Rann Miller

BY RANN MILLER | AC JosepH Media Guest Blogger

This holiday season is the first without my father and it’s tough. However, memories of him help keep a smile on my face.

I can remember the many car rides we took, whether to school or the barbershop. I am unsure of the experiences of other kids, but my dad didn’t believe in a democracy where controlling the radio was concerned. We listened to what he wanted to list to. I yearned to hear Power 99, meanwhile he played 105.3 WDAS.

One of those car rides, while “DAS” was playing, I remember a song being played. It started with the sound of wind chimes, followed by soulful groove… “DOOM DOOP, DOOM DOOP… DOOM DOOP, DOOM DOOP.”

Next thing I know, the great Russell Thompkins Jr. begins crooning:

Trash men didn’t get my trash today / Oh why? Because they want more pay

Buses on strike, want to raise the fare / So they can help pollute the air…

From there, my teenage mind got lost in the groove, the melody, and most importantly… the message.

The song you ask, “People Make the World Go Round,” performed by the Stylistics. That was the magic of Thom Bell. Sadly, Mr. Bell transitioned Thursday, Dec. 22 at the age of 79. I found out from reading the tweet of Ms. Dyanna Williams.

Thomas “Thom” Randolph Bell was a vital member of the musical juggernaut that was the Sound of Philadelphia, as well as Mighty Three Music publishing company, along with Mr. Kenneth Gamble and Camden, New Jersey’s own, Leon Huff.

Although a Philadelphia staple, the Bell-Gamble-Huff connection has some roots in New Jersey; Lawnside to be specific. Lawnside, New Jersey’s first incorporated Black municipality and home to stops on the Underground Railroad, served as the mecca of Black nightlife and entertainment in South Jersey.

When part of Gamble’s Kenny and the Romeo’s, Bell (and Gamble) performed at the famed Loretta’s Hi-Hat.

Those roots sprouted into fruit that nourished the soul with songs like “Ready or Not Here I Come” performed by the Delfonics, “Silly” performed by Deniece Williams or “Life is a Song Worth Singing” performed by Johnny Mathis and later Teddy Pendergrass.

According to Bell, “I don’t write anything that’s hard on the ear…I don’t care if it’s loud, big-bam-boom James Brown, or anything else. It has to be pleasing to the ear.”

The most pleasing for me are the classics Bell penned for the Stylistics and the Spinners. Songs like “I’ll Be Around,” “The Rubberband Man,” “Mighty Love,” “The Games People Play,” and “Ghetto Child,” staples in the Spinners catalog, have Bell’s fingerprints all over them. Almost every Stylistics classic… “Stop Look and Listen,” “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Break Up to Make Up,” “You Are Everything,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “I’m Stone in Love with You,” and “People Make the World Go Round” is from the mind of Thom Bell.

When you think of the great music writers, Smokey Robinson, Rod Temperton, Stevie Wonder, Norman Whitfield, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Gamble and Huff… think of Thom Bell.

In all of his music, Bell displayed his unique flair for the dramatic; with soulful intros, that not only lead the listener into the song, but into another world. That world would take listeners higher than ever thanks to Bell’s penchant for working with some of the greatest falsetto’s music has ever heard; from Russell Thompkins Jr. to William Hart.

The lofty harmonies and angelic arrangements accomplished just what Bell sought… a sound that was pleasing to the ear.

For his work, Bell has won awards and honors, including a Grammy for producer of the year in 1975. Those things are certainly wonderful. But amongst the tradition of Black musicians, songwriters and artists, Bell is now an ancestor whose music can be called on to teach us about who we are to one another. For that, we will continue to keep his name alive.

Bio: Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ.  

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