More More More!!! Part 2-The Spinners, the Stylistics, and the Genius of Thom Bell
One of the few oases that got me through the desert of ‘70s pop music was the sweet soul coming from bands out of Philadelphia such as the Stylistics and the Spinners. The genius behind them, writing, arranging, producing and playing keyboards, was Jamaican born Thom Bell.
I first became aware of him in 1970 through “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” by the Delfonics’, which Soul Jones aptly calls “The sweetest revenge ever on record.” Much of his signature sound is already there, from the French horn calls that open the song to the strings, brass, bells and electric sitar that lushly support the falsetto riding joyfully on top. The song beneath that hefty arrangement is very fine, and also characteristic of him. We can already hear his classical training in those strings and horns. We hear it again as he modulates keys twice before reaching the first chorus. Rather than rely on a single hook, the song hosts at least three – “Didn’t I do it baby,” the Motown-inspired pathos of “I’ve tried so many times and that’s no lie,” then finally the title hook, which proves that revenge can be not only sweet but plainly exuberant.
Thom’s next big project was the Stylistics, whose Russell Thompkins, Jr. possessed perhaps the greatest bittersweet falsetto in soul music (though Marvin Gaye’s frowning down on me as I write this). “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “Bethcha By Golly Wow,” and “You Are Everything,” are all masterpieces of emotion – and of overproduction. Their deepest song is “Break Up to Make Up.” Here the fat production doesn’t just coddle our ears, but paints the lyrics in a way Bach himself might even appreciate. The song opens with the melody on tuba doubled with vibes and embraced by a thick comforter of strings, distinctly echoing Burt Bacharach and the fullness of love in sound. That fullness lingers for an extra measure, unwilling to let go, and then the blanket falls away to expose a sparse rhythm section and Russell alone imprecating: “Tell me what’s wrong with you now, tell me why I,” joined with luscious harmony for, “never seem to make you happy, though heaven knows I’ve tried.” He’s alone again for the next line, then again in harmony, continuing the contrast between full and empty.
The chorus sees another variation on this contrast. “Make up to break up, that’s all we do,” is sung in bare octaves, accompanied by strings, also in octaves: two people hitting the same note, but so far apart. Strangely, the song climaxes mid-verse with a line sung in close yet tragic harmony: “We have got to get together or baby we’re through.”
Throughout the song, Thom Bell paints the contrast in the title over and over, between the fear of cold break-up, and the warmth of making up.
A man living alone in sparse rhythm section quarters, or a couple in distant octaves –and the hope of living in glorious harmony, which is never far away, but never lasts.
After scoring a series of hits with the Stylistics, Thom wanted to go for a somewhat harder sound, and found it with the Spinners. Here he reached one of pop music’s over-production pinnacles, marrying all of his sweet tricks with funky drums and percussion.
The intro to “One of a Kind Love Affair” is a great invitation to this new style. A fat, bare syncopated tom and snare riff is joined by grand piano doubled by clavinet, laying down chord changes against a single obsessive guitar note. It ends with violins ripping down like an outthrust arm announcing – Here’s the new sound, and it’s a hit. Now here’s the vocal.
With the Spinners, Thom started doubling his grand with Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos and with guitars, part of his campaign to beef up the midrange. This is architecture: a full midrange is necessary to hold up the monumental structure of the arrangement, gluing those high voices, violins and bells to the bass, kick, cellos and trombones weighing down the bottom. In order for the backbeat to compete with all that midrange, he famously doubled the snare with a tom. He then added rhythmic complexity to that crowded midrange with percolating congas.
Through the mid ‘70s, during my 45 minute commute to my producer gig, I studied all the great Spinner’s stuff: songs like “Could it be I’m Falling in Love,” and Dionne Warwick’s great duet with them, “Then Came You.” The radio was my arranging school, and as soon as I deciphered what I heard, I would use it. I eventually identified and used just about everything on those Philly tracks, though we never did manage to get hold of an electric sitar. One sound remained mysterious to my unschooled ears – that round, custardy hum that fattened up the midrange. Some kind of horn – trombone? The day I finally got it, that it was horns, but French horns, I made the step from arranger to orchestrator.
I recommend buying individual songs of the Stylistics – I didn’t hear anything great on their Best of I didn’t already know from the radio. But the Best of the Spinners has 16 really good songs, many of which, such as “Ghetto Child” and “Love Don’t Love Nobody,” I’d never heard before.
There’s a great interview with Thom Bell here: