Archie Bell, from Houston, Texas, was in Baltimore on Saturday. He not only sings, but he dances just as good as he walks. And all he wants to do is make it mellow.
How? Just tighten up, baby. You can do it. But don't you just do it light.
Archie Bell wrote one of the greatest soul songs of the 1960s, a dance party anthem called "Tighten Up." He will be 57 years old Saturday and is still touring around the country, playing "Tighten Up" and some of the lesser known songs that he and his group, the Drells, cut from 1967 until 1979. He was in Baltimore on Saturday performing at VetFest 2001.
September is a bittersweet month for Archie Bell. He's proud of the fact that he is still going strong each birthday and that people still want to hear his music. He also looks forward to the start of football season, his favorite sport, because in the Bell household in Houston, there were two things that all seven of the Bell boys did - sang in church and played high school football.
One of them, in particular was very good at playing football. His name was Ricky Bell.
Whenever September rolls around, Archie Bell thinks about his younger brother Ricky, and the promising football career - and life - that was taken away at the age of 29. Ricky Bell was the victim of a heart disease called cardiomyopathy, which broke down his once powerful body, attacking his muscles and arteries, sometimes leaving him in excruciating pain.
It took away his heart muscle - but not his heart.
"He was a champion," Archie Bell said of his brother. "He was tough, but he loved people and treated them nice, and they loved him.
If you were a football fan during the 1970s, you knew about Ricky Bell. He was one of those great USC tailbacks, a member of that family that included Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis, Charles White and Marcus Allen. He was a two-time All-American and led the NCAA in rushing in 1975. He is fourth on the Trojans career rushing list with 3,857 yards, just ahead of Simpson, and finished second to Tony Dorsett in the 1976 Heisman Trophy voting.
In 1977, Ricky Bell was the first player picked in the 1977 draft - ahead of Dorsett - selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and went on to set franchise records in rushing that still stand today. After a slow start his first two seasons, Ricky Bell broke out in 1979 - one of the early glory years in Tampa, when a young team led by Bell, quarterback Doug Williams and defensive end Lee Roy Selmon won the NFL Central Division title. He rushed for 1,263 yards and 4.5 yards a carry. It seemed like Ricky Bell was on his way to fulfilling the promise he showed as a bruising 225-pound college runner with a seemingly indestructible body, once carrying the ball 51 times in one game.
But his body started to betray him, slowly at first. Bell had trouble recovering from injuries. He gained just 599 yards on 174 carries following his 1,200-plus yard season and played in just seven games in 1981, carrying the ball only 30 times for 80 yards. His body seemed sore all the time and his muscles ached, but he didn't know why.
Ricky Bell was traded to San Diego in 1982, but by then he was done. He appeared in just four games, carrying the ball twice for 6 yards. At that point, the concerns were greater that his football career. Ricky Bell was always tired and sometimes could barely move his limbs. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with the disease and officially retired in August 1983.
The pain grew worse. Ricky Bell kept losing weight, and breathing was his toughest battle now. He lost it and died in 1984.
"That was so hard for all of us," Archie Bell recalled. "We were a close family. When he was younger, we took him on tour with us sometimes. He was proud of me, but we were all proud of each other. When Ricky made the pros, it was like we all had made it. Brothers stick together."
Ricky had a lot to be proud of. In the middle of all of the protests songs and rock scene of the 1960s, Archie Bell created a simple party song that became one of the biggest hits in 1967, a memorable dance tune with no particular message except basically to stop what you were doing, take a minute away from life's woes and loosen up. How? Tighten up, baby, you can do it now, so baby get to it.
Archie Bell wrote the song after he had just gotten the word he was drafted. "I wasn't too happy about that," and one of his friends, Billy Butler, who would become one of the Drells, started doing a dance that made Bell briefly forget the bad news he had received. Butler said he called the dance the "Tighten Up," and it inspired Archie Bell to write some lyrics for it.
They cut a record, with a song called "Dog Eat Dog" on the flip side, and Archie Bell left for his military duty in Germany. He didn't think much about it after that until about six months later, when he began hearing "Dog Eat Dog" on the radio in Germany. "I was telling the guys I was with that it was my song, and they would say, `Boy, you boys from Texas can really lie.' "
Archie Bell had to call radio stations back home in the States to tell them they were playing the wrong side. When they began playing "Tighten Up," the record took off, eventually going gold. With such a big hit, they were demanding an album now, and Archie Bell had to fly to New York on weekend passes from Germany to cut enough songs to produce an album.
He and the Drells continued to produce records after that for nearly 10 years, but none of them approached the success of "Tighten Up," although one tune, "I Just Can't Stop Dancing," got some wide airplay as well. In "Tighten Up," Archie Bell and the Drells had hit the right note - a good time during turbulent times. "People said it sounded like a live record, like a house party," he said. "It was one big party."
Ricky Bell was 12 years old when his brother became a big hit. Ten years later, Ricky Bell was a big hit when he was the first player taken in the NFL Draft. Seven years later, he was dead.
Another football season is about to begin. There will be talk of great running backs, past and present. Few, if any, will mention Ricky Bell's name. But Archie Bell thinks about his brother when he watches the game that all the Bell boys once played in Texas and thinks about what might have been. "I think he could have been one of the all-time greats," Archie Bell said. "He was a dynamite runner."