HOUSTON – Recently, African-American News & Issues afforded me the great privilege and opportunity to speak with a musical stalwart of the Houston community. World-renown, talented living legend vocalist; is an inadequate expression to define the character of Mr. Archie Bell, of “Archie Bell and the Drells”. For, he began reppin’ Houston long before it was ever popular amongst, local hip-hop artists’ and famed entertainers. He is one who really needs no introduction to residents of the Astro City. In fact, if he did he would adamantly give it himself; as it has become his custom and signature mark around the world, for over half a century.
“Hi everybody, I’m Archie Bell of the Drells from Houston, Texas. We don’t only sing, but we dance just as good as we walk.” The introduction that has been played and heard from coast to coast precedes the instant smash hit of 1968, “Tighten Up”. For months, during that time it remained on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot Rhythm and Blues charts. During an era of political chaos “Tighten Up”, presented a fresh and funky dance tune that was oblivious to its dispensation. Affectionately known as, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”, Mr. Bell graciously shared part of his story with me during an enjoyable 30-minute conversation. Here’s what our talk entailed…
R.S. Jones: Mr. Bell how are you?
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Oh I’m fine, how you doing?
R.S. Jones: Just fine, so I gotten in contact with Mrs. Juanita on yesterday and she said that today would be a good time for us to talk…
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Well that’s fine, now isn’t a bad time.
R.S. Jones: Ok, so Mr. Bell I like to have conversations… I find it best if people just tell me about themselves rather than me asking a ton of questions… Usually, people will answer any questions I may have as we converse. I am very familiar with who you are already. You are a living legend of our time, here in Houston and the state of Texas and actually all over.
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Right…
R.S. Jones: So I already have a slew of information about you; from your background history, to your parents and family, to stats on your music career… But we want to hear it from the man himself, “Mr. Tighten Up”.
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Whatever questions you ask me, I’ll give you the information.
R.S. Jones: Great, well we can start off with where you’re from? I know that music has been a part of your background since forever. I believe I read where you have been singing since around the age of ten. So if we can go back to what inspired you to start singing and how all of that came to be and we can move forward from there.
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Alright, that’d be fine… So I was born in Henderson, Texas on September 1, 1944. My parents moved to Houston when I was 9-months-old. We moved to Fifth Ward right off of Lyons Avenue and Swatts Street. Swatts Street was taken over when the Interstate 59 came through. It was wiped out.
I started singing in the Baptist Church at the age of five. I belonged to Fifth Ward Baptist Church which was located on Bringhurst and Lyons Avenue when I first started singing in the church. My mother sang in the church and all of her Uncles started singing in the church at an early age. I started performing at E.O. Smith Jr. High School on Lyons and Gregg. That’s where we got the group, “The Drells”. It started out from there.
The first year that Kashmere Gardens opened up I attended Kashmere Gardens High School, under the direction of Conrad Johnson. The first band that I worked with was, Conrad Johnson. They changed the zoning and everybody that lived on the South side of Crane had to go to Wheatley and everybody on the North side had to go to Kashmere. That’s how I ended up having to go to Wheatley.
At E.O. Smith that’s where the group was first formed. We started singing in the Glee Club and Boys Chorus. They used to have talent shows that would come up at different schools at different times, and we would enter them. Most of the times, we would win first place. Anytime that they had talent shows at any schools like: Yates, Washington, Worthing, Carver and different ones, we would always perform on the talent shows; which was one of the ways we got started. Later on, we all went to Wheatley and we sang in the Glee Club and Boys Chorus, under the direction of Consuela Moorehead at E.O. Smith. When we got to Wheatley her place was taken over by Mr. Harvey.
Mr. Harvey had a great influence in my career because I had never seen a Black man play Beethoven, Hannibal and music like that, and he did better than they did. He was really a talented man. We all sang in the Glee Club and anytime we would perform we would always win first place. He said we couldn’t go for 2nd place. But, Wheatley had a long line of entertainers; Lester Williams and many other people like Tapscott. We were always aware of that, and never knowing that we would be on the Hall of Fame there one day too.
R.S. Jones: So, Mr. Bell I want to ask you about your experiences with segregation then. I always like to ask about that because we are a Black newspaper and we like to go back into our history. So do you have any thoughts on the measures of segregation and integration and how it may have affected you then?
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Segregation was prevalent then. I grew up during the time when there were places downtown and restaurants that you couldn’t drink from the water fountain. I grew up in that era; but, it never detoured us and we never got involved in nothing. I think Black people did alot better when we were segregated. Because, when we integrated that’s what broke up all of the schools and everything else that we participated in. It was something that we all went through. Even when we traveled on the road with the group there were a lot of places that we couldn’t stay in and eat at. But it was one of those situations. We went through stuff like that but we really didn’t let that bother us. Because we were busy doing what we were doing. We were so involved in the music that we didn’t really let it affect us in any kind of way.
We knew what was going on so we tried to keep up the tradition that we were traveling and working on. We overcame, but we were just like everybody else who had to struggle and fight and go through it. We had a lot of instances where people tried to block us. I think that was one of things that Archie Bell and the Drells, never got to be as big as we could have; because we had a Black-owned manager. But, I was determined to do what I had to do. We were not interested in people trying to block us, all we were interested in was performing and entertaining.
R.S. Jones: Well, Mr. Bell that is totally understandable… So let’s proceed on with talking more about your music career.
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: I started out as a Blues singer and I got tired of singing about the blues. So that’s why I wanted to do music that uplift people and make people happy. That’s how, “Tighten Up” became one of our first biggest hits. The music was done by the TSU Tornadoes and I did the lyrics.
R.S. Jones: So I also want to pause right there and ask you something else. In researching you, I see that you were acquainted with another one of our greats who has passed on, Mr. Skipper Lee. I see that he was instrumental in your formation of what you were doing back then… Do you have any words on that?
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Skipper Lee was the man who used to do talent shows over there at KCOH radio station and we were entered into a lot of talent shows. We did one in LaPorte one year and he had about 1500 people at the show and after the show he came and asked if we wanted to record a record? And we all said yeah’! It was one of those questions where we didn’t ask our parents or anything, we just said yeah’. He kind of saw that we had potential and something that was happening. After a while, he became our manager… Promoting and producing stuff on us. He was instrumental and a lot of things happened for us.
When I first met Skipper Lee he had a part-time show at KCOH and he was a mail carrier. Later on, he was our manager and he began to work and put things together and got us in a position to be recording artists’. We went into the studio and start doing some recording at the time. A lot of people say that Skipper Lee made us famous but we made him famous. It was actually vice versa…
R.S. Jones: Yes sir, so if I’m not mistaken… As the years went on, I believe you and “The Drells” performed until around the 80’s or so?
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Yes, 79 to 80’s. After that, we had been on the road for about 20 years. We got going in 69 and everybody else just kind of felt that it wasn’t nothing else to do. We had already been around the world and everything. And I decided that I didn’t do this all these many years for nothing, so I continued and went on with a solo career. I have still been going on, around the country; Germany, Great Britain, Japan and all those places for many years afterwards. I decided that since I been in the business all these many years that I might as well carry it all the way.
R.S. Jones: Totally amazing! Mr. Bell, you have accomplished a great deal of success. To this day, we regard you including my generation and I’m 35. We definitely consider you a legend, so I would like to ask what would you contribute much of your success to?
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Well I think I contribute most of my success to my background and my mother sang in the church and everything. Most of my success was just being determined. I was at a concert at a place called the City Auditorium at about the age of 17. And on the show was, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. When a group came on the show with no introduction, nobody moved. But after Jackie Wilson came on, all of the women were falling out like they was being shot down with shotguns. I said these guys are something else and I got to find out what are they doing to do stuff like that, because it really impressed me.
So I made up my mind that night… I didn’t know what I was going to be doing, but I know what I’m going to be doing the rest of my life. The people that I was influenced with we used to work at the club. We did shows with Bobby Bland, Esther Phillips, James Brown, Ike & Tina and all the entertainers. We were the house band. So I got a chance in my early age to see a lot of professional people before my time. That really inspired me. I got a chance to work with some of the best people in the business. I got a chance to see some of the people that really got the spirit going and started long before me.
Like I say, starting out in the Baptist church at an early age and watching my mother, her uncles and people in the church sing. My mother had about 16 people in her family and everybody was musically inclined. That’s where most of my talent came from, being around those people at an early age in the church.
R.S. Jones: With that Mr. Bell, I would like to ask you about any challenges or obstacles that you may have been confronted with, that have made you stronger? So can you think of any that you may have encountered?
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Of course, segregation was one of them and learning how the business worked. Even the music was separated then. If you were a Black entertainer you would do R&B which would be Rhythm & Blues. If you were White you were Rock & Roll. So that’s what separated us, but you had to overcome. Back in the day if you was Black you had to sell a million copies for your music to cross over into the mainstream. “Tighten Up”, crossed over automatically. Back then, a million records was like gold. But now, if you sell that many, its platinum and 500,000 is gold. But they did all kinds of things to hold people back and separate the music and everything else was separated so was music.
R.S. Jones: Ok, so yesterday when I spoke with Mrs. Juanita she said that we could talk this morning after you came in from the studio. So tell me, what are you doing these days – what’s a typical day like for you now? I mean, I would hope after all your success that you are at least getting some rest in now?
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Well, I been going out of the country a lot and still traveling. I’m still in the studio, a lot. I have my own production company. On December 3, I had a cd released and I had the great Mickey Gilley and Roy Head great friends of mine for many years on the cd. “Showdown” with Mickey Gilley and I did his song, “Treat her Right” and he did “Tighten Up”. But I’ve been working with some people that I’ve known for many years. Me and Roy Head got acquainted during the time we were in high school. I been working with Mickey, when he had his studio in Pasadena. I went out there and did some recording at his place. So it’s been a long time relationship with them. I still do a lot of shows and concerts for big corporations in the United States, corporate deals.
R.S. Jones: Mr. Bell so what keeps that music spirit within you going?
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Well, on September 1st, I’ll be 73!
R.S. Jones: Yes indeed, that’s awesome… That’s the promised age!
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: That’s right… That’s what I’m thinking… The thing that keeps me going is when I go around the country – around the world, no matter where I go how the people respond. Sometimes you don’t realize how big you are until you see the people. I went to Germany last year – or the year before last, and I hadn’t been there since I got out of the military in 69. It was a three-day event they had at Baltic Soul Review. It was Friday thru Sunday and they had about 300,000 people there. I did a show with Chaka Khan, Eddie Holman and Candi Staton and a lot of other people – icons that have been around for many years and still doing it. It was really great.
R.S. Jones: Wonderful, so I just heard you say you, served in the military? I didn’t know that…
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Yes, I went to the military, got drafted in ‘67. I was there from 67 to 69. That’s the reason that “Tighten Up” came about. I was staying out in Third ward at the Embassy Apartments off North MacGregor and I got one of those greetings from Uncle Sam. I knew at the time that they were probably going to draft me. We were in the studio recording, and I think I was in one of the most depressing times in my life. I was depressed about it. And one of “The Drells”, by the name of Billy Butler, we were rooming together and he came in the apartment. I was laying on the couch grieving about it and he came in the apartment doing a funny little dance. I started laughing and said, ‘what’s that you doin?’ It made me forget about my problem, you know…
And about two weeks before that, we did a show in San Antonio. I heard a disc jockey say that nothing good ever came from Texas because of the Kennedy assassination. That’s when I said, ‘that’s not true’; and I got the idea… “Hi everybody, I’m Archie Bell of the Drells from Houston, Texas. We don’t only sing, but we dance just as good as we walk.” I wanted people to know that something good did come from Texas. Not knowing that song would be as big as it was, it was just an idea that I had at the time.
Back then, we used “Tighten Up”, like a word of slang. Like: “Word up” and “Right On”. Like, when we would get ready to go to rehearsal we would say, ‘hey man we got to, “Tighten Up”. But I always say, ‘Nowadays, we really have to tighten up’.
R.S. Jones: Mr. Bell we still use that one as a slang word today too… So as we conclude for the morning, would you have any advice you would like to offer members of our community?
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: Like I said, in this day and time; we really have to “Tighten Up” because everybody that lives in this country, is in jeopardy now. We have to stick together because now, this time will determine how things go. The two most neglected things in this country is our elderly and our children. And the children are our future and the elderly that’s our wisdom. And we must take care of them.
I did a song called “Old People” it was on the Philadelphia National. It was written by Bonnie Segul and I let the people know take care of the old people. Because if you live long enough you going to be old too. Take care of your mothers and your fathers because you may be a mother and father one day too. We are at a critical stage in this country at this time, so we must stick together we must “Tighten Up” [chuckles]. And remember, God is not asleep. So whatever you do just keep the faith.
R.S. Jones: That all sounds good to me. So, as we close out this morning, do you have anything else you would like to add?
Archie Bell, “Mr. Tighten Up Himself”: They got a sign off of Waco where they have the “Historical Fifth Ward” at. Now, they going to add home of, “Archie Bell and The Drells” to it and we are really pleased of that. Fifth ward is a very historical place. I wasn’t born there but I was raised there from 9-months. So, I’m still from 5th ward Texas.