Vocal group Archie Bell & the Drells are known most for the funky, handclap-happy soul single “Tighten Up,” a hit that reached number one on Billboard’s R&B and Hot 100 charts in 1968. Bell and his Houston, Texas-based support — which featured, at varying times, Archie’s brother Lee Bell, Billy Butler, Joe Cross, Lucious Larkins, Willie Pernell, and James Wise — went on to work extensively with Philly soul architects Kenneth Gamble and/or Leon Huff. Throughout the ’70s, Bell and the Drells combined their smooth and sophisticated sound with top-rate showmanship and had amassed 20 charting singles by the end of the decade. Although their joyous dance hits were prominent, they also recorded several high-quality ballads prior to their 1980 split.
Born in Henderson, Texas and raised in Houston, Archie Bell grew up in a household that included seven brothers, including All-American football star Ricky Bell. His mother, Ruthie Bell, sang gospel and made sure her sons were involved in church-based activities. Because of his mother, Bell began singing in church at an early age. He formed Archie Bell & the Drells in his teens and started performing at local talent shows. While performing, the group was discovered by KCOH DJ Skipper Lee Frazier. Frazier had his own record label, Ovid, and on a handshake-based management deal, the Drells began recording for him. The group scored a regional hit in 1967 with “She’s My Woman, She’s My Girl.”
Tighten Up Soon after, Bell was drafted to serve in Vietnam. While on short leave from the Army, Bell recorded “Tighten Up,” which he and Billy Butler wrote with musical backing by the T.S.U. Toronadoes. Issued in December 1967, “Tighten Up” became a huge hit in Houston. The following May, after Atlantic picked it up for wide distribution, the song topped the Billboard R&B and Hot 100 charts for two weeks, and received a gold certification from the RIAA. The parent album, also titled Tighten Up, reached number 15 R&B and 142 pop. Bell was stationed in Germany as this developed. For performances, James Wise substituted for Bell and Charles Gibbs was brought in to add background vocals. Occasionally, Bell was allowed to return to the U.S. to do club dates.
Dance Your Troubles Away The follow-up single, “I Can’t Stop Dancing,” marked the beginning of a long affiliation with production and songwriting duo Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. It peaked at number nine on the Hot 100 and at number five on the R&B chart. Afterward, Bell and the Drells didn’t threaten the pop Top Ten again, but they were a favorite among serious lovers of soul music. The group’s last charting single for Atlantic was the David Crawford-produced cover of Sam & Dave’s “Wrap It Up.” Following one single for Henry Stone’s Glades label, the successful “Dancing to Your Music,” they recorded for the TSOP label, a subsidiary of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, and quickly moved to PIR proper. This period was highlighted by the number 11 R&B album Dance Your Troubles Away (1975), the Top 40 R&B album Strategy (1979), and charting singles such as “The Soul City Walk,” “Let’s Groove,” and “Strategy.”
Let’s Groove: The Archie Bell & the Drells Story In 1980, the year Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra appeared on Soul Train with their animated version of “Tighten Up,” Archie Bell & the Drells broke up. Bell released a solo album, I Never Had It So Good, the following year on the Beckett label. He and the Drells eventually reunited, however, and continued to perform well into the latter half of the 2010s. They celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2016 with the two-disc Let’s Groove: The Archie Bell & the Drells Story, released on BBR in the U.K.