Archie Bell wants to relay a message to all the folks who plan on seeing him at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp. “Don’t forget to tell everybody to ‘Tighten Up!’” he exclaimed, adding, “Nowadays we really have to ‘Tighten Up!’” Since Bell has been doing precisely that for a full half century, it’s a safe bet he’ll be tightening up the Stomp for all he’s worth.
Archie Bell remains one of the funkiest gents ever to emerge from Houston, Texas, a city he forever put on the soul map with his jovial intro to “Tighten Up.”
“I’m Archie Bell and the Drells, from Houston, Texas, and we not only sing, but we dance just as good as we want,” he announced to the world–bold words fully backed up by a red-hot groove from the T.S.U Toronadoes, one of the city’s hottest funk bands.
Million-seller status loomed just around the corner, but celebrating would have to wait. Bell was stationed in Germany in the employ of Uncle Sam when “Tighten Up” topped the pop and R&B charts, making him unable to immediately profit from its success.
The Henderson, Texas native was initially inspired by his gospel-singing mother, Ruthie Bell.
“I started about five years old, in the Baptist church there–Corinth Baptist Church in Long Branch, Texas,” Archie says. “My grandpa’s name was Charlie Tatum. And all his brothers- eight boys- they used to sing in the choir in the church. Back then, everything was all acappella. Sometimes they had a piano that was in tune, but all the music was acappella. And they sang from a book that came from Africa. Everybody had to know it. It was called The Black Book. And that’s when I started listening to old hymns and things in the church.”
“My mother sang in the choir in church. I always admired her for her projection. She made sure that everybody in that church heard her when she sang, and she would always tell when we got up to do things in the church or whatever we were in, she said, ‘Make sure everybody in the place hears you!’ So that meant you have to project.”
Younger brother Ricky Bell became a college football and NFL star, but Archie wasn’t seduced by the gridiron. Bell, instead, crossed over to the secular side of music while attending E.O. Smith Junior High School.
“We started singing under the street lights, down in the neighborhood. The people never did complain about it. We’d be out there at night under the street lights and doo-wop long before we were going to high school.”
“Little Pop and the Fireballs was a group that we started. A neighborhood guy named Gary Cooper who lived across the street from me,” he says. “We had put a band together from the neighborhood. There was a guy named Timothy McWright, Gary Cooper was playing lead guitar, and Conrad Johnson’s son Bubba Johnson was playing bass.”
Conrad Johnson was a noted educator at Kashmere High School and an R&B saxist who had made late ‘40s 78s for the Gold Star and Freedom labels as a leader in addition to doing session work.
Bell attests that Johnson “trained half the musicians in Texas. There were thousands of people that went through him over there. The first year Kashmere opened, I went to Kashmere. I liked Conrad Johnson because he had a band like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, a big band.”
Johnson’s influence remained strong long afterward.
“I really got that early training with Conrad. That’s how the group formed. That’s how I got the Drells together. We formed a little group, but it was based on the way I worked with Conrad Johnson,” he says, “We had a little band, and later on when we started working together in nightclubs, doing nightclubs, they changed the name to the Americans ‘61. When ’62 came along, we became the Americans ‘62. Right on up through high school.”
The Drells formed during this period.
“The name of the Drells came from one of the guys in the group named L.C. Watson,” Bell says. “He loved the Dells. So what he did was add an ‘r’ to Dells, and it became Drells, you know. He loved the group and everything. That’s why we got the name the Drells. Back then, it was just the Drells, just like when the Miracles started. The original Drells was me, James Wise, Willie Parnell, L.C. Watson, and Cornelius Fuller.”
Personnel changes within the young aggregation eventually shook down to Bell, Wise, Billy Butler, and Joe Cross.
INFLUENCES LEAD THE WAY
“The Drifters and the Impressions, Curtis Mayfield and all those people were the people that really inspired me to get into show business,” Bell says. “Every time an entertainer would come to town, I would try to come and see him and ask him how to get in show business. Wilson Pickett was in town one night, and my manager at the time had booked him in town on a show and he told me, ‘Go back there and talk to Wilson. He might give you some pointers how to get into show business.’ It didn’t work out. When I went back to talk to him, he made a few statements and kind of blew me off. He kind of damaged my ego.”
“But Curtis Mayfield was working at a place called the Palladium Ballroom in Houston and after their first set, they were in the dressing room,” he says. “He was eating fish. He was eating after the first show. And it’s hard enough to get in there if they’re not eating. But I was real impressed. He said, ‘Tell Archie to come on in!’ I went in his dressing room. I said, ‘I’m trying to get in show business. I want to know what kind of advice could you tell me to get in show business.’ And he said, ‘Well, I tell you one thing, Archie—if you’re good at what you’re doing, the man with the cigar is going to come along and pick you up!’
“I got up and went to a concert once at a place called the City Auditorium. It’s not there anymore. I went to see Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. I was about 17 years old. And I was sitting there watching the show, and when Sam Cooke came on with no introduction, nobody moved. I never had seen that. Usually people were clapping their hands,” Bell says.
“Nobody in the building moved. When Jackie Wilson came on, the women started falling out like they were being shot down with machine guns. Even before he started singing, he just walked out on the stage and looked left and right, and the women just went crazy. I said to myself, ‘I don’t know how, but I know what I’m going to be doing the rest of my life!’ I made up my mind right then that night. I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I made up my mind that particular night. That’s where my greatest inspiration came from.”
The Drells’ big break came thanks to KCOH deejay Skipper Lee Frazier, who operated fledgling Ovide Records on the side.
“We used to do shows for him,” Bell remembers. “He’d have talent shows, and most of the time we won first place. We did a show in a place called La Porte, Texas, Sylvan Beach, and he had about 1500 people. And after the show that night, he came in the dressing room and said ‘Y’all want to record a record?’ Everybody said, ‘Yeah!’ You know? It wasn’t a question of asking your mama and daddy. Everybody said, ‘Yeah!’ That was one of the reasons of how we got started, to do a record.
“He used to do talent shows at the Gold Room at KCOH. They had a place called the Gold Room, and he used to do shows in there with different groups and everything. We would always appear at every one of those. In high school…anytime they would have a talent show, we would win first place. He saw that we were really consistent about being entertainers. That night we did that show in La Porte, Sylvan Beach. I think he had a premonition something could happen so he came to us and started talking about doing a record.”
Bell’s assured self-penned ballad “She’s My Woman, She’s My Girl” (backed with a funk-steeped “The Yankee Dance”) was issued on both the East-West label and Ovide in 1967. Even this early in his career Bell was featured on the record as “Archie Bell and The Drells” under both record labels.
“By me being up front with the microphone, the industry kind of tagged me Archie Bell & the Drells,” he says. “They put my name up front because I was the one doing most of the upfront singing, the front man of the singing group.”
Ovide issued a follow-up later in the year, a heartfelt Bell-penned ballad entitled “A Soldier’s Prayer, 1967,” which was backed by Chicano singer Sunny Ozuna’s San Antonio-based band, the Sunliners. The ballad mirrored Bell’s reality all too closely as Bell had reported for active duty in the military by then.
“I wrote that on the back of a deuce-and-a-half when I was in Fort Polk, Louisiana after my basic training,” says Bell. “I was on the back of a truck going to a rifle range when I wrote that. I got a three-day leave, a pass, and when I came back to Houston I recorded it.”
Inspiration for Bell’s signature theme struck when he was dealing with foreboding news.
“I was rooming with one of the Drells at a place called the Embassy Apartments in the Third Ward,” he says. “I had just gotten one of those letters from Uncle Sam. I knew they were going to get me. I think I was in one of the most depressed times of my life. I was almost suicidal, but not quite. Billy Butler, one of the guys I was rooming with– we was rooming together and the radio was playing. And he came in doing a little dancing. It made me forget about my problems there for awhile.”
When Archie inquired as to what dance the Drell was doing, Butler responded that it was the Tighten Up.
“About two weeks before that, we did a show in San Antonio, Texas one weekend. And I heard a disc jockey say that nothing good ever came from Texas because of President Kennedy’s assassination. So I said, ‘I’m one of the people that knows something good did come from Texas, if it wasn’t nothing but Archie Bell & the Drells,’” he says. “That was why I said, ‘Hi, everyone! I’m Archie Bell & the Drells from Houston, Texas! We don’t only sing, but we dance just as good as we want!’ That’s why I said that, not knowing that the song was going to be internationally as big as it was. I’m the one that put Houston on the world map! You can go anywhere in the world, and if you mention Houston, Texas, the people will mention Archie Bell & the Drells.”
“Tighten Up” rode a fluid, funky two-chord vamp provided by the T.S.U. Toronadoes, an expansive outfit that named itself after the college that most of them attended (Texas Southern University) and Oldsmobile’s hot new auto, the Toronado. Anchored by guitar-playing brothers Cal and Will Thomas, bassist Jerry Jenkins, and drummer Dwight Burns, the Toronadoes had been recruited as Ovide’s house band by Frazier.
“James Brown used to give the drummer some, but I gave the whole rhythm section a little play,” says Archie. “So that was really neat. And ‘make it mellow’ was the hook. When they’d get to a certain part, the ‘make it mellow’ part, that was a little something the T.S.U. Toronadoes had in the music.”
“Tighten Up” had been an instrumental workout that the band had already devised prior to meeting Bell.
“They were the ones that played the song ‘Tighten Up.’ They used to use that as a break song,” says Bell. “When they’d get ready to take a break after being on the stage, they’d play that. We used ‘Tighten Up’ like a slang word—like ‘Word up’ or ‘Right on.’ It was like a slang word that we used every day. ‘Hey, man, we’ve gotta go to rehearsal—make sure we tighten up!’ Or ‘We gotta tighten this show up!’”
Bell and Butler quickly added the lighthearted lyrics, and the aggregation cut the anthem at Jones Recording Studio in Houston.
The song took off regionally in late ’67 when Atlantic Records in New York caught wind of its potential and picked it up for national consumption. There was only one problem: Atlantic Records inexplicably chose to promote the opposite side of the single, the catchy Bell original “Dog Eat Dog,” as the plug side.
“That was one that me and another guy who was in the military wrote,” says Bell. “When we sent the record to Atlantic Records, they picked the wrong one. They started playing ‘Dog Eat Dog’ because New York was a dog-eat-dog city. Skipper Lee told me they were playing ‘Dog Eat Dog.’ I said, ‘No, man, they’re playing the wrong song!’ The A-side should have been ‘Tighten Up,’ but they made the A-side ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and about two weeks later, a disc jockey turned the record over to play Side B. ‘Tighten Up’ hit so big in one weekend, they were selling like 200,000 copies every weekend.” Atlantic got the message; they removed “Dog Eat Dog” from later pressings in favor of a nearly identical “Tighten Up, Part II.”
Archie had a full-fledged smash on his hands. It topped both the pop and R&B hit parades during the spring of 1968. Bell could not capitalize on his success straightaway, however, as he was confined to a hospital bed in Germany.
“I’d had an accident on the autobahn and broke my left leg,” Bell explains.
“They don’t have any speed [limits] on the autobahns in Germany, and I was there with a transportation unit. I was driving a truck, taking a tour of a certain town, and I was in the left-hand lane. The left-hand lane should stay clear when people be driving in the fog, and this guy ran into the back of me. When I was in the hospital, there was a guy named Bacon that was my nurse. He was the one taking care of me.”
Convincing Bacon or any of his fellow GIs that he had a million-selling record on the radio was no easy task.
“He said, ‘Bell, are you serious?’ He believed me, but a lot of other guys were telling me, ‘You guys from Texas can tell big lies!’
“About two weeks later, an article came out in Overseas Weekly, which was a military paper, saying, ‘The richest GI in the military since Elvis!’ Elvis had just left from over there a few years before I got there. So everybody believed me then. They found out I wasn’t lying to them,” he says.
“‘Tighten Up’ sold 12 million the first year, and I was in the Army making about $130-something a month, losing $50,000 a night because I couldn’t be there. I came back on a couple of 30-day and 15-day passes to break in. They had a lot of funny groups. They had nine white boys out of Nashville, Tennessee posing as Archie Bell & the Drells. Back then, they didn’t have the computer, so nobody knew what we looked like. I had to come back several times to go on tour to stop all the phony groups.”
Bell and the Drells’ debut Atlantic album, logically titled Tighten Up, was a hastily assembled mixture of sides done in Houston. The album included the delicious Bell originals “Give Me Time” and “When You Left Heartache Began,” a pair of hastily chosen covers (“Knock On Wood” and “In The Midnight Hour”) and several tracks that didn’t feature Archie at all. “You’re Mine” and “A Thousand Wonders” spotlighted the Toronadoes’ Cal Thomas on vocals. Charles Gibbs, formerly a member of the Drells, sang “I Don’t Wanna Be A Playboy.”
“I was in the Army, so Skipper Lee had to put different artists on the label to make the first Tighten Up album,” says Bell. “He didn’t have enough material to put on the album.”
GAMBLE & HUFF
The next step in Archie’s musical maturation came via two of Philadelphia’s hottest young producers.
“After I came home on one of those 15-day passes, we were working at a club in a place called Longside, New Jersey, which was a club called Loretta’s Hi-Hat. The lady who owned the club was Kenny Gamble’s godmother. Her name was Mama Loretta. The guy that was the manager of the club then was [Motown promo guru] Weldon A. McDougal III,” says Bell.
“We were all working together and after we did the first show at the club, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff came in the dressing room. There was something about ‘Tighten Up’ that impressed everybody. They had never heard nothing like that, especially from a group from Houston, Texas, what we called Texas funk. So they came in and said, ‘Hey, man, we love what you’re doing. We’d like to produce something on y’all!’ I called my manager Skipper Lee and told Skipper Lee about it. Skipper Lee called Atlantic Records and talked to them about it. Atlantic Records seemed excited about it so that’s how we got hooked up.”
Bell’s first trip to record with Gamble and Huff at Philly’s Sigma Sound in May of ‘68 produced a pair of major hits. “I Can’t Stop Dancing” hit the streets on the heels of “Tighten Up” and proved another blockbuster, going Top Five R&B and Top Ten pop.
“If you listen to ‘I Can’t Stop Dancing,’ ‘Tighten Up’ is similar,” says Bell. “‘I Can’t Stop Dancing’ has verses. ‘Tighten Up’ was like a jam, like a house jam, a party jam. The only thing different, ‘I Can’t Stop Dancing’ had verses.” The chord progression dreamed up by Gamble and Huff and arranged by Thom Bell was a tad more complex than the one driving “Tighten Up,” but there’s no mistaking its high-stepping groove.
The highly infectious Bell-penned “You’re Such A Beautiful Child,” was done a month or so later at Atlantic studios in New York.
“When I came from Germany on those three-day passes, I left Germany like at three o’clock in the morning,” says Bell. “Get to New York, it’d be Saturday. Record all day Saturday and half of Sunday, and be on a plane Sunday evening going back to Germany. You make reveille at six o’clock Monday morning. I did that about two or three times.”
Gamble and Huff also wrote and produced the eminently danceable “Do The Choo Choo,” which made it three hits in a row for Bell. Studio vocalists subbed for the Drells during this period.
“That was a little thing that Gamble and Huff did. They always wanted to keep me a dance group,” Bell recalls.
Only those two hits were Gamble and Huff productions on the group’s encore LP I Can’t Stop Dancing. The frantic workout “Do You Feel It?” and Bell’s yearning ballad “Love Will Rain On You,” which charted in its own right as the flip of “Do The Choo Choo,” were New York-cut masters, while a batch of covers–Curtis Mayfield’s “Sometimes I Wonder,” “Monkey Time,” “I’ve Been Trying” and a very personalized treatment of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay”—were laid down in Texas, along with the churning original “Jammin’ In Houston.”
In November of 1968, Bell was back at Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound to work some more studio magic with Gamble and Huff at the board. Kenny and Leon wrote and produced “‘There’s Gonna Be A’ Showdown,” Bobby Martin’s glossy arrangement underscoring the competitive side of dancing.
“Back in the day, they used to have what they called a sock hop. They had them at KCOH,” says Archie. “Once out of every two months, they would have a big dance party. Everybody would form a circle, and everybody would take turns. Instead of a Soul Train line, they would get in a circle, and everybody would get out there in the circle one at a time and do the dancing. The one who did the best would win the jackpot, the money that they had off the door. That’s why I sing, ‘I’ve got ten notches on my shoes.’”
“In other words, instead of shooting, we had danceoffs. The one who was fastest on their feet was the winner. That’s how that came. Gamble and Huff, I was telling them about it. I think they came and saw a show that they were doing here. That’s how they wrote ‘There’s Gonna Be A’ Showdown.’”
It proved a bigger seller than “Choo Choo,” breaking into the R&B Top Ten in early ‘69. Brothers Melvin and Marvin Steals wrote the mid-tempo flip “Go For What You Know.” They’d later brainstorm the Spinners’ smash “Could It Be We’re Falling In Love”.
Gamble teamed with Thom Bell to pen Bell’s next chart entry, the irresistible “I Love My Baby.” The song’s complicated contours required two arrangers: Martin and Thom Bell. Working with musicians such as guitarists Roland Chambers and Norman Harris, bassist Ronnie Baker and drummer Earl Young came with the territory when Gamble and Huff were at the controls.
“Earl Young on the drums, that was a drummer that never missed a beat. He was better than a machine,” says Bell, who wrote the mellow Houston-cut B-side “Just A Little Closer.”
Bell was finally released from the army on April 19, 1969.
“I was happy as a rat in a cheese factory,” says Bell.
“When I got out of Fort Dix, I had a buddy of mine that was in by the name of Bobby Colbert. He was in the same unit that I was. We were in the same billets and the same barracks. He lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and he picked me up from down at the military base in Fort Dix, New Jersey. When he picked me up going up the Interstate going back to Connecticut, I took and threw my uniform out on the Interstate!”
Bell conferred with Gamble and Huff a month later on the creation of his next hit single, “Girl You’re Too Young.” Thom Bell and Martin scribed a gliding arrangement for the song.
“We wrote that in about 30 minutes at the Shubert Building,” says Bell. “Gamble and Huff were in the Shubert Building, over the Shubert Theater right there on Broad Street, and they had an office on the fifth floor.”
Kenny and Thom Bell were back in a dance bag on the storming flip “Do The Hand Jive.” Gamble and Huff were the auteurs of Archie’s violin-enriched “My Balloon’s Going Up,” a hit in the autumn of ’69. Kenny and Leon’s uplifting “Don’t Let The Music Slip Away,” released in the spring of 1970, somehow avoided the R&B hit parade altogether despite a prototypical Philly soul arrangement by guitarist Roland Chambers. Gamble, Huff, and Martin tailored the swaying “Houston Texas” to Archie’s strengths for the B-side.
There’s Gonna Be a Showdown, Bell’s last album for Atlantic, was also his most consistent, containing all of his recent Gamble and Huff-produced singles. The album also featured the tough “Green Power,” an unlikely “Giving Up Dancing,” and “Mama Didn’t Teach Me That Way.” With their chart action slipping, a change of studio venue was imminent. Bell would be returning south, but not to Houston.
Archie waxed his next Atlantic session in June of 1970 at the newly inaugurated Muscle Shoals Sound, opened by Rick Hall’s ex-studio musicians in direct competition with Hall’s FAME Studios. Atlantic staffers Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro were in charge.
“They were downhome regular people. I had met Dave in Jacksonville, Florida when I had first gotten out of the Army. The first show we did was in Jacksonville, Florida. That was my first time meeting Brad,” says Bell. “He was right on the one. He was a man who understood what the music was about.”
Some things about the place were a little foreign to Bell, however:
“When we first got to Muscle Shoals, we walked in and all these white guys were sitting up behind the instruments. I said to myself, ‘I don’t believe this is gonna work!’ but I had forgotten that Aretha Franklin had been down there,” he says.
“When they started playing, after the first take, I said to myself, ‘Somebody needs to give me a swift kick in my behind!’ I should have waited to find out what they were doing. But when they started working and everything, it was so pretty I couldn’t believe it. I said to myself, ‘I’ll never do that again. I’ll never criticize or predict what people can do.’ Don’t judge a book by its cover!”
“Get It From The Bottom,” Bell’s first single from the Shoals hookup, was an odd choice —a recent release by a veteran Chicago soul group, the Steelers. Wade Marcus’ propulsive arrangement was thick with strings and horns and Bell sounded great, but the public avoided it.
Choreography was always a priority for the touring Drells.
“At the beginning, I was doing all the choreography and the vocals, teaching it. I was in charge of dress, everything they did. But later on, I let my brother, Lee Bell, take over the choreography,” says Bell.
“When I was in the army, he was the group’s road manager. We were working in New Orleans once, and one of the Drells—his name was Charles Gibbs—left. Back then, you could fly from New Orleans to Houston for about $25, so he left New Orleans to come back to Houston to eat a bowl of his mama’s beans and to see a married woman. That’s how he lost his job,” Bell recollects.
“My brother came to me that night. He was the kind of guy that if he was in the audience and we wanted to get him on the stage, to get him the recognition, you couldn’t get him on the stage. All of us together couldn’t get him on the stage. After the show that night, when we had to work without Charlie, he came to me and said, ‘I want to join the group!’ I was like the blind man. I said, ‘Oooh, I’ve gotta see this!’ So he joined the group, and he surprised me. Fell right in. He had a beautiful first tenor. He and James had that first tenor, like Russell Thompkins, Jr. or that boy from Blue Magic—he had the pretty first tenor. So he became the first tenor in the group. He took over the choreography after he joined the group, and I kind of had space to do other things.”
Crawford and Shapiro tried again with a revival of Sam & Dave’s Isaac Hayes/David Porter-penned “Wrap It Up,” and the ploy worked. The thundering single denting the R&B hit parade in late 1970 with Bell’s own forceful “Deal with Him” occupying the other side. Bell’s May ‘71 release “I Just Want to Fall in Love” was the work of Prince Phillip Mitchell, a soul singer from Louisville who was a longtime pal of Bell’s.
“He lived here in Houston about ten years before he went back to Louisville because he used to have a show, and we used to do shows with him.”
Crawford and Shapiro were still supervising when Mitchell came up with the playful “Archie’s In Love.”
“Every time they would see me, I would be on the phone, talking long distance. One day Prince said, ‘Archie’s in love!’ One of the guys that was singing in the group with me on the record came and said, ‘you mean Archie’s gonna leave all of this for that little country chick?’ That’s how that got penned. Prince was teasing me about, ‘Yeah, I think he’s in love!’ They’d never seen me talk about a woman as much as I did at the time.”
Marcus added a lush orchestration that should have resulted in a hit, but it didn’t happen. New Orleans singer Jimmy Jules was the source of the soaring B-side, “Let The World Know You’ve Got Soul.”
Atlantic Records went back to Gamble and Huff for Bell’s swan song titled, “I Can’t Face You Baby,” a ballad collaboration between Huff and three members of a vocal group called the Corner Boys. That was it for Bell and Atlantic.
“I always said that you sign up with them, you can’t leave them when you get ready, but they’ll drop you,” muses Bell, who waxed a slowed-down version of “Patches” for Atlantic before Clarence Carter got around to it. Bell’s rendition, produced in Muscle Shoals by Crawford and Shapiro, was vaulted.
Before long, Bell moved to Glades Records, the province of Miami mogul Henry Stone.
“We went down there with the understanding that when we got to Glades Records Steve Alaimo and KC were supposed to have all these songs ready to make a complete album, but when we got there, that didn’t happen. I was sitting in the studio, writing rhythm. I said, ‘I thought y’all was supposed to have all this stuff ready to go!’ After that first session, I told my road manager at the time, his name was Willie Martin, I told him, ‘Willie, I don’t think this is gonna work!’”
Despite this initial skepticism, two of Bell’s Glades releases became hits.
Bell was still recording in Muscle Shoals, but Mitchell had been elevated to producer statuswhen he wrote the churning “Dancing To Your Music,” arranged by keyboardist Barry Beckett.
“It was a real big hit, but the same thing with Glades—they never put it in motion or did any promotion or do anything. They were just trying to sell records. When you don’t put the public relations work in, you’ve got to spend the money to promote. They were great songs for us.”
The song just missed the R&B Top Ten in the spring of ‘73, Bell’s biggest seller since “’There’s Gonna Be A’ Showdown.” Frazier produced the funk-soaked B-side, “Count The Ways.”
Mitchell came right back with “Ain’t Nothing for A Man in Love,” which proved to be another winner for Bell. Beckett again crafted the relentless musical backdrop. It was another sizable chart item for Bell that summer in tandem with another Mitchell composition, the mid-paced “You Never Know What’s On a Woman’s Mind.”
A third Mitchell-helmed Glades offering, “Girls Grow Up Faster Than Boys,” missed the charts altogether by year’s end.
BACK TO PHILLY
It was time for Bell to make a move back to Philly, where Gamble and Huff now headed their fabulous Philadelphia International empire. They welcomed Bell back with open arms.
“That’s when I say I went to college. That’s where I got my PhD in music, by watching them guys and working with them. They really made everything correct, plus they were great musicians. McFadden and Whitehead did a lot of writing for me after Gamble and Huff got so busy they couldn’t produce anything. They kind of turned us on to Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, and people like Bunny Sigler, Phil Terry, all of those guys that wrote songs,” Bell says.
“When we’d get to town to Philly, they would have all the people that wrote songs for me. We used to go in the room and listen to maybe like 30 songs that different people wrote, and I would pick the ones that I wanted to do. That was the first time that I had any control about doing the music that I did.”
The strategy clicked. Signed to Gamble and Huff’s TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) logo and recording at Sigma Sound, Archie and his Drells scored their first hit for their new label in the summer of ‘75 with “I Could Dance All Night,” produced by Sigler who was one of the song’s composers and lushly arranged with a disco tinge by bassist Ronnie Baker. It was followed just before the end of the year by the disco workout “The Soul City Walk,” written and produced by McFadden, Whitehead and Victor Carstarphen, which also climbed the R&B hit parade.
“It was a guy from Washington, D.C. called Moon Man. He had a show called The Soul of the City, like Soul Train. McFadden and Whitehead and Kenny and them were at a show we were doing in D.C. once, and that’s why ‘The Soul City Walk’ came out, from the Moon Man’s show,” says Bell. “It’s still big on the East Coast. It’s a line dance kind of song.”
Huff joined producer/arrangers McFadden, Whitehead and Carstarphen to create “Let’s Groove,” Bell’s early ’76 blockbuster, which propelled him and the Drells into the R&B Top Ten for the first time in seven years as disco fever swept the land. All three tracks distinguished the group’s TSOP album Dance Your Troubles Away.
When he shifted over to the parent Philly International imprint, Bell suffered a rare chart miss in the autumn of ’76 with “Nothing Comes Easy,” but bounced right back the next year with “Everybody Have a Good Time,” an unabashed disco theme written and produced by Sigler from the group’s Where Will You Go When the Party’s Over album. “Glad You Could Make It,” penned by Carstarphen, was another healthy seller aimed straight at the dance floor, but the heartwarming “Old People,” a Sigler production, must have been a little too lyrically heavy for the dance crowd. Bell proved that he was more than just a dance floor specialist with his touching ‘78 hit “I’ve Been Missing You.”
“They didn’t realize that I was a ballad man from the beginning,” says Bell. “I tried to phrase the thing like Otis Redding would do it, but with Archie Bell’s voice. Eddie Levert came to me and told me, ‘Hey, man—you’re taking food out of my kids’ mouth!’ A lot of people thought it was the O’Jays. I told him, I said, ‘Hey, go talk to the producers about that. It’s just unfortunate that my voice and your voice are in the same range. I’ve been listening to you long before I had “Tighten Up!”’
“One day McFadden and Whitehead and I were sitting in the rehearsal room. They said, ‘We’re gonna go in there and tell Kenny and Leon we got some nice ballads for Archie.’ So we went in the room, and Whitehead told him, ‘Hey, we got some nice ballads!’ Kenny Gamble said, ‘Archie ain’t no ballad man. He’s a dance man.’ I said, ‘That’s bullshit! I started singing in the Baptist church when I was five!”
Nonetheless, Bell and the Drells scored their last major seller in 1979 with another dancer, McFadden and Whitehead’s “Strategy” –the title track of his Philly International farewell LP. Bell’s last Philly International release, “Show Me How to Dance,” fell through the cracks. Archie and his Drells parted ways that same year.
“We did a thing at Carnegie Hall, and at the time, there wasn’t nothing else to do…We had been over the world. Nothing else to do. And some of the guys, they had children in high school, graduating from high school. Everybody said, ‘Well, there ain’t nothing else to do.’ It’s just like we ran out of things to do. We had did everything we could.”
Bell then went solo, posting a 1981 R&B chart entry with his “Any Time Is Right” for the New York-based Becket logo.
“I didn’t start doing this to end it,” he says. “I would do it until I couldn’t do it anymore. I might not be able to travel around and do shows like I did, but I’ll always be in the studio producing or working.”
Archie Bell will most definitely be doing his show at this year’s Stomp, electrifying the proceedings just as he did the last time he starred here with his non-stop dance classics (and maybe a ballad or two as well).
“It’s been a great ride. I’ve had a great career. I wouldn’t change anything. I got an education that you can’t get in school about people, society, dealing with people and everything. I thank God for that so I’m just gonna try to pass on some of the things that I know that the other people passed on to me.”