Houston, Texas, the sunny, sweltering, expansive Lone Star city, largest along the U.S.A.'s Gulf Coast, has at least two famous quotes connected to it. Archie Lee Bell once claimed to have written "...a new dance called the tighten up" and the resulting song became a surprise hit in the spring of 1968. In April 1970, astronaut Jack Swigert relayed the message "Houston, we've had a problem" to Earth's Manned Spacecraft Center following an explosion on the Apollo 13 mission, a planned moon landing that couldn't be completed. By that time, the "problem" phrase could have also been applied to Archie's career as his then-current single stalled at number 100 the exact same week as the Apollo disaster (two years after "Tighten Up" had been approaching a successful landing at number one on the Billboard chart). Archie ignored the downward trend and persistently forged ahead, for better or worse, as did NASA's space program.

Now that I've pointed out two things that have never before occupied the same space in anyone's minds, I'll focus solely on Bell and leave the subject of cosmic exploration to more qualified historians. Born in Henderson, Texas, Archie's family moved a couple hundred miles south to H-Town when he was a baby. Raised on a steady diet of gospel music and jazz, he sang in church as a child and developed a strong desire to make singing his full time job. While attending E.O. Smith Junior High, he formed a short-lived group called Little Pop and the Fireballs. A quartet at Phillis Wheatley High School in the early '60s was The Drells (named as a variation on favorite hitmaking group The Dells). The group included Billy Butler, James Wise and Joe Cross and they started by entering various talent competitions held in the area, performing covers of R&B hits of the day while showing off their dance moves.

Skipper Lee Frazier, a longtime personality at Houston's soul station KCOH 1430 AM, had his own small record label, Ovide, and after checking out a performance by the group, signed them up. "She's My Woman, She's My Girl," an original written by Bell, spent several weeks in the top ten on KCOH in the summer of 1967 and received airplay in a few other cities including Chicago, Atlanta and New Orleans. Its flip side, "Yankee Dance," penned by Archie and Sunny Ozuna of San Antonio's top band Sunny and the Sunliners, also appeared on the station's survey. Then Archie was drafted by the U.S. Army; after basic training at Fort Polk in Southern Louisiana, he was given three weeks' leave before shipping off to Germany, during which time he and the Drells recorded a few songs. One of these, "A Soldier's Prayer" ('...the time has finally come for me to go to don't really wanna go-o-o...'), includes a spoken segment ("Wait a minute, Uncle Sam! I'm not supposed to fight on Sunday!") that should be heard at least once.

Before he was deployed, a recording session for "Tighten Up" took place with instrumental backing by The T.S.U. Toronadoes; signed to Frazier's label as a "house band," the founding members were students at Texas Southern University (hence the initials in the name). Brothers Cal Thomas and Will Thomas, both guitarists, were joined by Jerry Jenkins on bass, horn players Leroy Lewis, Nelson Mills and Clarence Harper, organist Robert Sanders, drummer Dwight Burns and a few others at various times. They had already recorded a hot instrumental jam, "The Toronado" (a proposed theme song, perhaps, for the Oldsmobile Toronado that inspired the rest of the band's name), in mid-1966.

So here's Archie's entire intro, as heard on the vinyl single: "Hi everybody, I'm Archie Bell of the Drells of Houston, Texas...we don't only sing, but we dance just as good as we walk! In Houston, we just started a new dance called the tighten up...this is the music we tighten up with..." Anyone who listened to the radio in 1968 heard this intro dozens if not hundreds of times. Then the song (with co-writing credit to Billy Butler) proceeded to follow where many had previously gone...from an introduction of the drums, to the organ, then to the horns...tighten up awhile...intro the guitar..."make it mellow!" The song was issued in late '67 as the B side of "Dog Eat Dog," a tighter (pardon the pun), more polished, more hit-sounding track...or so they thought. Deejays flipped the disc and "Tighten Up" started to take off. Atlantic Records picked it up in early '68 and shortly afterwards replaced the previous A side with an extended flip, "Tighten Up Part II" ('...Here we go again! Ooooo, tighten up...'), using the original instrumental track. The single hit number one nationally in mid-May, the most popular dance hit of the decade's second half. Tough luck duck, jerk, shotgun, boogaloo, shingaling...the "Tighten Up" was where it was at!

While the song and dance reached a red hot peak, Archie was most likely peeling potatoes on an Army base in Germany, unable to go to the U.S. except on a couple of brief furloughs, each spent recording new tracks and doing a few personal appearances. During this time, a number of "fake" Drells groups popped up while the real Drells made some promotional appearances with James Wise taking Archie's lead vocal spot. Joe Cross left and was replaced by Charles Gibbs and, later, Willie Pernell. The group's Tighten Up album was assembled using earlier singles sides, instrumentals and a few vocal tracks made without Archie's cooperation...all while he was stuck in Germany (then again, he managed to avoid war-torn Vietnam). By the time he returned, the bogus bands had created confusion; booking agents weren't sure if he was legit!

While on a short leave from the service, Bell was approached by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff while performing with the group in New Jersey. An agreement was signed with Atlantic for the Philadelphia-based team (hot at the time with hit singles by The Intruders and Soul Survivors) to write and produce for them. "I Can't Stop Dancing" followed the major hit in the summer of 1968, dealing with an inability to resist dancing, even during lunchtime ("Lemme put this hamburger down...I don't want no malt...I wanna dance!"), a basic urge that gave them another top ten pop and R&B hit in August. "Do the Choo Choo" was next, with an intro, beat and melody that copied "Tighten Up," a not-so-safe bet that fell short of the top 40 (flip side ballad "Love Will Rain on You," which reached the R&B chart, might have been a better choice to promote at top 40 radio). "There's Gonna Be a Showdown" (of the dance type) came next and fared better, returning them to the pop top 40 and R&B top ten in early 1969.

James Wise, Joe Cross, Archie Bell, Billy Butler

The act moved away from the dance gimmick and had, at best, mid-charting efforts, including "I Love My Baby," "Girl You're Too Young" and "My Balloon's Going Up," all in 1969. Then the fateful day came in April '70 when Archie watched the news of the aborted Apollo space mission while his single sat in the anchor position on the national chart, his fate with the record company uncertain. One final chart single on Atlantic, a cover of the Isaac Hayes-David Porter soul classic "Wrap it Up," became the act's final chart record for the label. The T.S.U. Toronadoes, meanwhile, recorded for Atlantic and even scored briefly in early '69 with "Getting the Corners," an instrumental with "Tighten Up" riffs and crazy comments from band members throughout. They recorded for the Volt and Rampart Street labels until 1971.

As with many groups, the Drells' lineup changed from time to time. For most of the period of 1972 through the early '80s, the Drells consisted of Wise, who stayed with Archie the longest, Lucious Larkins and Archie's younger brother Lee Bell. After a quiet '72, the quartet emerged in 1973 on the Glades label (an affiliate of Miami's T.K. Productions) and came very close to the Soul (formerly R&B) top ten with "Dancing to Your Music." Working under producer-songwriter Phillip Mitchell, they had another minor charter with "Ain't Nothing For a Man in Love."

Reuniting with Gamble and Huff in 1975, Archie and the Drells reverted to their fleet-of-foot comfort zone, having minor success on the duo's TSOP label with "I Could Dance All Night" and "The Soul City Walk." In early '76, "Let's Groove" revived the "Hi, everybody!" intro, set it to a disco beat, and they enjoyed another top ten Soul Singles hit. Moving to parent company Philadelphia International, they enjoyed a run of popular songs, particularly in dance clubs, that kept them acting up in front of party-loving audiences into the early '80s. As the decade turned, Archie went solo; his final single to reach a national chart was "Any Time is Right" on the Becket label in 1981.

Two of Archie's brothers found their own levels of success. Jerry Bell, born in Philly in 1951, had two distinct stints, first with late-'60s and '70s Detroit-based funk group The Nite-Liters (later known as New Birth) and, in the '80s, Motown's "Let it Whip" funksters The Dazz Band. He also had a long, successful career as a master of Martial Arts. Ricky Bell had an even higher profile; born in Houston in 1955, he became a star lineback and fullback in the mid-'70s for the USC Trojans football team, then spent six seasons through 1982 as an NFL running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers. As for longtime manager Skipper Lee Frazier, he was always a straight-up guy, treated Bell and all The Drells members fairly, and spent many of his later years working in gospel radio. Word has it Archie Bell still writes music while continuing to reminisce about his eventful career, especially his "Tighten Up" time at the top.

- Michael Jack Kirby



Tighten Up There's Gonna Be a Showdown