Stop, Look, Listen: Thom Bell, My Musical Hero…

By Alex Lloyd

I was 10 years old, maybe even younger when I first heard the sweet, soulful sounds of the Delfonics, the Stylistics and the Spinners coming from the stereo in my parents’ front room in Devon in the south-west of England. I was fixated, as I was with most music I was soaking up at that age. But, there was something about these songs in particular that remained with me. Of course, I heard a lot of music growing up. Motown, was a big influence, as was classical and jazz, but the Philadelphia Soul Sound was what lead me down my musical path, a path I’m still forging now, and one musician in particular stood out above all others, Thom Bell.

I remember my mum had a record collection unrivalled. Often, rainy Sunday afternoons were spent exploring these strange, round little pieces of black plastic with song titles, abbreviations and surnames dotted over colourful labels. Alongside singles by Diana Ross, the Chi-Lites, Barry White, and the Commodores, I remember picking up masterpieces such as ‘Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time’, ‘I’m Stone In Love With You’, ‘Ghetto Child’ and ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’ (ironically, the first single my mum ever bought). As a 10 year old, the common thread I began to notice on all of these records was the addition of a little abbreviation on the label – ‘T.Bell’. Who was this mysterious ‘T.Bell’ and why was he linked to all these songs? Sometimes he arranged, sometimes he produced, sometimes he wrote and in most cases, all of the above. I of course found out soon after that this stood for Thom Bell; the pioneering, yet somewhat elusive composer, producer and arranger who turned black music on its head in the late 60’s and throughout the 1970’s. And despite this, he is perhaps one of the most underrated and under appreciated of the last century.

His records were unique. You knew they belonged to Thom Bell. Even when Bell was producing the vocal group New York City (‘I’m Doing Fine Now’), critics thought it was the Spinners, attributing this to the musical features of the record’s producer calling it “the Thom Bell sound” (much to the annoyance of the group in question who thought the attention should have been on them). This isn’t to say that other producers weren’t unique. You could always tell a Holland Dozier Holland production, a Gene Page/Barry White production, and a Gamble and Huff production. Even though Gamble and Huff and Bell were the iconic Mighty Three Music production team, the difference between a Gamble and Huff production and say a Bell and Linda Creed production was like night and day, but both are classed as Philly Soul. To have this level of characteristic quality in your music so that the composer is recognised on the same level, if not more than the artist recording it is rare. But it happened to Bell. Miles Davis said, the hardest thing for a musician to do is sound like himself. Every musician aspires to be the best version of themselves, and that’s the challenge.

Later, when I became a teenager and began studying music, it was the music of Thom Bell I turned to. There was a stylistic (no pun intended) element to the orchestrations which were completely unlike any other soul records I had heard. Bassoons, French Horns, Oboes, Marimbas – on a soul record?! But the use of these instruments made the songs sound the way they did. Each instrument has a voice, and if you use it effectively, it can elevate a song to another level. The sensitivity of an oboe in the opening bars of ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’ can bring you to tears, and the French horn rips in ‘Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time’ instantly rally the listener like a call to battle. Bell knew how to engage the listener. This is what I picked up as a teenage arranger, eagerly listening to his orchestrations and arrangements. To keep hold of your listener or audience, you had to first entice them in, hold them close and let the next song draw them in again.

When I started writing songs, I noticed Bell’s compositional techniques. He heard music like Burt Bacharach; odd time signatures, key changes which moved seamlessly through the grooves – it was enthralling. I had the opportunity to meet and work with various musicians, arrangers, and composers whom I was able to learn from and study, some of which worked closely with Bell, and all said that to work with the man was a masterclass in music. One day, I hope someone could say the same of me.

I feel somewhat moved as I sit  down to write this piece. When I look back, this music has been beside me through thick and thin. So many occasions in my life up until now, both good and bad have been accompanied, empathised or enhanced by Thom Bell’s music. From a relationship break-up, graduating university, driving to work, or simply relaxing in the garden on a summer afternoon, I’ve lost count the amount of times I’m turned to this music for comfort or excitement. The influence has been more that musical, it’s been my life.

So, here I am, nearly 17 years after I first heard a Thom Bell record at the age of 10. I sit here at my piano, about to start work arranging music on a new album project for a record label in England. To my left, is my desk; with a pot of worn down pencils and a pile of fresh manuscript paper. To my right, is a black case of LP’s, music and memories, all of which, arranged, produced, composed and or conducted by the ever extraordinary, Thom Bell.

Thanks Thom.

Alex Lloyd is a UK based composer, arranger, and producer, grounded in the traditions of Classic R&B and Soul music. A dedicated musician, he has written arrangements for artists such as the Chairmen of the Board and the Drifters, and has recorded with members of Motown’s legendary house band the Funk Brothers. He has also written and produced hit UK soul songs for Dayton Grey, Hayley Ria-Christian, Steve V. King and Michael Williams.  SoulMusic Records-Digital released two singles by Dayton Grey, composed, arranged and produced by Alex.