Discussing Thom Bell with Steve
Craig Charles played a tribute to Thom Bell, three songs from one of the greatest writers and producers of soul music.
‘Steve,’ I said, ‘Thom Bell has died. A sad day for Northern soul fans.’
Of course, Steve didn’t hear me. I was driving along the M4 motorway through South Wales and Steve has retired and moved to warmer climes.
On a Friday morning, in the school in Gloucestershire where we taught together, Steve would email staff with the Feelgood Friday tunes – three upbeat three minute songs. The sound of Northern Soul music would fill the corridor past the humanities classrooms before 7.30 a.m.
What might have found favour among Northern Soul fans seemed often an arbitrary matter. Sometimes it would seem impossible to guess what would be popular, perhaps it would just depend upon who was in a particular place on a particular night.
A Detroit Spinners song began one morning. ‘The Spinners,’ said Steve, ‘called the Detroit Spinners because of Motown’s association with the city.’
Thom Bell was pianist, conductor, arranger, and producer of the Detroit Spinners’ eponymous 1973 album.
Steve was definite in his preference for the music that came out of Detroit, particularly that of Tamla Motown, over that which came out of Memphis on Stax records, and over the sound of Philadelphia music. Perhaps Motown is much lighter, cheerier and more danceable than some of the stronger rhythm and blues and funk music that came out of the other cities. If Northern Soul is anything, it seems to be about lightness and levity.
Had Steve not been lured away by the prospect of sunshine, warmth and gardening all year round, I might have phoned him and asked what his definitive list of Thom Bell records might have been.
Archie Bell and the Drells were among Craig Charles selection and I know Steve numbered their records among his thousands of seven inch singles, but Craig Charles also played The Stylistics You are everything, not really the tempo that might be expected by those who dance to Frank Wilson and Dobie Gray. Thom Bell also produced The Delfonics, a band with a deeply soulful sound that can make some Motown music sound like trivial pop.
The discussion with Steve would have been a good one. Thom Bell was a classically trained musician, a Grammy award winner, it is to be expected that his work would have a greater breadth than a single genre of soul music, but it would have been interesting to know how much of his work would have been accepted on those dance floors of Lancashire.
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