Influential musician Thom Bell dead at 79

Musician, songwriter and producer, Thom Bell, who with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, were the architects of the Sound of Philadelphia, has died at 79. His songs, recorded by artists from the Stylistics to Elton John, are considered contemporary classics.
Musician, songwriter and producer, Thom Bell, who with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, were the architects of the Sound of Philadelphia, has died at 79. His songs, recorded by artists from the Stylistics to Elton John, are considered contemporary classics.

Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Thom Bell, who crafted some of the most memorable songs of the 70s and 80s has died. He was 79. Along with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, he was one of the architects of the Sound of Philadelphia which encompassed artists like The O'Jays, Patti Labelle, The Jacksons and Teddy Pendergrass.

His publicist told Variety that Bell died at his home in Bellingham, Wash. His lawyer Michael Silver, confirmed his death to the Philadelphia Inquirer. No cause of death has been cited.


Huff, Gamble, and Bell, known as the Mighty Three, collaborated on some of the most influential music of the era, many of which found their way to artists on Gamble and Huff's Philadelphia International Records label.

The trio was known for their lush orchestration which was inspired, on Bell's part, by the work of Ennio Morricone, the Italian composer who scored films like The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Bell's work included instruments unusual in R&B music, including the French horn, the celesta and the sitar.


"This gentleman wrote the soundtrack of our lives," Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson of The Roots wrote on his Instagram page.

He cited a list of songs including "La, La (Means I Love You)," Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)," "You Are Everything," "People Make the World Go Round," "Betcha My Golly Wow," "Mighty Love" "It's Going to Take a Miracle" and "You Make Me Feel Brand New," that Bell wrote.

"Thom Bell was the PHILLY-est of the foundational songwriters that gave my city its identity," Thompson's post continued. "Be it covers, samples, the originals from soundtracks from wedding bands, karaoke, or seeing in concert ---his life's work was no doubt our soundtrack. Rest In Melody, Thom Bell!"

Bell was born Thomas Randolph Bell in Kingston, Jamaica, on Jan. 26, 1943. His family moved to Philadelphia when he was a child. Bell studied classical music in the hopes of one day becoming a conductor but a chance meeting with Gamble changed the trajectory of his life and career. He and Gamble formed the doo-wop group Kenny and the Romeos in 1959.

"Tommy and I have been best friends for over 60 years," Gamble said in a statement. "When we first met, we decided to start writing songs together and form a singing duo 'Kenny and Tommy, and then our band the Romeos. Leon Huff and I were proud to have him as part of our Mighty Three music writing team, which helped create our signature brand of TSOP. He was a great talent and my dear friend. The name of Gamble Huff and Bell will last forever. Rest in peace buddy!"


After a stint on the road with Chubby Checker, as his pianist and musical conductor, Bell met the Delfonics, a Philly doo-wop group. They would collaborate on two of the group's biggest hits "La-La (Means I Love You)" and "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)."

Soon after that, Bell, Gamble and Huff formed Mighty Three Music, the publishing company for their songs. Though Bell elected not to be a part of the duo's fledgling Philadelphia International Records label, he was a significant part of its success.

"Gamble had the idea of merging our three sounds together, which was good, and we bought a building on Broad Street with a nightclub on the first floor," Bell said. "Now, I wanted to only be a partner in the building and the publishing company. I didn't want to be stuck in something I couldn't get out of, like a label. My job was to build up that production company, not only with the songs that I wrote, but the outside productions I took on. If I had been stuck at that label, with only the label's acts... that wasn't for me," Bell told Variety.

Bell also enjoyed success working with lyricist Linda Creed. They wrote most of the biggest hits for 70s soul groups The Stylistics and the Spinners, including "You Are Everything," "Betcha My Golly Wow," and "People Make the World Go Round" for the Stylistics and "The Rubberband Man" for the Spinners. True to his word of not being limited to one label, Bell produced the Stylistics for the Avco label.


"Everything I wrote and played, I heard first in my head," Bell said. "I didn't plan it out to be different or set out to do what hadn't been done before. That was just a byproduct. It was all organic on my part - just what I happened to hear.

Once I got a sound in my mind, it would grow and grow, and it would stick with me through the writing process, rehearsal, and into the studio. Maybe you call that an obsession, I don't know. Invariably, when other producers and musicians would say that my sounds were odd for R&B, I would just tell them, 'I don't do R&B -- I do music.'"

Bell also wrote for and produced albums for Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis, Billy Paul, Anthony and the Imperials, Phyllis Hyman, Joss Stone, and the Temptations, among others. In 1979, his EP with Elton John, The Thom Bell Sessions featuring the Spinners singing backup, earned a top 10 hit with "Mama Can't Buy You Love."

Producer Nile Rodgers remembered Bell on Twitter.

"#RIP Thom Bell He is one of the greatest writers and producers of all time. My condolences go out to his family and friends. He was the architect of the relationship between #BernardEdwards and me as we were the band for the group New York City (I'm Doing Fine Now) a Thom Bell smash."


Edwards and Rodgers went on to form the group Chic, an influential band in the disco era whose hits included "Good Times."

Bell's songs have been covered by Prince, Mary J. Blige, James Taylor, Boys II Men, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Michael Jackson, and others and his music has been sampled by artists in multiple genres.

Bell was the recipient of the first Producer of the Year (non-classical) Grammy in 1975. A 2006 inductee into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, Bell also has a star on the Philadelphia Music Alliance's Walk of Fame on Broad St., and in 2017 received the Grammy's trustee's award for Lifetime Achievement.

"Thom Bell was my favorite musician, arranger, songwriter and music producer of all time," Huff said in a statement. "It was my esteem, honor, and pleasure to work with him creatively and as a business partner. Rest in peace."

Bell is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and his six children, Royal, Troy, Tia, Mark, Cybell and Christopher.

"I got what I deserved," Bell told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I got the satisfaction of making music. I got to make a few bucks. And I was able to think and do what I wanted to do. I'm in it for the love of music. That's what makes my heart beat."


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Anita Pointer of the Grammy-winning Pointer Sisters stands with Andy Madadian (C) and La Toya Jackson (L) as Madadian is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2020. Pointer, who performed alongside her sisters June and Ruth, died at the age of 74 on December 31 following a battle with cancer. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

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