Bob Baldwin Presents “Betcha By Golly Wow – The Songs Of Thom Bell”

Bob Baldwin - Betcha By Golly Wow

Bob Baldwin Speaks On “The Spark of Magic” of Thom Bell
by A. Scott Galloway

Once upon a time, a ubiquitous Bell tolled throughout the land.  It was the sound of music at its creamy dreamiest, crooned hearts-on-sleeves by groups with mystical monikers like Stylistics, Delfonics and Spinners.  T’was a time when real men feared not to sing of love and romance in phrases like “You Are Everything” and “You’re as Right as Rain.”  Their inescapable signals were carried on the wind by the multitudes, massaging the magic in their own inimitable ways. In this time of soul-warming enchantment circa `70, hearts throbbed to the pulses of true love and romance…the symphonic soul soundscapes of Maestro Thomas Randolf Bell.

Bob Baldwin remembers the era well…and pays adoring tribute on his latest set, “Betcha By Golly Wow: The Music of Thom Bell” (on Peak Records via its new affiliation with E-One Music).  Consisting of eight new arrangements of Thom Bell classics, two original compositions – one an inspired dedication and the other a coup new collaboration with Bell – and as a cherry on top, the licensing of Will Downing’s heartbreaking rendition of “Break Up to Make Up” which Baldwin arranged for his 1993 CD Love’s the Place to Be (featuring alto saxophonist Gerald Albright), the project is filled with imaginative and constantly surprising turns on music many of us have adored all our lifetimes.

“All these songs were already in my bloodstream,” Baldwin analogizes.  “After you hear them over a thousand times there’s no need to study anything.  The essence was already in my spirit.  All I had to do was tap in.”

Bob was presented with the concept of revisiting Bell’s music over the phone  by songwriter/producer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Preston Glass who apprenticed under the master in the `80s contributing to such Bell classics as “You’re All That Matters” for Deniece Williams and “Let Somebody Love You” for Phyllis Hyman.  They soon after met at a charitable west coast concert in the park and – with that spirit in the air – made a handshake deal to give it a whirl.  Glass called Bell for his blessing then in the ensuing months, melodies travelled back and forth across the coasts through the internet for constant assessment and refinement – striving to retain the essence of the originals but in the freshest of ways…for this music has already been done so definitively by many others over the decades.  Jazz masters guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Ramsey Lewis both recorded lovely renderings of “Betcha By Golly Wow” just last year.  Half-stepping was not an option.

“I had tested the waters long ago with The Stylistics’ ‘People Make The World Go `Round,’” Baldwin reveals.  “(Saxophonist) Marion Meadows – my Sagittarian brother – and I stumbled on it accidentally when we decided to try it, unrehearsed, for an encore in Asbury Park.  We got a great reaction from the crowd, so I cut it on my Cool Breeze disc (1997), only in a slower, smoother groove but with the same harmonic direction.  The new version is cleaner – more organic – because I’m much more familiar with it now.”  That musical carnal knowledge also applies to the CD opener “I’ll Be Around” on which Baldwin creeps beneath your skin with some serious stealth organ playing.

One of the most thrilling choices as it is the one that is not a love song is “The Rubberband Man,” a hit for The Spinners featuring the late great fire-starter Philippe Wynne.  “Just like ‘Bad’ on my A Tribute to Michael Jackson CD, this one is all about the blues,” says Bob.  “It was the hardest to convert into an instrumental.  I had to take something somewhat ‘corny’ and make it cool.  I decided to put a whole `nother vibe on it.”  That vibe includes some cornfield jazz pickin’ from smooth jazz stalwart Paul Brown and tasty flute by Ms. Ragan Whiteside with a horn arrangement and hip hop pattern courtesy of Mr. Glass.

Two female vocalists bring loving colors to the table.  First is Toni Redd, a vocalist Baldwin describes as, “floating around for years but never getting the break she deserves.  Toni just has a passion that I really dig in a vocalist.  She’s always being compared to Phyllis Hyman – and she is a fan.  With her in mind, I accepted the challenge of re-cutting ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’ in an arrangement inspired by the one Onaje Allan Gumbs created for Norman Connors featuring Phyllis.  That’s Bob Franciscini on sax from my early days at GRP Records.”  As he does in a couple of other places on the CD, Baldwin elongates key lines, bending the song to his will and taking bold liberties to set his version of this thoroughly beloved classic apart from the pack.

Then there is Vivian Green, the youngest contributor to the project and the only one that didn’t grow up in Philly Soul’s golden early `70s era.  For her, Baldwin tried the most contemporary of R&B takes on her behalf, this time of The Delfonics gem “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time),” a song also once recorded by none other than Aretha Franklin.  “Vivian is not only young, she represents the younger generation of artists now coming out of Philly that truly appreciate the history.  We cut her vocal right there in her hometown for the authenticity but the vocal arrangement we gave her is totally today.”  Listen to the chorus and the fresh new way to say “I love you” in a “La-La…”

That leaves the two brand new original compositions of the project.  First is a four-way split between Bell, Baldwin, Glass and Glass’ brother Alan titled “Gonna Be Sweeter” that marks that rarest of rarities in new Thom Bell music – an instrumental at that with a steady drum machine pulse and a reflective Fender Rhodes melody on top.  And then there’s “Bell & Creed,” Baldwin’s heartfelt ode to the memory of Bell’s most storied lyricist, Ms. Linda Creed.  “There they were,” Baldwin marvels, “a Jewish gal from Philly and a Black guy from Seattle making music in Philly for all those great songs.  She had a great touch.  I can just read her lyrics for songs…  Thom’s coloring around her lyrics was a phenomenal combination.  Her life was cut short by breast cancer.  I spent some time with her husband, Steve ‘Eppy’ Epstein, shortly after she passed.  I went to her house 20 years ago and a flood of memories poured out of him.  He passed a few years ago, too, but the stories he shared informed the melody I came up with for this song.”

In an open letter to Thom Bell on the inside packaging of this CD, co-producer Preston Glass states, “A song you and Linda Creed wrote contains the line ‘mere words cannot explain’…and that accurately paraphrases how I feel, when it comes to describing your impact on my career and my life.”

“I could not have done this music without Preston,” Bob concludes.  “Ultimately, the music was bigger than both of us.  And Thom is such a warm brother – a thoughtful, humble mellow guy.  His music is absolutely reflective of the man.”

A. Scott Galloway
Music Editor
The Urban Music Scene