Thom Bell and Linda Creed
Today, I’m a Pro!
“You Make Me Feel Brand New” / Mighty Love / “For the Love of Money”
In the first few months, I got to work with Thom Bell on two projects while assisting Don Murray at night. Thom who had produced such hits as “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” and “La La Means I Love You” for the Delphonics and a string of hits for the Stylistics such as “You Are Everything” and “Betcha By Golly Wow” to name a few, had begun working with Don Murray for two reasons that I can recall. One, Joe’s availability was limited as he was working so much with Gamble and Huff and secondly Thom stated that he wanted to move away from Joe’s style of mixing with more echo or reverb than Don Murray typically used. He chose to use Don exclusively and began mixing dryer records than Joe normally did. So, I was assigned to a few sessions with Thom and Don as the new night assistant. One of the first sessions was a vocal date upstairs with Johnny Mathis on the only album Thom ever made with him “I’m Coming Home” on Columbia. I am sure that Johnny Mathis would never remember me from those one or two dates in Studio 1 so many years ago. But next I found myself in Studio 2 with Thom and members of his team. First of all, there was Linda Creed, a most beautiful girl from Northeast Philadelphia who was Caucasian and wrote lyrics to Thom’s awesome melodies. Often people wondered how those two got paired up and if there was anything going on between them. I do not know the story of how they met and began to work together but I vaguely recall that she met Thom just as she was graduating from high school. I was never the kind of guy to pry into people’s private lives. But they both seemed to me to be happily married to their own spouses and had great relationships with them. I am quite sure that there never was anything going on between Linda and Thom other than a fantastic friendship and a lot of tremendous song writing!
She often was there, watching Thom produce and sometimes singing with the background singers. Linda wrote some classic lyrics. The songs written by Thom and Linda were unbelievable. For example: “You Are Everything,” “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Break Up to Make Up,” “I’m Stone in Love with You,” “I’m Comin’ Home” and “People Make the World Go ‘Round” just to name a few. A number of years later after she stopped writing with Thom, she wrote “The Greatest Love of All” with Michael Masser, which was one of Whitney Houston’s biggest songs. Sadly, Linda was struck down at a very tender age with breast cancer that in a very short number of years, took her from us. The line from “The Greatest Love of All” that goes “…no matter what you take from me, you cannot take my dignity” was written after her mastectomy. She passed away only a year or two after I left Philly and moved to Los Angeles. I was unable to be at her funeral. A foundation was created in her name and honor to fight breast cancer and still exists today. I will relate some other cool moments that I spent with her later on in the book.
Other people that I met on the Thom Bell Stylistics sessions were the writing team of Joseph B. Jefferson, Charles B. (“CBS”) Simmons and Bruce Hawes. They were great writers and fun guys. I will write probably the better part of a chapter about Bruce later as our careers seemed to parallel for almost two and a half decades. Those three were young and talented. Thom Bell had opened a huge door for them and they were leaping through it! Some of my favorite and very successful songs that they wrote are: “(You Just Can’t Stop It) Games People Play”, “Sadie”, “Mighty Love” and “Love Don’t Love Nobody” just to name a few. Joseph B, as Thom used to call him, had been in a band called The Nat Turner Rebellion. The album that he had mostly written and produced with them had never been released, most likely because of a militant look and tone of the group and the songs. It was 1970 or 1971 and no label picked it up. After all the name of the band speaks for itself. Thankfully after the Sigma tape library went to Drexel University, Toby Shey revived all the mixes and the in-house school label released it in either late 2019 or very early in 2020. At the album release party Bruce, CBS (as Thom called him) and Joe were all in attendance but were never to be together again. Joe passed away sometime in that year during the COVID-19 quarantine. Here are some photos of the three of them both from that night and an earlier meeting I put together over in New Jersey a few years before.
Bruce Hawes often called me ‘a brother by another mother’. That was an ultimate honor in that we as I will tell throughout this book have had a long and often parallel journey through life and the music business. As I was finishing this book in February of 2021 I was called by Rena Sinakin, another dear friend of Bruce, to tell me that he had died suddenly in Florida. My wife Pam and I wept deeply at the passing of so close and dear a family friend. I truly loved Bruce and as Rena mentioned, he very much loved me. I had stuck by Bruce through thick and thin and he appreciated that deeply. I had spoken to him only a week before he died, and we had planned on my playing acoustic guitar for him on a fantastic new song of his that he wanted me to be a part of… I will miss Bruce very much. I never had a brother, but he came as close as any…
There was one night I spent with Thom and Don (I think Linda was there too) working on a Stylistics song that was worth relating. That night Thom wanted to re-record a few words on the lead vocals of one song and then mix it. There we were all set up for a vocal overdub and in walked both of the lead singers from the Stylistics, Russell B. Thompson Jr. and Airrion Love whom I had seen earlier that month doing vocals on other songs. This song needed a line or two replaced on each of their parts as Thom thought that it could be sung more in pitch. So Airrion went first. It was a lesson in consistency and professionalism in that Don could in a very short time get the microphone, the board gain structure and the limiter/compressor that we regularly used on lead vocals set right back to where it was a week ago or so when they originally recorded the vocals. Airrion was able to sound exactly like he did a week earlier, and Thom got him to re-sing his part. Don re-recorded only the specific lines in the verses by punching in just those words and not erasing the rest of the performance. This was commonplace. We did that all the time, yet I was impressed with Don’s ability to get the vocal sound quality right back to where it was so quickly. He was able to do that, I realized later, because he always used the same type of mic for vocals and the same limiter set almost exactly the same way all the time. That was a good lesson.
The next thing that happened was really impressive. Russell had been walking around drinking tea and had been taking cold medicine because he was suffering from a bad head cold. I thought, “Ok just how do you get around this?” His voice could never sound like normal, without a cold, could it? I looked at Don as if to say, “Show me the magic”. I was asking, “Ok big shot engineer how do you make a sick singer not sound sick anymore?” He just smiled as Russell went out to the mic and started singing along. As we always did in such cases, he told Russell to sing whether he heard himself or the tape playing back as Don was going to be switching back and forth between the two. They did that and there was the voice with the sinuses all stuffed and the next second the original recording. When Don was sure that the gain structure and the compression matched he turned on the mid-range frequency of the equalizer and boosted a lot of extra mid-range gain. Then he picked the associated knob that selected mid-range frequency. He dialed back and forth across the range of frequencies it could affect and he settled on the one that emphasized the very sound of the nasal stuffiness the most. Once he selected that frequency he turned the dial that was boosting that sound and rolled it back until it no longer over accentuated that tone but instead very accurately reduced that very nasal sound until the match between the tape and the new live vocal were almost imperceptible. Russell re-sang the few phrases that Thom wanted redone and when he was finished, he said, “I hope you don’t mind me not sticking around, I simply want to go home to bed”, which he did.
The song in question was the last big Stylistics hit that Thom produced of that early string of hits. He did do a song or two for them when they signed with PIR some 10 years later that I recorded with Thom. The song we were doing that night, however, was maybe my favorite Thom Bell & Linda Creed classic, “You Make Feel Brand New”. I defy you to listen to it and tell which words were re-sung by either lead singer. I was there, and I can’t tell.
That night was not yet finished with lessons for me. After Russell left and Linda also, I think, Thom said “Ok, let’s mix it.” So now I was about to be part of mixing what I have often referred to as “a song even a deaf person could recognize as a hit”. As Don got to work, he got sounds on Earl Young’s drums and Ronnie Baker’s bass guitar and as he was balancing the grand piano and Fender Rhodes electric pianos, he was switching one on and then the other and then both to hear how they were laying in the track and with each other. Suddenly Thom said, “Wait a minute, I like that”. He went on later in the final version to mute the grand at the downbeat of the 1st verse and had Don ride the Rhodes up. If you know the song, you know how well that worked in the final version. Thom had actually played both pianos through the whole song. That rearranging of the track, not even considered until just before the final version that we all have heard now many, many times, was made at the last minute. It was fascinating to watch them work together. As we worked more on it Don had arranged the console so that the faders controlling the strings and horns were on the left near the producer’s chair that Thom “rode”. The rhythm tracks were in the middle of the console that Don rode and muted as just described for example and all the vocal tracks, both leads and the background track of the Stylistics themselves and the background tracks of Carla, Barbara and Yvette, the three women who graced almost every Philly record made from “Me and Mrs. Jones” (the first time Kenny Gamble used them) until many years later when Barbara passed away.
So, there I am riding the vocals of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” with Thom Bell and Don Murray making the final version of what was very apparently their next big hit. That was a thrill in itself. But what happen next is of interest in that after many passes of the song rehearsing the many mutes and rides of the 16 different faders (no computer existed in a recording studio yet) we were ready to record the mix. I had previously set up and aligned the stereo and mono quarter inch tape recorders that we mixed down to and they were ready to go. Thom said, “Let’s try one”. We ran through it and “printed” or recorded a few versions. Some takes would have a mistake in it and we would stop and simply start another leaving that incomplete take on the quarter inch reels and doing the next take. After each complete one we would sometimes listen to it or Thom would immediately say “Let’s do another one now” and we would record another one. At a certain point, as with every mix you do all the things you wanted to do, and you think you might have it just as you want the final version to be, so the producer plays it back and listens as critically as perhaps they ever do and decides if it is finished. In the case of Thom, he would make that final call after first listening in the large control room speakers but then he would say “Reds, (that was my nickname from him, he gave everyone a nickname) roll back that take on the mono and let me hear it in the radio.” In every Sigma control room, there was a tabletop radio with a single 3 or 4 inch speaker in it. The room was wired to be able to listen through it for just that reason. This way the producer had a good idea of how it would sound to the general public when they heard it for the very first time in their car or on an AM radio in their home, as I had first heard some of The Sound of Philadelphia records at work. I rolled it back switched to the radio and Thom sat as transfixed as he got, no one spoke at all. And he would listen all the way through and after that last final intense scrutiny he said, “Ok Reds, leader it up.” That meant it was finished.
Well, that was my cue to go over to the two quarter inch tape recorders and slice a length of white paper leader tape into the reel at the very beginning of the song and just after the final sound of the fade in order to separate out that one and only final take from all the rest so we could insert it in the album with all the other “A” takes later on. That was how we knew which takes to assemble that would become the phonograph records, either the single on a disc cut and manufactured on a 45 RPM format with another song on the back (i.e. the B-Side or Flip-Side) or as part of the album with four or five songs on each side made to play at 33 & 1/3 RPM. This was Standard Operating Procedure. I had been trained and had done it before. However, I stepped up to the machine, rewound the stereo master tape to the beginning of that last take and rocked the tape back and forth across the heads between the word “Three” spoken by Thom as he counted off the band to play the song and the next sound which was the downbeat of the first note of the introduction. Once you had determined this spot on the tape you marked it on the tape backing with a white grease pencil and lifted the tape out of the machine and placed it in an aluminum editing block over some ¼ inch leader tape. Then you took a razor blade (capable of becoming magnetized), that you had to be sure was not accidently magnetized and cut the tape and leader at the same time at the proper angle and then sliced the other end of the few feet of leader tape, so its angle matched the tape at the beginning of the next song too. Then you placed ¼ inch adhesive tape over the splices having inserted leader tape both in front of and, after repeating the process, behind the master take. If you cut in the wrong place or if the blade somehow had become magnetized or if you did anything wrong at all with this process you could essentially ruin the master. I stopped for a moment with the “one and only” copy of the final “one and only” mix in existence (it had not been duplicated even once yet) of what was surely going to be at least a 1 million copy selling record laying in my hand. I stopped and thought about how that little piece of tape was worth literally millions of dollars and I was about to cut it with a razor blade. I took a deep breath, and I did it. Saying to myself in my head, “Well, Jim, today you are a professional.” There were no computer recalls, “undo” buttons, instant saving of data or similar protection of the product at that time. I remember it as if it were today, to me it was, at that moment, a rite of passage if you will, that took me from a wide-eyed young man who was a fan of the music to a well-trained, competent professional grateful for his new lot in life.
Thom Bell is a wonderful man and an amazingly talented producer and arranger. Watching Thom Bell make records must have been what it was like to watch Alfred Hitchcock make films. Hitchcock, it is said, envisioned every frame of every shot before he shot it. Thom knew every note of every track of every production before he recorded it. I am not saying that he never experimented or improvised, he would often have the band stretch out and were able to introduce any ideas that they might have had but most of the time Thom knew what he wanted and usually had it written down before the session started. I just watched him sometimes while working with the rhythm section playing the chords of a particular passage of a song and he would play different notes above and below where he was voicing the chord on the piano and I knew he was hearing the parts in his head as to what the string section and the horn section were going to play later after he wrote out their charts. It was amazing to watch him work, as he was not only a tremendously successful producer but also one of the best arrangers in the business. I was so excited to be working with him within one year of buying the single “I’ll Be Around” to mixing “Mighty Love”. Thom was generous enough to give Michael Hutchinson and me a credit on the album cover. This was almost never done for assistant engineers by Thom Bell (sometimes even Joe Tarsia was lucky to get mentioned). It read, “Mike and Reds”. That was the nickname he gave me almost from the very beginning of working with him. Thom always gave people great nicknames.
I remember working one day with Don and Thom on a mix for the title track of Mighty Love for the Spinners and loving all the tracks from that album such as “Love Don’t Love Nobody” and “Mighty Love”. It was a day session, and we were in Studio 2. All of a sudden, Michael Hutchinson came into the control room and said, “Man you should hear the track we are cutting upstairs! Are you guys using the Countryman Phase Shifter?” We weren’t, and he grabbed it and returned upstairs where he proceeded to use it to manually phase the drums on the track as they recorded it. It was “For the Love of Money” a tremendous record that Gamble and Huff were producing, which is a song most people still know today. It was used for the theme of the TV show The Apprentice.
“For the Love of Money” was co-written by Anthony Jackson, Gamble and Huff. The band was playing their hearts out on that track with Jackson playing bass as well as Ronnie Baker playing the root bass line and Jackson adding the higher signature bass line that so establishes that groove. That song was assisted on through the whole original dates by Michael, but I did finish a session one night downstairs and then went up to listen to them working on it. I hung out on the night session when Rocco Bene played the trumpet solo parts after the horn section had done their part. I remember it well just sitting around out in the studio with Rocco while his lips rested between solo takes. Arthur Stoppe later worked on the Quad remixes of that album but during the original sessions Michael had assisted Joe Tarsia on almost every date.