Archie Bell interview with Fitzroy(Soul Survivors)
Archie Bell is coming to The Hideaway 27th & 27th June 2019, check out the interview Fitzroy did with him featured in issue 53 for April/May 2014. for tickets check out www.hideawaylive.co.uk
How was life growing up in Houston?
I was born in 1944 in Henison Texas then we moved to Houston, and I was aged 9. Houston was a tough place to grow up and was considered the murder capital of the world with about 25 people getting murdered weekly. We are like your magazine soul survivors and later on New York City, Detroit, Chicago all became crime rate areas. I grew up in a baptist church and started singing there aged 5 and my mother kept us in that environment
Apart from seeing Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke perform, what else inspired you and your high school friends James Wise, Willie Parnell and Billy Butler to form Archie Bell and The Drells?
We were in junior high school and they had a talent show at our school, we entered and won. One of the other members LC Watson loved The Dells so much so we put the r in to become the Drells but sometimes people got upset and confused expecting the Dells. At first we were The Drells but with me at the front with the mic like Smokey Robinson and The Miracles or Diana Ross and The Supremes, it became Archie Bell and The Drells and it’s a coincidence that Bell rhymed with Drells. I was about 15 at the time and we covered The Drifters or The Impressions ‘Keep On Pushing’ or ‘People Get Ready’ with the Little Pop And The Fireballs as our backing band in the early 1960’s. Aged 17 my first concert was seeing Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke came on with no introduction nobody moved, when Jackie Wilson came on it was like all the women got shot down with a machine gun. There was ambulances and oxygen masks lol and I saw how Sam Cooke was such an artist and Jackie Wilson ‘Mr Entertainer’. Seeing how much power they had made me realise what I was gonna be doing for the rest of my life although I didn’t know how I’d get there.
You definitely have a voice of distinction be it the 1960’s, 70’s or 80 as you have a certain Je ne sais quio . How did you develop your voice?
I was in the church and the choir because of my mum who could sing amongst 40 people in a choir and from the back of the church I’d recognise her voice over everyone else. I asked her how she does that and she advise to sing for your heart which took me about 20-30 years to figure out. I also admire artist like Human Blay, Art Tatum and Big Joe Turner and found imitation is the first sign of success, but to develop my own sound was foremost important.When ‘Tighten Up’ came out they’d never heard nothing like that come out of Texas. I asked people what was it about us and they said it sounded like we was having a live party. A lot of people say I talk like I sing so it come natural.
That was done in Cleveland Ohio and I had just got out of the army. At the time it was one of my most depressive moments because I knew I was going to be drafted as things was about to happen for the group. I was laying on the couch and this radio station called KCOH played a song and my friend came in the room and started dancing which helped me forget the mood I was in. Two weeks before I left I heard a radio DJ say that nothing good comes out of Texas because of all the killings. I wanted people to know that we were good and come from Texas, that’s why at the beginning of ‘Tighten Up’ I say “Hi I’m Archie Bell from Houston Texas and we dance as good as we want”. I got drafted into the military whilst recording Tighten Up which I wrote. The back up band was TSUH from Texas Southern University and on the same label as us owned by Skibidy Fraser who was alter our manager and a DJ on the radio. Skibidy called me in 1968 and told me ‘Tighten Up’ went gold. I served two years in the army had an accident at one point in a wheel chair and I was telling the guys that my song was on the radio and they thought I was lying. Two weeks later an article came out in Oversea’s weekly and then they believed me it was like a fairytale.
That song, ‘I Can’t Stop Dancing’, ‘Funky Tighten Up’, ‘There’s Gonna Be A Showdown’, ‘Doo The Choo Choo’ and ‘Here I Go Again’ were some of the many classic that the soul fans in the north region of the UK have found memories of. How aware are you of the popularity of your music from the late 1960’s to early 70‘s period?
When I was Germany when ‘Tighten Up’ was released I got a 30 day leave and went on a tour. One day at Longside New Jersey Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had seen our show and came introducing themselves to us backstage. I had no idea who they were and called my manager and he called Atlantic Records who liked us and we recorded ‘There’s Gonna Be A Show Down’, ‘I Can’t Stop Dancing’ and ‘You Ain’t Too Young’. Gamble & Huff were our producers, then Atlantic dropped us so we went to TK Records for a year and then we contacted Gamble and Huff as we were looking for a record deal.
How often did you perform in the UK during those early late 60’s and mid 70’s?
After I came out of the army in 1967 I played in London and they didn’t know who we were, they thought we were a white group. I didn’t realise how popular ‘Tighten Up’ was when I was in Germany
‘Dancing To Your Music’ is a sweet hot stepping dancers tune from 1973 and a different direction for the group how many records did you record on TK?
About four ours producer was Brad Superio and Dave Crawford and we had that Mouls Shaol. The label TK Glade were meant to have material ready for us before we arrived at the label which was not the case. Prince Phillip Mitchell wrote that song for us.
How did the interim two step soul orchestrated gem ‘Girls Grow Up Faster Than Boys’ on President label after a spell at Glade fair between you label change to TSOP
Phillip Mitchell wrote that too and that was a great song and something different to what we had done. I got my PHD in music really at Gamble and Huff era.
What was it like to be part of the TSOP entourage alongside Billy Paul, Lou Rawls,The OJays, The Intruders, The Three Degree’s and Teddy P, and to work not only with head honcho’s Gamble & Huff but musicians and songwriters, McFadden Whitehead, Carstarphen, Bunny Sigler and Ron Baker on the first album ‘Dance Your Troubles Away’?
It was great with the new TSOP sound after working with Gamble & Huff as producers on Atlantic. It was like a dream come true and amazing to work with all that talent it was something totally different. We’d go in and listen to songs that they had, at first we had to accept what was given to us but then I could choose what I liked. A lot of the songs I didn’t like were some of the best songs so I ended up trying anything they presented to us.
Although you were a group you fronted the outfit so how did that sit with the other members because I can imagine that although they are important when it comes to interviews there tends to be a bias towards the lead singer?
I understand what you mean but I never had a problem with them. I always encouraged them to take the weight off me sometimes. We just didn’t have that division problem it all worked out.
How did you get along with the other male vocal groups the Intruders, The OJays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes who all had their own individual success?
When Gamble & Huff TSOP had us, The Intruders and The Ambassadors other groups Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes and The OJays’ Gamble & Huff started to produce them and we were shipped over to McFadden & Whitehead, Bunny Sigler who wrote ‘Old People’. It did feel like we were put on the back shelf when they mention Philly International that we never got mentioned in interviews. I knew all the disc jockeys down south east and west coast and they would get all the OJays stuff first and get told they could have Archie Bell if they wanted us. Even though we came from Texas we did help get them started when we worked with Gamble & Huff on Atlantic years before. I wasn’t bitter about it but I had to fight to get us some plays on the radio.
Your first album ‘Dance Your Troubles Away’ incorporates what you had already done in the 1960’s with the dancing and having a good time themes.
I always wanted to do feel good music whether you had a problem you come to our shows and get charge your batteries for a few hours before you go back a deal with the real world. Where I come from we listen to the blues and we were so down trodden during the racial times of the 50’s and 60’s and thats what ‘Tighten Up’ came out of.
That first album hosted three great singles ‘I Could Dance All Night’ the spiritual ‘Let’s Groove’ and the most commercial I guess ‘The Soul City Walk’. Seeing as you started 10 years prior on the dance craze records of the 60’s how different was it now in the 1970’s with the disco craze, fashion, multicultural and black social consciousness?
What Gamble & Huff did was get that essence of what we did with ‘Tighten Up’ and ‘Can’t Stop Dancing’ which sound similar. ‘Tighten Up’ was more of a jam but ‘Cant Stop Dancing’ had verses. If you listen to Teddy P and other PIR records you can hear that ‘Tighten Up’ feel. Gamble & Huff songs that we did could have been a broadway production, one day McFadden & Whitehead suggested us doing ballads and Kenny Gamble said no I was a dance music man. But coming from the baptist church I could do ballads better than a dance record so we ended up doing a concept of 5 uptempo and a couple ballad as I wanted to do uplifting songs.
The title of the second album ‘Where Will You Go Where The Party’s Over?’ is an anthem at UK events like Caister and generally gets everyone doing a karaoke session. But it was to be the funky two step groove ‘Don’t Let Love Get You Down’ that caused a huge underground sensation becoming an anthem at warehouse parties and house blues around the UK in the mid 1980’s. Some were just discovering it for the first time but it’s infectious rhythms and sonics cause it to be released on Portrait as a 12 inch. What memories do you have of recording that song and was it as huge in America?
I was at a concert once and all these beautiful ladies were on a downer about how their men were treating them and I said to them “don’t let that get you down cause your beautiful”. So when that song was presented to me and I heard it I knew instantly it was good song. I didn’t know it would make such an impact in Great Britain. Many people do not realise that some are in a wrong relationship and I felt strongly about that. It was big in America where you are as good as your next record but in the UK its about your track records where it was bigger. ‘Old People’ was huge here and they used the song over here in the UK when they use to collect money for coal from folks who didn’t have heating. I saw all the cameras and asked what was going on and they explained in October people here suffered so that pleased me that the song was used that way..
My fave of that album is ‘Betcha Can Do That Dance’ because it’s one that makes you wanna put a hump in ya back. What was the decision to make it less of a vocal track, not that I’m complaining at the finished article?
That song was something that when we did it live we’d get someone up on the stage to do a dance and I would interact saying “I bet I can do that dance” replicating to what they had done.
I noticed from the ‘Tighten Up’ video you are in synch when it comes to dance.
Yeah I used to do the choreography but my brother Lee took over to take the weight off me.
For me personally ‘The Hard Not To Like You’ album is one of the groups strongest. It’s got some noticeable Caribbean flavours that I believe Victor Castarphen is influential in as heard on ‘Disco Showdown’ and my ultimate favourite ‘Good Good Feeling’. I love the funky elements of ‘Disco Showdown’ and the harmonious ‘On The Radio’. Question is who recorded ‘It’s Hard Not To Like You’ first, you or Melba and what did you think of each others version?
We had been to the Caribbean and we liked that style as a dance song to emulate the people in Jamaica. We did ‘On The Radio’ to pump up the DJ’s . I think we did it first, often I would road test a song and ultimately they would often give it to some one else but they had the talent to pass it on to any artist.
What’s your memory of working on the ‘Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto’ album with the PIR collective, where you are featured on ‘Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto’ and with The Drells on ‘Old People’ written by Dexter Wansal and Bunny Sigler?
The mission was for all the cities to clean up the ghettos and the dugs. It was a great idea to get everyone on board. Before we had never got to work with the other artists on the label so that was a great opportunity for us to do something positive together
As you worked with them closely in the hey day of the 1960‘s ,1970‘s-80‘s period,what is the spiritual chemistry that bonds Gamble and Huff to create such an enigmatic empire that lasts 40 years plus as a musical institution?
I think they had some of the greatest musicians like Bobby Eli, Washington and Vincent Montana, MFSB, Thom Bell nand all that orchestration. When you get on the stage with a 50 piece orchestra it brings out the best of you. To be with Lou Rawls Joe Simons and Billy Paul I felt like we had arrived. The background girls Barbara, Evette and Carla were amazing too.
‘Strategy’ was your last album on PIR and the title track is a revered classic and you connect the 60’s and 70 era neatly with a nice hit hat produced ‘Tighten Up At The Disco’. It seems appropriate a title for the last album relating the past and the present. How was that end of an era scenario for you?
Gamble & Huff called my manager Skibidy saying we needed two new songs for the album so I recorded ‘Tighten Up’ and ‘We Got Them Dancing’ in Pasedena and sent them back to Philly International and they liked them. A man called Weldon McDougall was instrumental in ‘Let’s Groove’ after he took us to Brazil and we used that influential sound. ‘Tighten Up At The Disco’ was an update of ‘Tighten Up’ .We did that album quickly and we didn’t know it would be our last album but the record companies always have the control in when an artist can leave. Philly stopped promoting us because we were not making enough money and a lot of the music we did was left on the shelf. I’m not bitter about it because that part was like a stepping stone for me to go solo. Back in the day my manager tried to get me to go solo but I wasn’t ready.
Like most front men you end up going solo and signed with Becket records releasing ‘Any Time Is Right’ was this musically influenced by ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ as I can hear that in the production?
It was produced by Dave Morris and Roger Nelson who also produced my album. Thinking bout what you just said I can hear it now. Frankie Crocker wouldn’t play my record at first but I knew his girlfriend and got her to play it to him. He asked who is it an she told him and next day he played it on the radio. ‘I Never Had It So Good’ was the best album I ever did as a solo. It had gospel on it.
After releasing ‘Touchin’ You’ on WMOT Records I’m not aware of anymore release so what have you been up to since and how are the rest of The Drells?
In this age you don’t need record companies now. I did a rap version of ‘Tighten Up’ called ‘Tighten Up, Get ‘Em Up’ to get the guys to pull their pants up. The music I’m doing now I pile it up and sometimes it comes out on CD Baby. I’m suing all seven record companies because they never looked after me so now I control my music. A friend of mine in CBS back in the day told me I sold more records than was documented.