January 29, 2023

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Sound of Philadelphia producer and architect Thom Bell dies aged 79

Thom Bell, the legendary producer who revolutionized Philly soul in the 1960s and ’70s, has died, Rolling Stone and The Philadelphia Inquirer report. Bell co-created “The Sound of Philadelphia” with songwriter Leon Huff and producer Kenny Gamble, known as the Mighty Three. Together they formed Philadelphia International and produced some of the era’s most popular records. Bell’s best-known works include the Delfonics’ “La-La Means I Love You”, the O’Jays’ “Backstabber”, Elton John’s “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” and the Spinners’ “Rubberband Man”. A cause of death has not yet been announced. He was 79 years old.

Bell was born in Jamaica in 1943, but his family moved to West Philadelphia, where he grew up with nine brothers and sisters. Both of Bell’s parents were musicians, and Bell followed suit: growing up, he played drums and studied classical piano. In his teens he played alongside Gamble in the Romeos, and by his early twenties he had taken a job as a permanent writer and touring conductor with Chubby Checker. In the late ’60s, Bell began working as a producer for the Delfonics, a collaboration that led to hits like “La-La Means I Love You” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind.”

Bell’s classical background influenced his work as an arranger and producer, and he used instruments and techniques that were considered unconventional at the time. His lush signature sound could encompass everything from sitars to orchestral strings to bassoons, but his notation wasn’t always traditional. “The very first time I wrote music for my strings, I wrote a number and I wrote ‘Pluck’ over it,” Bell told Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene in 2013.

He continued, “The musicians said to me, ‘Hey Bell; What is this “pluck” business? What are you talking about, man?’ I thought: ‘You know [mimes plucking strings with fingers].’ They just looked at me and said, ‘You mean pizzicato!’ They keep sending me Christmas cards teasing me about it.”

In 1975 Bell won the Grammy Award for Best Producer of the Year and in 2006 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. A new documentary focusing on the work of Bell, Huff and Gamble was announced earlier this year.

As news of Bell’s death broke, Gamble wrote in a statement (obtained by Rolling Stone): “Tommy and I have been best friends for over 60 years. When we first met we decided to write songs together and form a singing duo “Kenny and Tommy” and then our band The Romeos…. He was a great talent and my dear friend. Rest in peace mate.”