On a recent sunny afternoon in Houston, I sat down with septuagenarian soul legend Archie Bell to discuss — among other things — his popular, perhaps improbable, smash hit from 1968: “Tighten Up,” by Archie Bell and the Drells. It’s the breakout early funk single that, according to Bell, “put Houston on the map.”
And that’s a fair assessment. It was the No. 1 song on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot Rhythm and Blues charts for several months in early 1968, remaining fairly popular ever since. To date, more than 50 known recorded covers, tributes and hip-hop-based samples have been logged across the U.S. and Latin America; countless live versions from acts as wide-ranging as James Brown, Yo La Tengo and R.E.M. have added to the total. Rolling Stone includes "Tighten Up" in its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
More decisively, however, the word “Houston” rings prominently throughout the first verse. All of which is part of the song’s rousing introduction, in which a young man named Archie Bell, who, along with his band, The Drells, wants to tell you about some new dance that is apparently all the rage in Houston, Texas — the Tighten Up.
Known lovingly to fans as “Mr. Houston,” Archie has been hard at work ever since representing Houston at home and on the international stage before reppin’ H-town was a thing. Before Neil Armstrong uttered the city’s name on the moon just one year later. Before Houston rappers, well, rapped about Houston. Before Beyoncé “Ms. Third Ward” Knowles was even born. It’s also the most popular song about a dance craze that never really was — and that not many people really know how to dance today. (There are apparently different versions of the dance in different parts of the world, including New Guinea.)
Along with some backstory on the song, here’s your official step-by-step tutorial from the man himself — and an invitation to dance it — at A Fistful of Soul and our upcoming 7th anniversary party this Friday, October 21. We’ll be spinning the original version and our favorite covers throughout the evening – including a funky version by Mexican garage-rockers Los Johnny Jets, whose drummer, Raúl Galvan, is father to none other than celebrated Houston rockero Felipe Galvan of Los Skarnales.
Houston Press: I’m curious about the Houston-San Antonio music connection during the early part of your career. Didn’t you use to perform with Sunny and the Sunliners back then?
Archie Bell: For sure. Before that song [“Tighten Up”] blew up, we were touring with Sunny and the Sunliners, and it was a really great thing. We got to travel all over with them. But, you know, over there in San Antonio, they were doing a lot of Hispanic music at that time, which also influenced our sound. And they were funky. Sunny and the Sunliners had a band that could blow James Brown’s band out of the water! But yeah, at that time we also had a mixture of zydeco from Louisiana and different styles in the area. And that’s where “Tighten Up” came in — it was a mix of sounds. People at the time called it “Texas Funk.”
Tell me a little about the making of “Tighten Up.”
Well, the TSU Toronados — they were a group that went to Texas Southern University — they’re the ones who penned the music. They used the instrumental as a break song in their sets. And I heard about it from Skipper Lee [Frazier], my manager [and theirs], and I said, "I like that groove." They didn’t have a name for it, but I called it "Tighten Up." We finally got in the studio to work on it. One day I get a letter from Uncle Sam and I’m thinking, "Oh, Lord, I know they’re not gonna send me over there!" I think I was at one of the most depressed times of my life. I was later stationed in Germany. Some time after that, I’m back in San Antonio doing a show with Sunny and I hear a disc jockey say over the radio, "Nothing good ever came from Texas" — he was talking about the Kennedy assassination. [Note: According to ABC13.com, Frazier passed away last Friday. Our condolences go out to his family.]
When I got back to Houston, I thought about that and I wrote that first part about, ‘We not only sing, but we dance as good as we want’ — I wanted to show people that some good things actually do come from Texas! Later, a guy named Bill McKay took the record to Atlantic Records and they put “Tighten Up” on the B-side with a song called “Dog Eat Dog” on the plug-side. I told Skipper Lee, "No, man, they’re playing the wrong song!" Well, some disc jockey played the other side [Gladys "Gee Gee" Hill of Houston’s KCOH] and it blew up, doing 200,000 copies a week. Atlantic then took “Dog Eat Dog” off and replaced it with “Tighten Up - Part II.” It went on to sell over a million records.
But you first put it out on Skipper Lee’s Ovide Records, right? Did you think it was going to be a hit? It’s a unique song in that there’s no lyrics or really singing to speak of.
That’s right. I mean, no — no one knew it was going to be such a huge hit. When we later got to New York [Atlantic’s headquarters], well, we found out the people in the R&B department didn’t know how to promote “Tighten Up.” These people, when they got off work they went to a square dance or something — they didn’t know anything about black music! Especially not “Tighten Up,” because no one had ever heard anything like that. We later had issues with phony music, too. Some people thought we were a bunch of white guys from Nashville [The Classmates].
White guys from Nashville? You mean that weird cover song on Hit Records? I’ve been curious about that.
Yeah, man! There were nine white boys from Nashville putting out records pretending to be Archie Bell and the Drells! This is before the Internet; no one knew what we looked like. [Points at Tighten Up LP cover on table.] See, that was one of the first records to show a picture of a black band, but you notice we’re on the backside. They had those cartoons on the front. I didn’t know anything about the cartoons. I mean, at least they’re black…
All right, so you were drafted while “Tighten Up” is blowing up. Shortly after, the LP comes out. How did this all happen while you were in the Army?
AB: I had two- or three-day passes to go home and I would go back and record and then come back.
Yeah, I was a young man back then so it didn’t bother me. I would leave Germany on Friday, go to New York on Saturday and be there all day and night and record, and then I would go back to Frankfurt on Sunday.
That sounds exhausting! Many people credit you for making Houston more recognized on the national music scene. I understand your producers at Atlantic, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, even worked with you to cultivate Houston as a central part of your image.
Yeah, Gamble and Huff wrote songs that included lyrics about Houston, and I always wanted to show to the world that Houston had some world-class musicians and talented artists. That’s always been my thing.
So, I’ve heard there are variations on dancing the Tighten Up. Did you ever try to teach people at your shows?
Yeah, people would invent moves. I even remember people from different parts of the same city would have different ways to dance it. One time Frank Sinatra pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey man, that Tighten Up is really working! How do you dance it?’ and we showed him. People would sometimes dance it like the Funky Four Corners [another popular dance at the time].
I knew you guys cut the song at Doyle Jones’s studio here in Houston. But I once read a quote from Skipper Lee talking about how it took more than 25 takes for the final version! Can you tell me about that?
AB: Yeah, I thought it was more like 50 takes! [Laughs]. You can even hear me laughing on some of it if you listen real closely. We were having such a good time; we didn’t realize we had spent so much time in the studio. The engineer was a young man named Bert Frilot. He was just 18 years old at that session. He was really ahead of his time. If you listen to “Tighten Up” today, it sounds like it was recorded yesterday.
So why “Tighten Up”? Was it something you just made up?
We used to say "tighten up" to everything — it was like "word up" or "right on." And at rehearsal, we would say, "Hey man, we got to tighten this stuff up." It was like a slang word. But most of the time it was like, "Hey man, y’all got to tighten your shit up!" [Laughs] I mean, we were just messing around in the studio; I guess that’s why it was so popular. People said it sounded like a house party. I wanted to do something to lift people up. That’s where I was coming from musically; things we were experiencing as a community. But you know, I started off here in Houston working with the Kashmere Stage Band.
Wow, I didn’t know that. I thought you went to Wheatley [High School]. So you worked with Conrad Johnson? What was that like?
Yeah, well, I went the first year Kashmere High opened. Conrad Johnson’s son, Bubbha Johnson, was the bass player. There was also a guy named Gary Cooper and Timothy Macveigh, who was the saxophone player. We used to play in [a] band called Americans of ’61, because this was in 1961. Then each and every year after that, we changed it to that year — ’62, ’63 and so on — and I did that for about five years.
Yeah, I know that Americans of ’68 record on Ovide Records. I had no idea you were connected to that.
AB: That’s right. I worked with so many people during that time; we were the house band at this club on Bennington in Kashmere Gardens. Bobby “Blue” Bland, Al “TNT” Braggs, Esther Phillips — they all played there. But yeah, that’s where I learned my chops. We would play all night. But once “Tighten Up” hit years later, we encountered promoters who wanted us to play that one song the whole night! (Laughs) We’ve played “Tighten Up” everywhere, you know? Everyone knows it.
For sure. I can’t imagine how many times you’ve heard “Tighten Up” — and all the times you’ve performed it.
I hear it in my sleep! [Laughs] I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and mumble, "Tighten up on those drums" [laughs]. And I ain’t in no club! Especially those early years. It just stays with you, in your subconscious. But you can’t ask for anything better — it’s like a fairy tale. We put Houston out in the world. And I’m the man who put us there. You can go anywhere in the world — China, Japan, all over Europe — so many people know about Houston through “Tighten Up.”
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Archie Bell will appear for autographs and pictures at A Fistful of Soul's seventh anniversary party, also featuring special guest Gaz Funk, 9 p.m. Friday, October 21 at the Continental Club, 3700 Main.
Native Houstonian Alex LaRotta is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Houston, focusing on popular music and cultural history in Texas and the Southwest; he is currently writing his dissertation on San Antonio's "West Side Sound." This Friday marks his third anniversary as a Fistful of Soul DJ.