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Setting the record straight...
on September 9, 2003
This album has an unusual history. It was Elton John's first project immediately after his underappreciated masterwork, Blue Moves. Contrary to what others have written, Elton had not yet entered a period of declining popularity or sales when he recorded with Thom Bell. Blue Moves was a platinum album and was preceded with the non-album mega-hit "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" which racked up 4 weeks at #1 in the U.S. in the summer of 1976. Immediately afterwards in the fall of 1976, Blue Moves was released. Elton described Blue Moves as an album he made for himself and without consideration of singles, but there were two. "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" was issued along with the album, and it peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the spring of 1977, a second single, an edit of the song "Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance)" was remixed by then hot remixer Tom Moulton and issued as a single. It could be argued that it was the beginning of slump if one considers a #28 hit a failure.
Elton and Bernie Taupin went to Philadelphia in the fall of 1977 to begin work with Thom Bell. They tried writing songs together, but apparently "Nice and Slow" was the only one recorded. The rest of the songs were from Thom Bell and his various collaborators including his nephew, Leroy Bell. Oddly, an Elton John-Gary Osborne track, "Shine On Through" was recorded during the sessions and would later be reworked for A Single Man. As Thom Bell is best known for his work with the Delfonics, The Stylistics, and The Spinners, he brought the same trademark sound to these six tracks and even had vocals by the Spinners on three. The Spinners had just lost their lead vocalist, Philippe Wynne. "Are You Ready For Love" was recorded as a duet with the new vocalist, John Edwards. For whatever reasons, Elton ultimately decided not to issue the Thom Bell Sessions. Instead, Greatest Hits Vol. 2 was issued in time for the 1977 holiday buying season.
An Elton- Bernie Taupin song, "Ego" was issued as a single in April 1978 and peaked at #34. The relative lack of success for a song Elton was reportedly very fond of undoubtedly led to the changes A Single Man would usher in. The album was his first to be written with another lyricist, Gary Osborne. Elton attempted to tone down his image (he was having some problems from his Rolling Stone interview in which he admitted he was bisexual.) Two singles from the album, "Part-Time Love"(#22)and an instrumental, "Song For Guy" (did not chart in the U.S., but was a #4 smash in UK) failed to return Elton to the top ten in the U.S. So, in January 1979, Elton and his engineer, Clive Franks, dusted off the Thom Bell tapes and remixed them looking for a new angle. Three of the songs were remixed with "Are You Ready For Love" removing lead vocals of the Spinners and replacing those parts with Elton leads. "Mama Can't Buy You Love" was issued as a single and became a major hit (#9) and earned Elton a gold record.
It would have been very interesting to know if the Thom Bell Sessions had been issued in 1977 if the chart prospects would have been as good. My personal opinion is that both "Mama Can't Buy You Love" and "Are You Ready For Love" would have been as big as they were in 1979 and oddly 2003. I love the vast majority of Thom Bell's work, and considering that it was Elton's first project in which he was mostly just being a singer and not creating the music from his genius, I can't help but think that was the real reason the project was shelved. Perhaps a little time away from the project made him rethink that sometimes being just a singer isn't necessarily a bad thing. His very next project was an album in which he had no input whatsoever aside from showing up to do lead vocals, the album Victim of Love. That one was written, produced, and contracted by Pete Bellotte best known for his work with Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer. This is Elton's least satisfying album in my opinion as Bellotte is no Thom Bell. There is no variety. It is all non-stop disco. Not that disco in itself is bad. That said, the title track was edited to a single and was a #31 hit in the fall of 1979. Afterwards, Elton would return to writing his own material and working with a variety of collaborators.
In the 1990's MCA Records issued the Complete Thom Bell Sessions on CD. It is interesting to note that even though the credits claim the CD has the January 1979 remix of the material, I believe it is the original Thom Bell mixes as "Are You Ready For Love" is a full duet with The Spinners. It's really a fine record and an essential addition to any Elton John or Thom Bell collection. Be told!