In the music industry, he was one of the people who made the world go round.
Thom Bell, the Jamaica-born, Philadelphia-raised songwriter, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer died on Thursday at his home in Bellingham, Washington after a lengthy illness, according to his wife. Bell is acknowledged as one of the architects of the Philly Soul style (also known as the Sound of Philadelphia). The Grammy-winner who mixed lush orchestral strings with funky R&B worked with artists like The Spinners, The Delfonics, Dusty Springfield, The O’Jays, Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and many others. He was 79 years old.
Bell was a classically trained pianist, studying under National Medal of Arts-winner André Watts, and, as a teen, was part of a singing group with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The trio, later mythologized by Philly Soul fans as The Mighty Three, would form Philadelphia International Records in 1971. (Another an early friend was Daryl Hall, later of Hall & Oates, one of the biggest acts of so-called “blue-eyed soul.”)
One of Bell’s first hits was 1968’s “La-La (Means I Love You)” by the Delfonics, which he co-wrote, co-produced, and arranged. Its mix of a swooping, instantly recognizable melody against a luxurious bed of strings and a crisp snare drum is a perfect example the Sound of Philadelphia.
Unexpected instrumentation was a Thom Bell specialty, like the oboe introduction to “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” a hit by the Stylistics in 1972 that Bell produced and co-wrote with lyricist Linda Creed, sometimes credited as Linda Epstein. Speaking with NPR’s Terry Gross last year, Bell remarked that there was some pushback at first against the long introduction to that tune. “I’ve heard many people say Black people don’t want to hear that, and Black people don’t do this, and Black people don’t do that. That’s a misconception. And these were Black people who were telling me they don’t hear that kind of music. Man, I ain’t interested. I didn’t believe that. It sounded good to me,” he said.
It sold over a million copies.