Pop Life

Thom Bell and the Sound of Brotherly Love

While the ubiquitous songs of Detroit's Motown get anthologized and commercialized ad infinitum, and the critics salivate over the gritty southern soul of Memphis' Stax, the third great movement/label of '60s and '70s soul has always gotten short shrift. Until now, that is, with the release of the box set Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (PIR/Legacy).

Spearheaded by producers/songwriters (and recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees) Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International label, the Philly sound took a lot of disparate musical elements - gospel, jazz, R&B, soul, pop, even classical - and blended them into a catalogue which scored chart hit after chart hit.

With smooth ballads for the bedroom, boogie-down jams for the dance floor, and fiery sonic sermons for the street, there was plenty of groove emanating from the city to shake the Founding Fathers out of their scratchy breeches. The bulk of material from the four-CD, 71-track set - which comes with detailed liner notes and essays - comes from the PI label, but also includes Gamble/Huff freelance projects (1967's "Expressway [To Your Heart]" kicks things off), as well as affiliated artists. 

So there's plenty from the Spinners ("I'll Be Around," "Then Came You"), the O'Jays ("For the Love of Money," "Back Stabbers"), the Delfonics ("Didn't I [Blow Your Mind This Time]"), and the Stylistics ("Break Up to Make Up"), as well as the Three Degrees, Jerry Butler, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (and solo efforts from lead singer Teddy Pendergrass), Lou Rawls, and house band MFSB (which stood for "Mother, Father, Sister, Brother").

MFSB is best known for the hit "T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)," which became the theme for the TV show "Soul Train." The third spoke in the Gamble/Huff Philly soul axis was the incredible songwriter/producer/arranger Thom Bell, who oversaw many of the sessions and co-wrote a number of the genre's big hits ("I'll Be Around," "The Rubberband Man," "Break Up to Make Up," "La-La Means I Love You").

Recently, Rocks Off spoke with the still-utterly groovy and upbeat Bell about the city and the sound.

Rocks Off: Motown and Stax have always gotten the lion's share of soul-related attention from fans and critics. Do you think it's about time that Philly finally gets its due here?

Thom Bell: No, no. Everything takes time, so you just wait. Because when you're doing it and making records, it's because you love to and you don't think about [legacy]. But our music came at a strange time with a lot of change in the air, and we did things quietly. But do people remember those songs now!

RO: I know that Gamble and Huff wanted your services exclusively to their label, but you remained independent. Why?

TB: Well... I'm a singular individual. A leader, not a follower! (laughs). And while I could have made a lot more money than I did by going with them [full-time], that still doesn't satisfy the inner you. I wanted to do my own thing.

RO: We talk about these songs in 2008, with decades of their familiarity and impact behind. But when you were in the studio making them, were more interested in how they would be accepted three months down the line than 30 years?

TB: Oh yes, and you have to have fun while you're making them. You can explore areas of your mind musically that you wouldn't be able to do at any other time than [the present]. It's hard to write a No. 1 song because you have to be on the same lane in the same train on the same way in the same day as your audience. We worked hard at creating the music, but we had a lot of fun as well.

RO: One of the unique things to me about the Philly sound is the use of so many different instruments, and not necessarily ones affiliated with soul and R&B like strings and classical ones. How did that come about?

TB: I had studied to be a concert pianist for so many years, so the classical world is where I came from. It was a natural process for me to hear music with oboes and cor anglais and things like that.

But Atlantic Records had strings, and there was a tympani in "There Goes My Baby" by the Drifters, and then Teddy Randazzo and Don Costa were doing things with Little Anthony and the Imperials, and then Burt Bacharach with Dionne Warwick. So it wasn't [unprecedented], but our songs were different.


RO: My favorite act you've worked with is the Stylistics. The songs were great, and Russell Thompkins, Jr. just had the highest voice on things like "Betcha By Golly Wow."

TB: And he still does! Most people didn't even know he was male or black until pictures of the group came out! (laughs). The funny thing is that I had to bring his voice down because it was higher than that! But there was more beauty when he came down a bit...he was something else.

His voice was clear as a bell and he had a memory like an elephant. We finished that first record in one day, two at the most, because he could knock a complete song out in 20 minutes!

RO: QuentinTarantino used your "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" often in the movie Jackie Brown. Did you at least get a date with Pam Grier out of the deal?

TB: (laughs) No! I actually know Pam, through her uncle. We did run into each other and laugh about it.

RO: The Philly sound and its artists were heavy on the charts in the '70s, then virtually disappeared. What do you think happened?

TB: Like the Studebaker and the Mercedes-Benz, it had its time. Everything does. You can only be number one for so long. It's like if you put a pencil in a sharpener and it goes to a point. It can only get so sharp, and then it breaks and you have to start all over again.

That's what happened. And people move on. Nobody wants to rehash the same thing over and over again. - Bob Ruggiero


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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero