Musician Memoir
3:58 pm
Thu March 21, 2013

Singer-Songwriter LeRoy Bell: The Rise, Fall And Rise Again

Musician LeRoy Bell.
Credit Courtesy/LeRoy Bell Facebook Page

Most people know about singer-songwriter LeRoy Bell  from his appearances in 2011 as one of the top performers on the network television singing competition, The X Factor. But long before televised competitions, LeRoy Bell was at the top of the pop music charts.

Back in the 70s he wrote hit tunes for Elton John. And his own band, Bell and James, was at the top of the pop charts with their 1979 hit, “Living it Up Friday Night.”

Musical Beginnings

Growing up, LeRoy Bell was an “army brat” and moved moved around a lot. LeRoy received his first guitar when he was 13 years old and living on an army base in Germany. He loved music, but when he looked around at his family, he didn’t see any other musicians.

Then his father was transferred to Fort Lewis. It was while he was living in Parkland, Washington, that LeRoy finally got to know his musical roots. His grandfather used to be a doo-wop singer. Then LeRoy’s grandfather told him about his uncle, Thom Bell.  Thom was a music  producer in Philadelphia.

Rise And Fall

LeRoy says that meeting Thom Bell was like striking gold. Thom took his nephew LeRoy with him to the legendary Philadelphia International Records studios where Thom produced recordings by artists like the O’Jays, The Spinners and The Stylistics. Thom let LeRoy sit in on recording sessions, suggest vocal harmonies to the artists and eventually to write songs. His uncle suggested that LeRoy write demo tunes for a recording that Elton John wanted to make with Thom Bell and his team of Philadelphia music producers.

LeRoy ended up writing “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,”  and the tune became a major hit for Elton John in 1979. After a series of hits for Elton John and other artists, and his own top 20 single, LeRoy Bell’s recording career came to an abrupt halt.  He switched record labels in the hope of generating even more hits and sales. 

The switch was a bad decision. “The way you know that nobody cares about you any more is that instead of the limo waiting for you at the airport, they say, ‘There’s the rent-a-car desk.’ That kind of hit us hard,” LeRoy explains.

Bell spent the next couple of decades of his life playing weddings in a cover band. He stopped writing songs for a while and played drums instead. Finally, after being inspired by a Sade album, LeRoy began writing his own music again.  His bandmate and bass player, Terry Morgan, suggested that LeRoy audition for The X Factor.  Though LeRoy, now almost 60 years old, didn’t watch TV reality shows, he was attracted by the fact that the show didn’t have an age limit for its contestants.

Televised Renewal

LeRoy stood out on that program not only for his talent, but for his maturity.  He beat out thousands of much younger competitors on the show and made his way to eighth place.  His success on The X Factor has reignited LeRoy’s career. 

LeRoy Bell, left, with KUOW host Dave Beck and bassist Terry Morgan. LeRoy and Terry played songs from LeRoy's 40-year career in the KUOW Performance Studio.
Credit Photo by Jeff Heiman

The singer Zahara, one of South Africa’s biggest pop stars, discovered LeRoy through The X Factor and they toured together. Zahara appears on LeRoy’s latest album, “Rock and Soul.” 

LeRoy Bell says he was competing mostly against himself on The X Factor.  He said the show challenged him to develop a better stage presence and gave him a new found confidence as a performer.

The X Factor experience also reminded LeRoy how important music is to him. “It’s great. I enjoy live performing more than I ever have before. I realize that I’m very lucky to do music and make a living at it. I can’t imagine trying to do anything else.”

LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends perform on Friday, March 22 at the Kirkland Performance Center. They play at JazzBones in Tacoma on Saturday, March 23.

WEB EXTRA: LeRoy Bell's "One More Chance" Music Video

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