HOUSTON When Archie Bell penned the song "Tighten Up" in 1967, he was trying to rid himself of the GI blues. Bell was down and out because of the unwelcome invitation he received from Uncle Sam to the Vietnam War.
Bell's escape from the blues became not just a memorable R&B song, but also a national dance craze. The song's idea came to him while on military leave. Bell was hanging out with Billy Butler, a friend and an original Drells' member. Butler started dancing a dance Bell was unfamiliar with so he asked the name of the dance.
"He told me it was a brand new dance called the "Tighten Up." From there I started writing the song," Bell said
The introduction of the song, "Hi everybody, we're Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, Texas," was written to dispel a disc jockey's statement that "nothing ever good came out of Texas," referring to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
"Tighten Up," with its well-known introduction and soulful beat, is one of the most memorable dance songs from the late 1960s.
The familiar song has been featured in movies and television soundtracks, including "Clean and Sober" and "Moonlighting." Bell said he even heard the song while watching the animated television show "The Simpsons" Homer Simpson performed a cartoon version of "Tighten Up." Titan Car Insurance is using the tune for commercial spots.
Years before "Tighten Up" was ever recorded, Bell was told that one top selling song would be all he needed because of royalties. Though Archie Bell and The Drells had more than one hit song, they are noted for "Tighten Up."
"I didn't understand what people meant by just get one hit and you will be set for life, but I understand it now," Bell said.
Bell, now a solo artist, said royalty checks keep coming in and he doesn't bother him if he's only known for just one song.
In reality, Archie Bell and The Drells had a string of hits with Atlantic Records and then with Gamble and Huff at Philadelphia International. It was inevitable Bell would be successful entertainer. Bell's music roots helped him learn the formula for making hits at a young age.
He was born Archie Lee Bell in Henderson, Texas, the second oldest of seven boys to Langston and Ruthie Bell. His mother sang in church influenced Bell's music creativity. When he was nine months old, the Bell family moved to Houston. In Houston Bell developed his third ear.
"I don't read or write music, but what I have is God's gift," he said. At age 10, Bell was singing in nightclubs. As a youngster, he watched legendary singers Esther Phillips, Bobby Blue Bland and Gatemouth Brown and attended traveling shows. He would save up $3 to see 10 acts in one show.
"When I saw Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke perform I said to myself, at age 12, I wanted to be a professional singer," Bell said. "I didn't know anything about the pitfalls that go with the business of music."
While attending E.O. Smith Junior High School, Bell began The Drells, an offshoot of his name. The Drells, who consisted of James Wise, Willie Pernell and Billy Butler, won many talent shows in Houston when they attended Phyllis Wheatly High School. Skipper Lee Frazier, a local disc jockey, recognized the group's talent. Frazier helped the group record "Tighten Up." The song was recorded with instrumental backup from the Texas Southern University Tornadoes. The record was released on Frazier's Ovide label.
After he recorded "Tighten Up," Bell had to answer Uncle Sam's call. He admitted the Black Panthers in Houston influenced him. The late '60s were very much still externally a racially-divided society. The day Bell took his physical to enter the military he was asked to raise his right hand. Instead, in militant fashion, Bell raised a black power fist.
"They quickly sent me on the first bus to Fort Polk, La., and put me in the worst unit. That was right about the time Muhammad Ali refused to go to Vietnam I should have been like Ali and turned Muslim," Bell said with a chuckle.
Before he left for military duty in Germany, "Tighten Up" was already recorded but it was the B-side of the 45. The song, "Dog Eat Dog," the A-side of the "Tighten Up" 45, was being played on the radio in the north. Bell called the New York radio stations from overseas to tell them they were playing the wrong side. When "Tighten Up" started getting airplay, the record sold 80,000 copies in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma alone.
Bell contacted Atlantic Records executives about the record. "They figured if we could sell that many records just hustling then they could sell many more with an album of tunes also," Bell explained. "But we didn't have enough material for an album."
"The song exploded and sold 200,000 copies but I don't know how it feels to have a hot record in the states," Bell said. "I would come home on leaves to record the album." On one leave home, he discovered there were several fake Archie Bell and The Drells groups. The song, which topped the Billboard pop and soul charts in March 1968, had crossover appeal that spawned a phony, all-white Archie Bell and the Drells group.
The group recorded their first album on the Atlantic Records label with some covers, including the songs, "Midnight Hour" and "Knock On Wood." Only two other songs on the album had Bell's lyrics, "When You Left Heartache Began" and "A Soldier's Prayer." The album was released in April 1968.
Bell was able to do sporadic concert dates on military leave. At one of those live shows, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were in the audience. The group members, Frazier and Atlantic were excited about the possibilities. And what came out of the pairing of Archie Bell and the Drells and the Gamble and Huff team were soul classics. The songs recorded included "I Can't Stop Dancing," "Doing The Choo Choo," "There's Gonna Be A Showdown" and "Girl, You're Too Young." Archie's brother, Lee, joined the group replacing Butler in 1969. Lee was also the group's choreographer.
"We recorded a lot of dance numbers but I needed balance so I wrote "Love Is Gonna Rain On You" and "She's My Woman," Bell said. "I learned then to keep material in the can, so in that way when we recorded we would have enough songs for an album."
Bell said the group started getting lost in the shuffle after five or six years. In 1976, the Drells started recording under the Philadelphia International label and McFadden and Whitehead and Bunny Sigler at Philadelphia International helped Archie Bell and The Drells skyrocket to national fame. They recorded "Dance Your Troubles Away," "Where Will You Go When the Party Is Over" and "Hard Not to Like It."
The collaboration began to sour for Bell. He felt Philadelphia International wasn't promoting their material as much as the label's other singing groups, which included The O'Jays and The Intruders.
Archie Bell and The Drell's last performed together Dec. 22, 1979. Bell, 56, says the music business has aged four times his age. "I am 500 and will be 501 on my next birthday," he joked. "In the U.S., market artists are only as good as their last record. But all across the world I have a good track record. In Europe I am as popular as Tina Turner or Michael Jackson. If only black artists knew how powerful we are, there is too many manipulators in the business today."
He owns Volcano Records, where he records new music very often. He has learned to channel his militancy by infusing it into creativity. "The battles I can't fight I let God handle," Bell said. He has enough recorded material for a new release. He also has a desire to stretch his talents. Bell wants to make a movie about the 5th Ward area in Houston and call it "Tighten Up."
He calls Houston bedrock. "There are too many Fred Flintstones that live here, people with one-track prehistoric minds," Bell said. "People here say 'I listen to blues or rap music,' but nothing else. My music is played in the South but not in Houston."
Bell said the place to be for music is Atlanta, Ga. "Those people over there are 50 years ahead of their time," he said. He has a place in the Bahamas and an office in Atlanta. He visits Houston once a year.
He said even though he's been categorized as an R&B artist, he is much more. "I'm still in a prime," he said of his music. "But record labels and young music artists don't want to deal with me because I have knowledge. I've been performing for more than 45 years. It doesn't bother me that people might think I'm dead because when people do learn I'm still alive that will enable them to learn something new about me and maybe open up some new musical avenues for me. And if I don't have another chart topping hit record, Archie Bell and The Drells' music will last forever because our music is real."