Leroy Bell and Casey James may well be the best ’70s songwriting partnership you never knew you knew. As Bell & James, the pair of multi-instrumentalists put together two albums’ worth of their own material in the late ’70s, the first of which included their biggest hit, Livin’ It Up (Friday Night), which went gold in 1979.
But probably more significant than their own work at the time is the portfolio of hits they wrote for Mighty Three Music, the Philly publishing company run by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell (who happened to be Leroy’s uncle, but more famously was the Sigma Sound producer behind some of the most enduring songs to emerge from the City of Brotherly Love).
Bell and James composed This Time Baby for The O’Jays in 1978, which became a massive dancefloor success for Jackie Moore when she covered it a year later. They wrote Mama Can’t Buy You Love for Elton John in 1977, the original big hit from The Thom Bell Sessions EP when it was finally issued two years later. (They also co-wrote Are You Ready For Love with Thom Bell for the same release, a track which was overlooked for decades until British DJ Ashley Beedle re-worked it into a crossover hit ten years ago.) And they contributed the title tune to the cult 1979 basketball film The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (no, I hadn’t heard of it, either): and while long-time New York Times critic Janet Maslin may have dismissed the movie as ‘cheerfully inoffensive entertainment designed for the crowd that liked Car Wash’ (ouch!), even she had to admit that the disco soundtrack was excellent – even if she did add ‘but you could listen to that at home’ (double ouch!).
So it is not surprising to find the pair with writer credits on the self-titled album Thom Bell produced for Dee Dee Bridgewater in 1980. Neither of the singer’s previous two LPs for Elektra, Just Family in 1978 and Bad For Me in ’79, had taken off in the way her talent deserved (although the title track from the latter was a club hit once again championed by Larry Levan). So the money men were hoping that Thom Bell’s magic touch would finally generate the payback that had eluded his jazz/funk-oriented predecessors Stanley Clarke (Just Family) and George Duke (Bad For Me).
The Bell and James song Gunshots In The Night is an uptempo first-person ballad of a doomed relationship between two childhood sweethearts, who fall into a life of crime only to be separated forever when the young man takes on one last job and dies in the inevitable hail of bullets. This narrative of romantic and criminal failure perfectly suits the melancholy mood that runs through the whole album, which opens with Dee Dee abandoned on the dancefloor in the exquisite Lonely Disco Dancer (‘Dancin’, everybody’s dancin’/Here I am just all by myself now/It’s so hard for me to go on’) and closes with the delicate Jody (Whoever You Are), all keening woodwind figures and fluttering string charts.
That dying fall characterises much of Thom Bell’s work from his early Delfonics hit Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) onwards. But there was also more than enough personal and professional pain in Dee Dee’s own life at the time for her to channel into a blue note-inflected recording.
She had, for example, won a Tony for creating the role of Glinda the Good Witch in the original Broadway production of The Wiz in 1975. It should have been a wonderful moment, but when the show’s teen star Stephanie Mills wasn’t even nominated, some of the cast decided that that was Dee Dee’s fault, and in a 1996 interview with the Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich she says sections of the black press at the time alleged she had slept her way into the judges’ affections – an especially bitter accusation since her role had in fact been cut in previews and her then boyfriend Gilbert Moses replaced as director when she refused to succumb to the advances of one of the show’s producers. (Like a number of the cast of The Wiz, Stephanie Mills would of course go on to a stellar disco career, the biggest of her hits being 1980’s Never Knew Love Like This Before, written for her by former Miles Davis sidemen James Mtume and Reggie Lucas).
Moses was no help, either. The ousted director couldn’t cope with her success on the show he had been booted off, and he took out his frustrations on her at first through humiliation and control and later by lashing out with his fists (‘They never said it’d be like this’). With her stage work tainted by unjust sexual accusations and her home life threatened by physical violence, the 25-year-old took herself to the brink of despair by attempting to overdose with sleeping pills.
In the aftermath of the attempt on her own life, she fled to the West Coast in 1976 (‘I try to put the nightmare from my mind’), hoping to parlay her theatrical success into a mainstream music and film career. But she made the all too human error of agreeing to marry Moses when he followed her to LA – although she assured him he would be dead if he ever hit her again, and took to sleeping with a huge butcher’s knife under her pillow (‘There ain’t no room for dreaming left in me’).
But the price of Moses keeping his hands to himself was his systematic undermining of her every break (‘fools reap what they sow’). One more story from the Howard Reich interview (you can read the whole piece here): when Dee Dee was originally cast in the TV mini-series Roots just before she was scheduled to have her tonsils out, Moses convinced the production team her voice would be ruined if she took the job after the operation – and then contrived to get himself a directing gig on the show she’d been bumped from. (‘I’ve heard that story too, too many times’). They did end up working together on one film he directed, though – yup, that’s right, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (Janet Maslin mentions her in the list of ‘good individual performances … that don’t last long enough to get going’).
With her Elektra contract unrenewed, her film career no further forward than her musical one, and her marriage to Moses working its way through the divorce courts, Dee Dee decided to join the international tour of the musical revue Sophisticated Ladies in 1983, and it was in France that she finally began to find acceptance, understanding and validation as the jazz singer she always was. Since 1989, eight of her albums have been nominated for Grammys and three of them have won. And no-one has been spreading any stories to smear a single one of those successes.
So this is my own re-edit of Gunshots In The Night, a track I discovered not when I was digitising my own vinyl but someone else’s – mon frère disco Philippe, who brought it back to London with him after a trip back home to Toulouse a couple of years ago. As you can hear, I’ve not gone down the Theo Parrish route of minimalist looping hypnosis, but left the song structure more or less intact instead, extending the intro and building a more complete breakdown to give Bob Babbitt’s lovely stepwise bass figure and the Motown-ish call and response between Dee Dee and her backing singers the space they deserve to drive the song back towards its climax. All together now … ‘Can’t you hear me? Won’t you answer me?’