Archie Bell & the Drells scored a left-field number one hit in 1968 with "Tighten Up," which epitomized the virtues of their music: funky, exuberant, danceable soul out for a rousing good time. Born in Henderson, TX, Bell grew up in Houston and began singing in church. In junior high, he joined a vocal group called Little Pop & the Fireballs, and formed the Drells in high school with friends James Wise, Huey "Billy" Butler, and Joe Cross (later replaced by Willie Pernell). The Drells won several local talent shows, performing a repertoire dominated by Chicago soul, and were discovered by local DJ Skipper Lee Frazier, who became their manager and producer. Bell & the Drells cut a single for Frazier's Ovid label, "She's My Woman," which became a regional hit in 1966.
Unfortunately, Bell was drafted in 1967. Before he was shipped overseas, he managed to record a few more tracks with the Drells, including the single "Dog Eat Dog." The B-side was a dance tune called "Tighten Up," the title of which came from Butler; backing the Drells was an instrumental R&B combo from Texas Southern University called the T.S.U. Toronados. Frazier was talked into playing "Tighten Up" on his radio show, and it became a smash hit in Houston, drawing the attention of Atlantic. With major-label distribution, "Tighten Up" took the country by storm in early 1968, hitting number one on both the pop and R&B charts. Bell learned of the song's success while recovering from wounds suffered in Vietnam, and with Atlantic requesting a full album, he began traveling to and from the States on leave. Meanwhile, several promoters took advantage of Bell's absence to send fake Archie Bell & the Drells lineups out on the road. The real Bell was granted leave to tour with the Drells that summer, and after a show in New Jersey, the group was approached by a fledgling Philadelphia-based songwriting/production team, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Bell & the Drells started recording heavily with the duo, a partnership that produced several more danceable R&B hits in "I Can't Stop Dancing," "Do the Choo-Choo," and "(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown" (the former two in 1968, the latter in 1969). Also in 1969, Butler left the group and was replaced by Lee Bell, Archie's brother, who became the Drells' choreographer.
In spite of the fact that Bell received his discharge from the Armed Forces and was finally free to pursue his career, "(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown" proved to be the last Top 40 pop hit he ever had. Bell & the Drells left Atlantic in 1970 and signed with the smaller Glades label, where they had a minor hit with "Dancing to Your Music." Overall, though, the Glades stint was disappointing, and in 1973 the group reunited with Gamble and Huff on their flourishing TSOP/Philadelphia International imprint. Working with producers like Bunny Sigler and McFadden & Whitehead, Bell & the Drells landed on the R&B charts with some regularity over the next few years, their still-danceable sound now a hybrid of lush Philly soul and disco. They had several substantial R&B hits from 1975-1976 with "I Could Dance All Night," "Soul City Walk," and "Let's Groove," all of which helped Dance Your Troubles Away become a Top Ten album on the R&B charts. Three follow-up albums through 1979 didn't prove quite as successful, however, and the Drells gave their last performance just before Christmas 1979. Bell subsequently cut a solo album, I Never Had It So Good, for Becket in 1981, and had a minor hit with "Anytime Is Right," but disappeared from the scene afterward. With a new set of Drells, Bell later became a staple of the East Coast's oldies-centered beach-music circuit. ~ Steve Huey