Producer, arranger and conductor Thom Bell is one of the most influential figures in soul music history. Part of the Big Three (along with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) who made Philadelphia the center of popular music for a portion of the 70s, Bell helped create the lush, orchestral sound that would both succeed Motown as The Sound of Young America and create the foundation for the disco era. But Bell was also a brilliant songwriter who, with lyricist partner Linda Creed, wrote some of the most memorable songs of the decade for several acts, including the Spinners, the Stylistics and the Delfonics.
The simple beauty of Bell’s songs has made them among the most recorded of the past half century, with literally hundreds of artists remaking them over the years. However I can’t recall an entire tribute album dedicated to Bell’s songwriting prior to multi-instrumentalist Bob Baldwin’s new project, Betcha By Golly Wow: The Songs of Thom Bell. Baldwin issued a popular tribute to Michael Jackson three years ago and Betcha is what he calls “Phase II” of that work, another project in which he recalls the popular music of his youth.
One of the challenges with an album dedicated to Bell’s compositions is that not only are the original versions (which he also produced and arranged) virtually singular in their greatness, but those songs have also been covered by other artists ad nauseum, making one wonder what could possibly be added to the already hundreds of recorded versions of songs like “La-La Means I Love You,” “l’ll Be Around” and “People Make the World Go Round.” The answer is, not much, and it becomes especially difficult when the approach taken is as safe and predictable – if generally well performed -- as Betcha By Golly Wow.
Baldwin brings along good company for the ride on Betcha, with some of contemporary jazz’s most popular and talented musicians and singers. But only occasionally does the result equal the sum of its parts. On “Rubberband Man,” a former Spinners #1 hit that is, ironically, one of the few popular Bell compositions that hasn’t been done to death, guitarist Paul Brown and flutist Ragan Whiteside get into a full jam with Baldwin and co-producer/musician Preston Glass, providing this ultra-smooth disc’s funkiest moment. And baritone Will Downing reprises his 90s work with Baldwin and saxman Gerald Albright on “Break Up to Make Up,” an excellent performance that is the unadulterated high point on the album.
Much of the rest of Betcha sounds like fairly standard smooth jazz fare, with competent performances by talented guests musicians such as Paul Taylor and Marion Meadows on melodic but mostly uninspiring tracks. And the remaining vocal performances don't fare any better: Singer Toni Redd won us over a couple years ago with her N The Key of Redd album,but here she appears to be working way too hard on her overwrought tribute to Phyllis Hyman, “Betcha By Golly Wow.” Similarly, the usually understated Vivian Green strains her way through a by-the-numbers version of “La-La Means I Love You.”
Ultimately, Betcha By Golly Wow comes off like many of the seemingly countless smooth jazz tributes to classic soul: It is unquestionably listenable but has few transcendent moments and no cuts that approach the brilliance of the definitive versions of the songs covered. That is particularly a shame here because of the amount of talent that was involved in this project, beginning with Bob Baldwin. More than a dozen albums into his solo career and with a couple decades of notoriety supporting other artists, Baldwin doesn’t need to prove who he is as a composer, producer or performer. He has shown he has the talent to shine, but with Betcha By Golly Wow that shine is muted, as he delivers a moderately enjoyable but relatively uninspiring look at one of the most revered songwriters of our lifetime. Modestly recommended.
By Chris Rizik