Thom Bell: The Jamaican behind the Philly Sound

Thom Bell with the Stylistics

Thom Bell with The Stylistics

As a songwriter, musician, producer and arranger, Thomas Randolph Bell established himself as one of the most preeminent R&B/Soul and Pop Music figures of all time. Along with his "Mighty Three" partners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Bell created the lush and seductive sound alternatively called Philly Soul, Philly Sound, or Sound of Philadelphia, the most dominant sound in western popular music from the early to mid 70s. Bell was the driving force behind The Delfonics, The Stylistics and The Spinners.

Thom Bell was born in Kingston, Jamaica on the 27th of January 1943. Bell and his family moved to Philadelphia when he was about five years old. He studied classical piano as a child which would set the stage for his style of production: lush orchestral arrangements, using seemingly odd instruments, such as sitars and bassoons, to create sounds that were unique to Soul and R&B music.

Thom Bell

Thom Bell at his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame In 2006

Bell came from a musical family. His mother was a concert pianist. His father played pedal steel guitar, piano and accordion.

According to Bell:

“By the time I was six, I played drums and piano. By the time I was 11, I got into fluglehorn,... Then I got into trumpet... Then I got into the big drums in the drum and bugle corps .. By the time I was eight or nine, I was playing harp.... I made my own little guitars out of cigar boxes and a piece of wood and some rubber bands.  By the time I was nine or ten, I was playing accordion. Most people don’t know that on a lot of records, I was playing accordion.

Thom Bell's mother worked at the University of Pennsylvania as an executive secretary and as a coordinator for exchange students. Thom's grandfather was a teacher of botany and a horticulture at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ironically, Thom met Kenny Gamble when they were both teenagers, in Thom Bell's homeAccording to Thom Bell:

"Kenny went to school with my sister, one night she was helping him with his homework at our house. I was over on the piano having lessons and Kenny came over and introduced himself as a songwriter, he said ‘hey, maybe we could get together sometime?’ And that was it. I was 17, he was 16 and a week later we sat down at my house and started writing.” 

They started to collaborate from then. Bell joined Gamble's harmony group the Romeos in 1959.

Kenny Gamble and Tommy Bell - Some Day You'll Be My Love (1962)

By the age of 19 Bell was a conductor and arranger for Chubby Checker of “The Twist” fame. He quit two years later, because, according to him, he became tired of conducting “The Twist” all over the world.

Between 1960 and 1961, he lived in New York where he had moved to study to become a conductor and concert pianist. Bell recalls that Broadway had no use for “chocolate conductors” at the time and instead ushered him to “.. a fantastic place up in Harlem... called the Apollo. As they told him, "They really could use you up there.”
So Thom Bell joined the Harlem Apollo's house-band as pianist. He also worked at the Philly’s Uptown Theater, Chicago’s The Regal, and Washington DC's The Howard. During this period, he backed up many artists including: The Dells, Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, Jerry Butler and a struggling group called The Spinners.

He got a break when Luther Dixon writer of the doo wop classic Sixteen Candles and producer for the Shirelles hired him as a writer in New York after hearing him play at a nightclub. Luther used Thom’s playing on such songs as Chuck Jackson's hit Any Day Now.


The year 1963 saw Bell moving back to Philadelphia where he began to work for the Cameo Records as a session pianist. At Cameo he met the Delfonics, originally known as The Five Guys. He reduced the members to three. One of them had asked Bell, Man, you produce records?” Bell said yes even though he didn't’t know the first thing about producing records.

The Delfonics manager Stan Watson formed the Philly Groove label in 1968, and Thom became a producer, working with the Delfonics and producing two big hits 'La La Means I Love You' and the 1970's Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time', which extended Bell's reputation beyond Philadelphia.

Delfonics - La La (Means I Love You) - Live 

Bell won the Grammy for “La La Means I Love You in 1968. Before his 25th birthday he had had his first number one record. At the Grammy Awards ceremony, he wasn't allowed to collect his award because, at that time, Black people were not allowed to do so. Thom has never attended the awards ceremony since then.
Thom then joined up again with Kenny Gamble as a producer for Philadelphia International Records, the company which Gamble and Leon Huff started in 1971. Philadelphia International was set up in connection with Mighty Three music publishing company owned by Gamble, Leon Huff  and Thom Bell, however, Bell was not an owner of Philadelphia International.
Thom Bell career is marked by a few very significant songwriting partnerships. Thom's first great songwriting partner was guitarist William Hart of the Delfonics. He teamed up with lyricist Linda Creed in 1970 and would work with her until her death in 1986 from breast cancer. Together they would become one of the most significant songwriting teams of all times.
Between 1971 and 1974 Thom worked on the Stylistics releases, including their debut album produced for Avco records, an album considered by many to be one of the greatest Soul albums of all time. With his new songwriting partner, Linda Creed, they produced classics such as "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)," "Betcha By Golly Wow" and "You Are Everything" in 1971 and “I'm Stone In Love With You” and “Break Up to Make Up,” released in 1972.

The Stylistics perform "Betcha by Golly, Wow" and "You Make Me Feel Brand New" 

According to Thom Bell: "No one really knew what an oboe sound was until they heard the introduction to “Betcha By Golly Wow.” They weren’t even into a bassoon until they heard things like “Make Up To Break Up,” where I used a bassoon."

In 1972 Bell also produced the Spinners self-titled debut album for Atlantic records which included such hits as “I'll Be Around,” “Could It Be I Am Falling In Love,” and “Ghetto Child.” Some people regard the album as the decade' best pop/soul album. Bell also did production and arrangement work on The O'Jay's Backstabbers album for Philadelphia International.

The Spinners - Rubberband Man

Bell followed up his success with the Spinners with their second blockbuster album "Mighty Love," for which Bell won the Grammy award in 1975 in a new category created fro him, "Best Producer of the Year."

Over the 70s decade Bell was one of  popular music's most prolific hitmaker working with among others, Teddy Pendergrass, Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warwick, Lou Rawls, Little Anthony and The Imperials, and Dusty Springfield. He also worked with Elton John on an album that was not completed because of disagreement between them, from which the hit "Mama Can't Buy You Love" was released over a decade later.

Elton John, Mama Can´t Buy You Love - 1977 - Thom Bell Sessions List

Thom Bell was also good friends with Bob Marley. He worked with the I-Threes, Bob Marley's back-up singers – Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiiths – on their album “Beginning,” before Marley got sick in 1980. He penned three songs for the I-Threes. The Thom Bell sessions were recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau. The LP was released on EMI-America in the 80s.

In the 80s Bell slowed down, working less frequently, but still producing hits. He teamed up with Denise Williams, who he regarded as a great lyricist, to produce hits such as “It Going To Take A Miracle.”

Deniece Williams - "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" at Reggae Sunsplash '81

According to Thom Bell he got Deniece because:

“Her boyfriend at the time was from Jamaica and he was Bob Marley’s manager.  His name was Don Taylor.  I knew Don Taylor years ago.  When we were kids, we used to go to the Jamaican clubs in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.  Each area had its own Jamaican clubs.  Not only Jamaica, they would have Barbados, they would have Trinidad…”

  “Years later Don Taylor called me on the telephone and asked me, if I’d like to produce Deniece Williams.  I knew who she was.  I just didn’t know her.  She was selling records, but she was only selling records in the r&b end.  She wasn’t selling records in the pop end, the big money market end, and that was my forte.  I was lucky enough to be able to sell records in the pop end as well as r&b end.”

  “They wanted a black producer to work with her.  Then I talked to Maurice White, who had her at the time.  My people, my management, got together with the Columbia people to put the deal together...That’s how I got to work with Deniece.”

Thom also worked with Phyllis Hyman. A product of that collaboration is the hauntingly beautiful "Old Friend." On Old Friend, Thom Bell can be heard playing the Piano and Synthesizer.


Phyllis Hyman - Old Friend
(Interestingly Phyllis Hyman was married to Larry Alexander, her manager, and the brother of Jamaican Jazz pianist Monty Alexander)

In the late 80s Thom also reunited with the Stylistics on their album Closer Than Close.

Since the 90s, Bell has worked with a wide range of artists including James Ingram, Angela Winbush, Joss Stone, and David Byrne.

In 2006 Thom Bell was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.


Sources: NPR, Wikipedia Soulwalking, Song Writers Hall of Fame. Soul Jones Words, Soul Express John Braheny Bad Cat Records  Wikipedia

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Editor's Note: This article was first published  on Saturday April 20, 2013. From time to time we will re-post articles of great importance. We will use "Caribbean-events replay" to acknowledge that the article is a re-post of our previous publication.