I’m Archie Bell of the Drells
From 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 …
So begins the mammoth 1968 hit “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells. Bell put the group together in Houston in 1966. Joining him were his friends James Wise, Willie Parnell, and Billy Butler. A year later they signed to a local Houston label called Ovide, and began their recording career.
Not long after that, Bell was drafted, and sent to Vietnam. It was while he was on leave in October of ’67 that the group recorded the track that would make them immortal, at Jones Town Studio in Houston. Their backing group that day was the T.S.U. Tornadoes. The song was written by Bell and Butler, but at first it was the record’s flip side, “Dog Eat Dog,” that was slated for a promotional push. Soon cooler heads prevailed and the record was flipped over.
“Tighten Up” became a huge hit in Houston, and it April of 1968 it caught the ear of executives at Atlantic Records in New York, who picked it up for distribution. That spring the record reached #1 on both the R&B and Pop charts, and eventually sold three million copies.
Unfortunately, Bell wasn’t around to enjoy his success because he was still in the Army, and stationed in Germany while it was all going down. Since the group was suddenly in demand for concert appearances, James Wise took over the lead vocal slot, and Charles Gibbs was brought in for background vocals.
The Army did allow Bell to come home now and then for appearances, and it was while he and the Drells were performing in NJ that they were approached by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Their collaboration produced a number of hits including “I Can’t Stop Dancing,” “Love Will Rain On You,” and “(There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown.” Their last hit for Atlantic was a cover of Sam & Dave’s “Wrap It Up.”
Archie Bell & the Drells moved on to the Glades label, where they had a hit with “Dancing To Your Music.” Then it was on to the TSOP, a subsidiary of Philadelphia International, where they had hits like “I Could Dance All Night,” “The Soul City Walk,” and “Let’s Groove.” The disco era provided fodder for more hits including “Everybody Have A Good Time” in 1977.
In 1981, Bell began recording as a solo artist, but his one solo album met with only moderate success. He continued to perform with the Drells for the next 20 years.
Archie Bell & the Drells are primarily known for “Tighten Up,” an extraordinarily influential record in light of the funk and disco eras that followed. There is more to them than that one hit however, and their catalog is well worth a reappraisal, or an introduction if you’re not familiar with it.
By the way, according to Fred Bronson in the Billboard Book of Number One Hits, there is a story behind the introduction to “Tighten Up.” Apparently after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bell heard someone say that nothing good ever came out of Texas. His introduction then was his was of saying that Archie Bell & the Drells came out of Texas, and they were good.