Various Artists – Ready Or Not: Thom Bell’s Philly Soul Arrangements & Productions 1965-1978 (Ace Records)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Ace Records’ Producer Series is looking to recognise the people behind some of the landmark records in pop music – arguing along the way that music studio personnel are not recognised in the way film directors are. They have a particularly strong point in the case of Thom Bell, whose arrangements have helped enhance a good number of Philadelphia soul hits from the 1960s and 1970s. A lot of them are still household regulars, and this compilation takes the stance of a greatest hits set in its quest to recognise Bell’s genius.

Bell, a classically trained musician, became bored with his initial three-chord efforts at songwriting – and was soon looking to bring more of his musical education into his work, with increasingly adventurous techniques and tricks. He often worked in tandem with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but has tended to languish in the background when it comes to recognition alongside their contributions. With reference to his musical training, hiss scoring became more imaginative, transforming the songs of some of the biggest names in soul – The Stylistics, The O’Jays, Johnny Mathis and The Delfonics all beneficiaries of his touch.

What’s the music like?

Invigorating and inspiring – and a real pick me up in the current times. The fact that this series of songs is paying tribute to an arranger and orchestrator means the listener is compelled to listen beyond the lyrics – and once you do that a whole host of treasures await. The songs themselves are instantly recognisable in many cases – The O’Jays’ peerless Backstabbers, The Stylistics’ People Make The World Go Round, New York City’s I’m Doin’ Fine Now. But where would The O’Jays’ be without that distinctive rumbling on the piano that starts the track, or New York City without the punchy block brass chords – or The Stylistics without their shimmering strings?

Bell can take credit for all and more besides. Among the many highlights here are the airy orchestration to the winsome Connie Stevens song Tick Tock, the brilliant matching up of violins and bass guitar on Archie Bell & The DrellsHere I Go Again, and the brassy Delfonics classic Ready Or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love).
Topping even these moments is the atmospheric introduction to Johnny MatthisLife Is A Song Worth Singing, which tells a story in itself with a swirling wind and grainy strings, the music up close and vividly personal. Meanwhile the other Delfonics inclusion, You’ve Been Untrue, benefits from Bell’s imaginative use of harpsichord and zither.

Does it all work?

Very much so. The only slight regret here is that The O’Jays’ Love Train – which Bell appears to have had a hand in – is not included. One of the finest soul songs around, it is notable for its brilliant string arrangement. To be honest, though, that is a minor quibble as all of the 23 songs chosen here are examples of how to boost a song with imaginative orchestral writing.

Is it recommended?

Yes, on several levels. Producers like Thom Bell deserve all the recognition they get and more, for what they bring to soul and pop music is so much more than mere window dressing. They are able to elevate a song from merely good to fantastic, providing those extra touches that we latch on to when the songs appear on the radio. Bell does all that and more, an imaginative mind whose rewards are rich and varied, and who enhances all of these songs.

Stream

You can hear all the songs on this compilation in this pre-created Spotify playlist from Timo Kangas:

Buy

You can buy Ready or Not from the Ace Records website

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