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Archie Bell

By James Porter

(From Roctober #41, 2005)

Archie Bell is not what you'd call a one-hit wonder. Songs like "I Can't Stop Dancing" (1968), "There's Gonna Be A Showdown" (1969), "My Balloon's Going Up" (1969) and "Dancing To Your Music" (1973) all rocked the airwaves and established Archie Bell & the Drells as a presence in soul music. But just like Alvin Cash had his "Twine Time," and Chubby Checker still makes hay off "The Twist," Archie Bell had that ONE song that he can't leave the stage without wit: "Hi, everybody, I'm Archie Bell & the Drells from Houston, TX...we not only sing, but we dance just as good as we Houston, we got a new dance, it's called the Tighten Up...first, Tighten Up on the drums..." Then an open drum break, followed by the bass and the drums gradually falling in, and then a horn section joining in as the song picks up steam. It was mighty generous of Mr. Bell to refer to his Drells on the record, since they're not even heard at all, save for a few handclaps and wolf whistles [editor's note: maybe that's why he says he's Archie Bell and the Drells]. The Drells were actually a singing group; the backing band was actually a local group called the TSU Toronados, whose 45's are valued highly by funk collectors today. We'd hear more of the Drells on future records (like "Tighten Up - Part 2"), but for now Archie had the spotlight. And to think, Bell was a soldier in the Vietnam War when "Tighten Up" was a hit in '68...and that it started as a flip side (to "Dog Eat Dog," an admittedly great song in its own right).

Bell, who continues today to do the Tighten Up in live performances across the country tells the story: "We sent the record to Atlantic Records. Just to show you what people know in this business, New York [home of Atlantic] is a dog-eat-dog city, and they thought that would be the hit record. We said that 'Tighten Up' should be the A-side, but when they got it, they ended up putting that on the B-side, which we thought was stupid. I was in the military by then. The way I got the idea to write it, we used the term 'tighten up' just like they use 'word up,' 'right on,' 'check you later, brother,' you know. That was during the Black Panthers period. I was rolling with this guy named Billy Butler - it was not the same Billy Butler that was Jerry Butler's brother. His real name was Huey Butler, but he didn't like the name Huey so he used 'Billy.' He came in, I had just gotten one of those 'dear John' letters from Uncle Sam; I wasn't in a very good mood. Things had just started to work for us a little bit, and here comes Uncle Sam. I was at home one day feeling down, he came in. The radio was playing, he was doing a little dance. I started laughing, it made me forget what my problems were. I said, 'what's that you're doing?' He said, 'I'm doing the Tighten Up.' So right then I started writing some words down." So the spoken intro wasn't spontaneous after all? Bell relates, "I wanted people to know that Archie Bell & the Drells were from Texas. I heard a DJ say about two weeks before that nothing good ever came from Texas, because of (former president John F.) Kennedy being assassinated here in Texas. I said that so people knew we were from Texas and that we were good at what we were doing."

They had been at it for some time. Prior to this, it started at Eaglesmith Jr. High School in Houston. "They had a talent show. (A whole bunch of us) sang in the glee club and the boys' chorus. We found out the school was having a talent show, so we got together, entered the talent show and won first place. We did that for about three years in a row before we got our first big offer to cut a record." The first single was recorded for the Ovide label, a highly-collectible Texas company owned by a DJ named Skipper Lee Frazier. "They used to have record hops and before we even got a record deal, we would get up and pantomime while the record played. That's the way they did it back then." A few more singles followed on the East West label, before "Tighten Up" happened. And since Bell, thanks to the Army, wasn't free to tour constantly, there were several imitators around the country, including an all-white band from Nashville, TN. Bell says, "I ran into a guy who said, 'you can't be Archie Bell; he's 6'3 and wears a process!'" However, Bell occasionally got out on weekend leave, and he continued to rack up hits. He finally got out of the Army in April '69, but not before encountering famed Philadelphia producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who would go on to define "The Philly Sound" in the 70's, but at the time were still on the way up, with the Intruders and Jerry Butler.

"We were working in Broadside, New Jersey," says Bell, "and we did a show at a place called Loretta's Hi-Hat. After we did the first show, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff came into the dressing room. I didn't know who they were; I called my manager, Skipper Lee, and Skipper Lee called Atlantic Records, and they were excited about Gamble and Huff wanting to produce us, so that's how 'I Can't Stop Dancing' came along. That song had two, three, four verses; 'Tighten Up' was just an ad-lib. That was really one of the first rap records." G&H were never known to do anything half-assed; rather than have a simple garage band backing them up, all of a sudden you heard vibes and string sections on Archie Bell records, giving them an element of sophistication that wasn't there previously. "Kenny was the guy with the pen, writing the words; Leon played the piano, sounding like a whole orchestra. Seeing how they laid down these tracks, that was like going to school for me. Had it not been for them, I wouldn't be the artist that I am today. Everybody learned from somebody." Atlantic also had Archie & the Drells record down in Muscle Shoals, AL, where they waxed "Get It From The Bottom," previously a minor hit for a Chicago group called the Steelers.

After Atlantic dropped them in 1972, he recorded for Glades in Hialeah, FL. Glades was a sub-label of TK, which gave us the Miami explosion of KC & the Sunshine Band, Latimore, George & Gwen McCrae, and Blowfly, among others. "When I got there, they were supposed to have all this material ready. I was down there with Steve Alaimo and KC, helping them write lyrics to songs. I told my manager, 'this is not going to work.' Plus I found that Henry Stone (TK owner) wasn't too straight on paying royalties - I didn't want to be there." His time with this label was relatively brief, and it's too bad there wasn't an album released since his singles during this time were classics of the highest order: "Dancing To Your Music," the psych-funk "Count The Ways," and the propulsive "Ain't Nothing For A Man In Love."

Since the Miami scene was apparently a shambles, Bell decided to look up some old friends who were doing well in Philadelphia. "I called Kenny Gamble back up; I was glad to go back." At this point, things were going gangbusters with their Philadelphia International label, riding high with the O'Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and others. However, even though the vibes were right, there was the feeling that the promotional muscle was going towards the better-known acts on the stable. "I (demoed) a lot of recordings that the O'Jays ended up doing. They would tell me, 'Archie, put your vocal on this,' and when I heard the song again on the radio, it was the O'Jays or somebody doing it. I really didn't like it because they were deceiving me, but show business is 85% handicap. You have to overcome 'em all. I was still getting what I wanted. After a while, there were too many people on the roster. The new people came in, and they put all the guys who started with them on the bottom of the list. I found out later they were just using me for a tax write-off." Explaining his departure, Bell says, "everything lasts but so long; nothing lasts forever."

From there, he recorded a solo album in the early 80's for the Beckett label. Since then, Bell has been prominent on the southern "beach music" circuit, which has resuscitated many an older R&B act's career (the Tams, the Chairmen of the Boarkd). In addition to performing extensively (including a stellar set at this year's Ponderosa Stomp, the acclaimed roots-music festival in New Orleans, LA), he has a couple of ambitious recording projects in the works. "I'm doing a blues CD, and I'm even doing a little country and western these days, being from Texas." Tommy Allsup, famed country producer and former member of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, recently recruited Bell to sing vocals on a song called "Warm Red Wine." He's in distinguished company; other guests on this upcoming album include Glen Campbell, Tanya Tucker, Porter Wagoner, Roy Clark, and several others. If this takes off, we'll be waiting to hear a line-dance version of "Tighten Up."

And finally - what is a Drell? "A Drell is a gentleman and a well-rounded entertainer. It also means a singin' and dancin' motherfucker!"