late 1960s, while continuing to collaborate with the Delfonics, Mr. Bell re-established ties with Mr. Gamble and his creative partner Leon Huff. He became part of their team at Sigma Sound Studios and, ultimately, the Sigma Sound house band, MFSB (the initials stood for “Mother Father Sister Brother”).
By the early 1970s, Mr. Bell had started working as producer, arranger and songwriter (most often with the lyricist Linda Creed), first for the Stylistics and later for the Spinners, whose career he helped revitalize after it had stalled at Motown.
He remained active as the ’70s progressed, even as the Sound of Philadelphia was being eclipsed by disco and rap. But apart from successful collaborations with Johnny Mathis, Elton John, Deniece Williams and Mr. Ingram, the hits quit coming.
Mr. Bell had moved to Tacoma, Wash., in 1976 with his first wife, Sylvia, who suffered from health issues that her doctors believed might be alleviated by a change of climate. The couple divorced in 1984, and shortly afterward Mr. Bell remarried and moved to the Seattle area. He settled in Bellingham in 1998, having by then retired from the music business.
He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Musicians Hall of Fame 10 years later. In 2016, he received a Grammy Trustees Award, an honor that recognizes nonperformers who have made significant contributions to the field of recording. (Mr. Gamble and Mr. Huff received the award in 1999.)
Mr. Bell is survived by his wife of almost 50 years, Vanessa Bell; four sons, Troy, Mark, Royal and Christopher; two daughters, Tia and Cybell; a sister, Barbara; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Early in his career, Mr. Bell was met with questions about his often unconventional production and arrangements, particularly his extensive use of European orchestral conventions on R&B records.
“Nobody else is in my brain but me, which is why some of the things I think about are crazy,” he told Record Collector magazine. “I hear oboes and bassoons and English horns.
“An arranger told me, ‘Thom Bell, Black people don’t listen to that.’ I said, ‘Why limit yourself to Black people? I make music for people.’”