Remembering one of the “Mighty Three” who gave us “TSOP”. Philadelphia is of course famous for the Liberty Bell. But, there’s one other Bell that was important to the city as well – Thom Bell was born 80 years ago today. Give or take!
Bell became synonymous with the Philadelphia soul sound, but was born in Jamaica. Probably late at night, because sources conflict over whether he actually made his appearance on January 26 or 27… even the Wikipedia page cites both days in different paragraphs! Either way, what’s important was that he moved with his parents to Pennsylvania at age four, and he was classically trained in piano. By his late teens, he began singing around Philly with Leon Huff, Kenny Gamble and Daryl Hall. Hall of course eventually became part of the very successful duo Hall & Oates. Huff and Gamble were of more enduring importance to Bell though, being dubbed “the Mighty Three” years down the road.
Thom began doing session work in the ’60s for Cameo Records, and soon made a name for himself, writing, producing and even arranging orchestral pieces for pop/R&B songs. His first real breakthrough as such was with the Delfonics, co-writing and producing their 1970 top 10 hit, “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind.” When Gamble & Huff started their own company, Philadelphia Intl., he went to work for them, although through luck or great business savviness, he wasn’t limited to working with just that label. In fact, if it was Philadelphia, if it was soul or R&B and it was the 1970s, Thom probably had a part of it. He worked with Billy Paul, the O’Jays, even Dusty Springfield one time. He was responsible for much of the sound of Philadelphia, so it was appropriate he also worked with MFSB, the session players who had the hit “TSOP” – “the sound of Philadelphia.” But he was most successful with the two “S” groups of the city – the Stylistics and the Spinners. He wrote and produced a number of the most popular songs by both, including “Betcha By Golly Wow” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New” for the former and “Rubberband Man” with the Spinners, with whom he won a Grammy in 1974 for Best Producer.
He did an EP with Elton John in 1979, which yielded the hit “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” – one might remember that Elton’s big 1975 hit “Philadelphia Freedom” was written to sound like the works of the Mighty Three – but after that, Thom’s career slowed down considerably in the ’80s.
Although his name didn’t appear on many hits after that, his extensive body of work in the late-’60s and ’70s earned him a spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005.
Sadly, he passed away just shy of his 80th birthday, last month after a “lengthy illness.” Kenny Gamble said of him “Leon Huff and I were proud to have him as part of the Mighty Three writing team, which helped create our signature brand of “TSOP.” He was a great talent and a dear friend.” Betcha that was right, by golly wow.