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How Thom Bell Created a Sound for a City, a Record Label, and for Generations of Fans

Bell reflects on 50 years of Philadelphia International Records in an exclusive interview

Thom Bell Interview
Illustration by Allison Aubrey
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    50 years ago, the sound of Philly Soul was born out of the legendary Philadelphia International Records. With the talents of The O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, The Three Degrees, McFadden & Whitehead, and others, the label rewrote the standards of soul music. To celebrate all P.I.R. contributed to the world of music, we’re publishing a number of soul features this month, and giving away The Story of Philadelphia International Records prize pack, which includes vinyl, a turntable, and speakers.


    For some households, a Sunday morning consists of certain sounds. The sizzle from a couple strips of bacon cooked just right. That crack an egg makes before it gets scrambled or goes over sunny-side. And, of course, a tune by The Stylistics echoing in every room. Or The Delfonics. Or The Spinners.

    What defined these songs, besides the incredible performances, was the production courtesy of singer, songwriter, arranger, and record producer Thom Bell. Beginning in the ’60s, Bell provided soundtracks for love, heartbreak, regret, and distant memories using techniques that, at the time, were more common in classical music than R&B. His dedication to “the basics,” as his late mother called them, defined an era and helped to create the sound of Philadelphia International Records.

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    According to Bell, that was just the sound of the city.

    “The environment created the sound,” Bell told Consequence by phone in late October. “It was what I felt and smelt. You’re just guessing; you go by feel. You hope that if you appreciate it, someone else will appreciate it. And a lot of people were on the same wavelength I was when I wrote the songs, and they still are today.”

    For Bell, the music he created as an adult goes way back to things he experienced as a child. Like most kids his age, Bell was adamant about playing the drums. Who wouldn’t want to have a license to make all that noise? But his mother, the boss of the house, insisted he starts with the piano, a battle of wills she easily won.

    “She said I’m going to learn to the piano because the piano is the heart of any orchestra,” he recalls. “The piano teaches you every conceivable note that’s known to mankind, and if I can master the piano, I can master anything.”

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    Bell not only mastered the piano, but the drums as well, using both to play the only music they had in their house: classical music. Bell didn’t know rock or R&B existed until one fateful day at his father’s fish store: “The first Rock record I heard was ‘Tears On my Pillow’ by Little Anthony [and the Imperials]. And from that moment on, I was drawn to this style of music.”

    If there was one song an 18-year-old Thom Bell heard that served as a precursor to what ultimately made him famous, it was “Hurts So Bad” by Little Anthony and The Imperials. The 1959 song contained timpani drums backed by an entire orchestral arrangement. Even if the genre was foreign to him, the music behind the words spoke to him in a language he understood all too well. Today, Bell has no problem acknowledging how artists like Little Anthony, Henry Mancini, and Burt Bacharach influenced a resumé longer than a line of a couple hundred Philly Cheesesteaks.

    “If you think about it, there’s nothing new under the sun,” he says. “When you hear things that you appreciate, you don’t realize that you’ll either copy those things or do a rendition of those kinds of things. I was subconsciously doing a rendition. I borrowed things that I heard and loved and cultivated my own style.”

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