Thom Bell can relate. Decades earlier, the legendary songwriter, producer and arranger blazed a prominent trail of his own when in 1975 he won the Grammy organization’s very first ever Producer of the Year award.
Officially, he was given that Grammy–then called Best Producer of The Year–for burning up the charts with hits on ’70s hits by the Stylistics (“You Make Me Feel Brand New”) and the Spinners (“Mighty Love”).
However, one could say Bell, who in the ’60s successfully produced the Delfonics (“La La Means I Love You,” “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time”) and arranged some of the Philadelphia International label’s biggest hits in the early ’70s, was bestowed the honor on sheer principle of being such a musical force during the period.
Twenty-first century Black performers, writers and producers who routinely take the Grammy podium should know what the ceremony was like back in 1968, when, before winning that Producer of the Year honor in ’75, Bell was nominated for writing the Delfonics,’ “La La Means I Love You.”
Back then, there was a dearth of First-I-want-to-thank-God speeches at the Grammy podium. “They didn’t want blacks on the stage,” said the mild mannered Bell. “But nobody told us that. We arrived all decked out and excited, expecting to sit in the audience. Instead, they had the white version of the Grammys on TV and the ‘chocolate’ version off to the side somewhere. They didn’t even want to give me tickets to sit in the main room. I said, ‘But I’m nominated! If I win, how can I even accept the award?’ Finally, they gave me ONE TICKET. In the back. By the door. But they didn’t want to give me that.”
Bell was overjoyed when the envelope was opened and his “La La Means I Love You” was announced as Song of The Year. And then he suffered the final insult: an executive from the record company went up on stage and accepted his Grammy.
In the future, Bell would fight for the equality of his writing partner, a little white girl with a knack for sentimental lyrics named Linda Creed. Their first successful collaboration, the Stylistics’ 1971 hit, “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” marked the beginning of a streak of Bell/Creed classics for the group, including “You Are Everything,” “Betcha By Golly Wow” and “I’m Stone In Love With You” and such Spinners hits as “One of A Kind (Love Affair),” “Mighty Love” and “The Rubberband Man.” Creed, who also co-wrote (with Michael Masser) Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love Of All,” died of breast cancer in 1986 at age 37.
“Record executives didn’t believe she was really writing the lyrics,” said Bell. “They’d say, ‘Oh, leave your girlfriend in the lobby.’ I said, ‘She’s not my girlfriend, she’s my songwriting partner and if she’s not allowed in, there won’t be a meeting.”
A classically trained pianist who is often referred to as a musical genius (“There’s no such thing,” Bell griped. “A genius is someone who can do everything”), the Kingston, Jamaica-born Bell meticulously writes out every note of his productions, from string, horn and rhythm arrangements. He personally dictated the approach of every lead vocalist he worked with.
Every one, that is, except legendary Spinner Phillipe Wynne.
“All his scatting at the end of those records was his,” said Bell, “spontaneous and in one take. He only cut the ad-libs on “Mighty Love” twice because Linda went to the bathroom and missed the first take. She pleaded with him to do it again so she could watch.”
Bell created memorable music with artists as disparate as Johnny Mathis, Elton John, David Bowie and Deniece Williams, among others. Today he stands among the pantheon of songwriter/producers who have forever changed the face of pop music. He lives as a mere mortal in Washington State.
Ever discerning, these days the 67 year-old Bell declines most production requests, preferring to spend time with his grandkids. And cooking. “James Ingram (once produced by Bell) has tasted my cooking,” he offered in challenge to my skepticism. “Ask him.”
After winning that first Producer of The Year Grammy, Bell later won the same honor two years in a row, one year beating out the ubiquitous Stevie Wonder. “Back then, Stevie always won everything, but he didn’t win that one,” Bell said with a mischievous guffaw. “And he never forgot it, either.”