Thom Bell, the prolific producer, songwriter and arranger who, as the architect of Philadelphia’s lush sound of the late 1960s and 1970s, was one of the driving forces behind the historic R&B recordings of the Spinners, Delfonics and of Stylistics, died Thursday at his home in Bellingham, Washington. He was 79 years old.
His death was confirmed by his manager and attorney, Michael Silver, who did not cite a cause.
Along with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Mr. Bell was a member of the writing and production team – the Mighty Three, as they were called (and as they called their publishing company) – that gave birth to what became known as the Sound of Crême Philadelphia. Renowned for its groove-rich bass lines, cascading string choirs, and gospel-infused vocal arrangements, the Sound of Philadelphia rivaled music from the Motown and Stax labels in popularity and influence.
A classically trained pianist, Mr. Bell brought uptown sophistication and melodic inventiveness to top 10 pop hits like The Delfonics’ “La-La (Means I Love You)” (1968) and The Delfonics’ “I’ll Be Around”. Spinners (1972). He was particularly adept as an arranger: on records like “Delfonics Theme (How Could You)”, strings, horns and timpani build, like waves crashing on a beach, to moving emotional effect.
He also wrote the arrangement for the O’Jays’ propulsive Afro-Latin tour de force, “Back Stabbers,” a No. 3 pop hit in 1972.
Mr. Bell had a knack for incorporating instruments into his arrangements that weren’t usually heard on R&B recordings. He used French horn and sitar on Delfonics’ ‘Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)’ (1970) and oboe on Stylistics’ ‘Betcha by Golly, Wow’ (1972). Both records were Top 10 pop singles, and “Didn’t I,” which was later covered by New Kids on the Block, won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. a group in 1971.
“The musicians looked at me like I was crazy. Violin? Timpani?” Mr. Bell opened up about his first session with the Delfonics in a 2020 interview with Record Collector magazine. I played the electric piano and the zither, or something wild like that.
“Every session,” he continued, “there was always an experience.”
Mr Bell, who usually collaborated with a lyricist, said his main influences as a songwriter were Teddy Randazzo, who wrote teary ballads like ‘Hurts So Bad’ for Little Anthony and the Imperials, and Burt Bacharach .
“Randazzo and Bacharach, they are my leaders,” Bell told Record Collector. “They gave me what I was listening to in a more modern way.”
Mr. Bacharach “also had a classical education,” Mr. Bell said in the same interview. “He was doing things in strange times, in strange keys. He was doing things with Dionne Warwick that were unheard of.
Sound engineer Joe Tarsia, the founder of Sigma Sound Studios, where most of the hits associated with the Sound of Philadelphia were recorded, liked to call Mr. Bell the “Black Burt Bacharach.” (Mr. Tarsia died in November.)
Coincidentally, Mr. Bell’s first No. 1 hit single as a producer was Ms. Warwick’s “Then Came You”, a 1974 collaboration with the Spinners. (He also won the 1974 Grammy for Producer of the Year.)
His other No. 1 pop single as a producer was James Ingram’s hit, “I Don’t Have a Heart,” co-produced by Mr. Ingram.
Mr. Bell produced dozens of Top 40 singles, many of which were certified gold or platinum. His influence on subsequent generations of musicians was deep and wide; many contemporary R&B and hip-hop artists, including Tupac, Nicki Minaj, and Mary J. Blige, have sampled or interpolated his work.
Thomas Randolph Bell was born on January 27, 1943 in Philadelphia. His father, Leroy, a businessman, played guitar and accordion. His mother, Anna (Burke) Bell, a stenographer, played piano and organ and encouraged young Tom (he only later began to spell his name Thom) and his nine siblings to pursue music and other arts – in Tom’s case, the piano.
He was in his early teens when he started thinking about pop music. The triggering event was hearing Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Tears on My Pillow” on the radio while working at his father’s fish market.
“I fell in love with the whole production,” he said of the epiphany he experienced in a 2018 interview with The Seattle Times. “I listened to the background, the bass, much more than the lyrics.”
Mr. Bell and his friend Kenny Gamble teamed up and started a singing duo called Kenny and Tommy. They met with little success, but the experience confirmed Mr. Bell’s desire to pursue a career in pop music. He soon found work playing piano in the house band of the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, and he was eventually invited to perform on soul singer Chuck Jackson’s 1962 hit, “Any Day Now”.
But he got his big break — while working at Cameo-Parkway Records in Philadelphia as, among other things, tour bandleader for Chubby Checker — when he wrote “La-La (Means I Love You)” featuring William Hart, lead singer of the Delfonics.
In the late 1960s, while continuing to collaborate with the Delfonics, Mr. Bell reestablished ties with Mr. Gamble and his creative partner Leon Huff. He became a member of their team at Sigma Sound Studios and eventually Sigma Sound house band, MFSB (the initials stood for “Mother Father Sister Brother”).
By the early 1970s, Mr. Bell had begun working as a producer, arranger and songwriter (most often with lyricist Linda Creed), first for the Stylistics and later for the Spinners, which he helped to found. revitalize the career after it stalled at Motown.
He remained active through the 70s, even as the Sound of Philadelphia was eclipsed by disco and rap. But aside from successful collaborations with Johnny Mathis, Elton John, Deniece Williams and Mr. Ingram, the hits stopped coming.
Mr. Bell had moved to Tacoma, Washington, in 1976 with his first wife, Sylvia, who suffered from health problems that her doctors said could be alleviated by a change in climate. The couple divorced in 1984, and soon after Mr. Bell remarried and moved to the Seattle area. He moved to Bellingham in 1998, having then retired from the music industry.
He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Musicians Hall of Fame 10 years later. In 2016, he received a Grammy Trustees Award, an honor that recognizes non-performers who have made significant contributions to the recording field. (Mr. Gamble and Mr. Huff received the award in 1999.)
Mr. Bell is survived by his wife of nearly 40 years, Vanessa Bell; four sons, Troy, Mark, Royal and Christopher; two daughters, Tia and Cybell; one sister, Barbara; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Early in his career, Mr. Bell faced questions about his often unconventional production and arrangements, particularly his heavy use of European orchestral conventions on R&B records.
“Nobody else is in my brain but me, which is why some of the things I think about are crazy,” he told Record Collector magazine. “I hear oboes and bassoons and English horns.
“An arranger said to me, ‘Thom Bell, black people don’t listen to that. I said, ‘Why limit yourself to black people? I make music for people.