We salute and pay heartfelt tribute to the truly iconic producer/songwriter Thom Bell (January 26, 1943-December 22, 2022), whose impact on contemporary music is truly timeless with decades of classic recordings by The Stylistics, The Spinners, The Delfonics, Johnny Mathis, Ronnie Dyson, Dionne Warwick, Little Anthony & The Imperials, New York City and James Ingram among others. Thom’s contribution to ‘The Sound Of Philadelphia’ via with foundational production and arrangements at Philadelphia International Records as part of the ‘Mighty Three’ triumvirate with Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff remains unparalleled. 

Rest peacefully, Mr. Bell.  

In soulful remembrance, we revisit SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan’s very first interview with Thom in November 1975, the start of a long association and many great conversations over the years since.  The occasion: the release of Dionne Warwick;s masterful “Track Of The Cat” album which Thom had produced in wake of the global success of “Then Came You,” Dionne’s No, 1 hit duet with The Spinners in 1974…

The venue set for the occasion was New York and we met up with the personable Mr. Bell at the airport, where he’d arrived from his home in Tacoma, Washington. Thom was quick to explain why Tacoma was now home. “You know, at one point, everything was going crazy I was handling six acts altogether, out of Philadelphia and I felt that moving out to the West Coast would be good for a number of reasons. The climate, the peace, the pace. I now have a ranch there with my wife and children and I’ve cut right back now — I’m only working on The Spinners and Dionne.”

Thom’s previous roster had included Johnny Mathis, Ronnie Dyson, Little Anthony and, of course, The Stylistics. “On top of all that, I had my own record company — Tommy Records, then later Thunder Records — and I was the guy writing the material, doing the charts, producing the acts! So I felt I had to cut down to be able to concentrate my efforts on particular projects.” He says that working with Dionne has been a totally enjoyable experience and took time to explain how they’d worked on the first album. “Well, like all the people I produce, I sat down with Dionne and talked for about two or three hours. Just talked about whatever — not about music or material. Just conversation. That’s what I’ve always done with all the acts I worked with — Russell Thompkins of The Stylistics, all the guys in The Spinners. Then from our conversation, I draw up a character reference — get some idea of what kind of person you are. A personal impression is formed from what I hear and I work on that. With Dionne, I had this constant feeling that there was a connection between her and a cat. Just take a look at her: she has a feline grace, she’s slinky. Even her facial features — those eyes, the cheekbones. So for about three weeks, I studied all the books I could find on cats and their behaviour and saw how it related to Dionne.” We should add at this stage that Mr. Bell is a particularly remarkable human being. He reads some five books a week, has a library that boasts nearly 2,500 books on subjects as varied as aerodynamics to the sex life of a mosquito — and we’re not jiving! He lives basically on but a couple of hours sleep and one square meal a day, stating that his relaxation comes from work. A pretty phenomenal young man! “After drawing our conclusions about that cat connection, I sat with Linda Creed and out came ‘The Track Of The Cat’. Then, it was a question of choosing material which fitted along with the impressions I had formed of Dionne and her character. She’s an unpredictable lady — you never know what she’s going to say next!”

Carefully handpicking material from his own stable of writers as well as penning six of the ten tracks (all but one with Linda Creed), Thom set about working on the rhythm tracks for the sessions and then rehearsed with Dionne just a couple of times to familiarize her with the songs.”If they become too familiar with them, they become bored — which is understandable. So I like to keep them as fresh as possible. I always know how I want the finished product to sound right from the beginning and I don’t discuss with the artists how they should sound. Basically, after our initial conversation, I listened to Dionne sing with just a piano — no mike. Because a microphone distorts your voice and I wanted to get an accurate idea of what Dionne could do, even though I’d heard, of course, the records she’d out over the years. I give the artists direction as to what I want and then tell them to sing the material the way they want, their own interpretation. Then, we compromise and use some of what they do with some of what I want them to do.”

Following their rehearsals, Thom gave Dionne a tape of what they’d done and let her go away to study it. “We didn’t see each other for about three or four weeks and then it was time to record. The whole album took basically eighteen hours to lay down as far as Dionne’s vocals were concerned. She’s a very intelligent lady and so she memorizes things very well. It was really no problem at all.” Commenting on the album, Thom says: “I’m happy with it but it was like we were just feeling our way for this first one. Whatever we do in the future will improve upon this project. I approached the album in a different way — you’ll notice that there are not a lot of heavy keyboard parts on the songs. Plus it was necessary for me to make sure and stay away from anything which might draw a comparison with the things Dionne did with Bacharach & David. A lot of people have compared what I do with Bacharach’s music and I take it as a compliment. But with Dionne, it was important to establish a musical identity which took her away from that or any other comparison.”

Even though some folk have claimed that Thom has tried to use tracks that would be as suitable for The Spinners, there can be no doubt that he has come up with a quality set on the lady which displays her vocal abilities to the maximum. It should most certainly provide Dionne with her biggest success since her partnership with Burt & Hal dissolved, outside of “Then Came You”. And on that subject, Thom explained: “Yes, we did have an album planned for Dionne and The Spinners but it was really the legal and business people that prevented it. I had even gotten to the point of selecting material, everything. But, you know, I’m not a business person. I’m a creative guy and that’s what I have to concentrate on. I used to have to go to business meetings and I’d sit there so bored, my mind would constantly be in the studio. So now I have a business manager who takes care of all that aspect of things — makes sure I get paid the right amount and so on!”