Rediscover: Elton John – The Complete Thom Bell Sessions
This is a true gem from British treasure and music legend Sir Elton John, in collaboration with one of the Philly Soul pioneers and sound producers Thom Bell. For some bizarre reason, these 1977 recordings never became a full length album or received a proper release. Thankfully this album, with six songs from the original sessions, was released in 1989 in its full glory, although it did not seem to receive the success it still deserves. A remix of Are You Ready For Love became a huge hit in 2003, and a timeless banger, but it had become a very different version to the Thom Bell production which featured The Spinners on backing vocals and part lead vocals, as well as contributions from Bell & James and MFSB.
In 1979 someone had the sense to put some of the material out, but only three songs were released and they were quite different to the earlier versions. The Complete Thom Bell Sessions features three previously unreleased tracks, and the three other songs from 1979 in their original form.
The first track Nice and Slow is an upbeat number that seems pre-disco era with a Philly Soul sound, and a delicious horn section (it bears a slight similarity to Rescue Me by Fontella Bass). Elton John’s vocals are well-suited to this style, Thom Bell appears to have realised the artist’s full potential and used musicians that sound on point throughout the album. The next track Country Love Song is slightly repetitive but still a pleasant melody with some great vocals which also follows the Philly Soul sound. Shine on Through is the only slow number on the album, an emotional ballad that gives Elton moments alone with his piano, there are some glorious strings on this track and it sounds more like previous Elton John tracks than anything else. However something about Thom Bell’s production, and the gospel backing vocals later on, gives the song a more soulful feel than his earlier works.
The final three tracks, which have already seen a release in different versions, provide an even better second half to the album. Mama Can’t Buy Love is one of the best songs on the album, but for me nothing tops this original version of Are You Ready For Love which has a tasty bass and guitar throughout. This song completely captures the old Philly Soul sound, whilst incorporating some contemporary (to 1977) funk and disco elements. Another aspect of this version that elevates it above the other two is the prominent inclusion of The Spinners, they are given the chance to exhibit their abilities as a group with both dramatic chorus backing and solos with rejoicing riffs. Five minutes into the song, the instrumental breakdown alone makes you question why this version was never released as a single in its original capacity; there are some rich layers of accompaniment with a jam vibe.
The final track from these sessions is Three Way Love Affair which rounds of the album nicely as a blend of Elton John’s usual style merged with the Philly Soul sound that he and Thom Bell are trying to recreate. It’s an album worth checking out whether you are an Elton John fan or enjoy disco-infused soul, every track almost teases you with what could have been. I cannot help but wonder whether this album, had it seen a proper release, would have changed the course of Elton John’s musical output in years to come.