Like a much-needed vaccine of good-time dance music during the darkest days of 1968, Archie Bell’s “Tighten Up” shot out of Houston like a NASA rocket. America said, ‘Houston, we have no problems now because we got ‘Tighten Up!’. More than half a century later, the song, and all of the Drells’ music, is still getting people of all ages up on their feet. Scott Schinder spoke with Archie Bell and collaborator Skipper Lee Frazier
“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 want. In Houston, we just started a new dance called the Tighten Up. This is the music we tighten up with…”
So begins Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up,” an exuberant slice of two-chord house-party proto-funk that topped the U.S. pop and R&B charts in the spring of 1968, and has remained a staple of oldies radio in the years since.
The original release of “Tighten Up”:
With a simple but indelible main riff, an irresistibly buoyant groove and minimalist, sung-spoken lyrics, “Tighten Up” is a sublime slice of joyous, deceptively casual-sounding genius. Bell states his case concisely within the track’s first 30 seconds, before singing the praises of the mysterious title dance and exhorting the musicians to “tighten up” on their respective axes. The players respond in kind, driving the track with a snaky bass line and a buoyant guitar hook. Bell shouts “Now make it mellow!,” coaching the horn section to momentarily tone things down before the groove kicks in again.
Over half a century after its release, “Tighten Up” remains a one-of-a-kind R&B landmark. In 2004, Texas Monthly‘s Jeff McCord and John Morthland ranked it Number 5 (between the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” and Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”) on their survey of “The 100 Best Texas Songs.” Veteran Austin rock critic Michael Corcoran puts “Tighten Up” at Number 12 on his list of “The Best Texas Recordings Ever” in his 2005 book All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music.
Over half a century after its release, “Tighten Up” remains a one-of-a-kind R&B landmark.
Archie Bell, born September 1, 1944 in Henderson, TX, got his start singing in church while growing up in Houston’s Fifth Ward. While attending E.O. Smith Junior High School, he sang in the school chorus and performed with a local group called Little Pop and the Fireballs, before founding the Drells. The Drells—a vocal quartet consisting of Billy Butler, Joe Cross, James Wise and lead singer Bell when “Tighten Up” was recorded—got their start competing in neighborhood talent shows, and singing and dancing at local record hops.
Many of those record hops were staged by Skipper Lee Frazier, a beloved R&B deejay on Houston’s KCOH and an enterprising promoter of the local music scene. Frazier was also a self-made entrepreneur who recorded local talent for his Ovide and East-West labels. He became Archie Bell and the Drells’ manager and producer, and took the foursome into a San Antonio studio to cut their debut single, “She’s My Woman, She’s My Girl.” Released on East-West in 1966, that song became a minor local hit. But the group’s budding career was threatened when Bell received his draft notice—no small concern at the height of the Vietnam War— the following year.
By the time Bell began his two-year stint in the Army, he and the Drells had laid down several more tracks with Frazier at Doyle Jones’ eight-track studio in Houston Heights. Among those tunes was “Tighten Up,” a funkier departure from the smooth, Chicago-style soul that the Drells favored at the time. Bell’s sidekicks are barely heard on the hit version of “Tighten Up,” aside from scattered handclaps and background chatter. More prominent is the backup band, the TSU Toronadoes, who provide the rubbery rhythm beneath Bell’s soulful shout-outs.
Although “Tighten Up”‘s authorship is officially credited to Archie and fellow Drell Billy Butler, Bell and Frazier have differing accounts of how the song came to be.
Bell maintains that he was inspired to write “Tighten Up” by his then-roommate Butler. “I had just got my greeting from Uncle Sam, and I was at home feeling down,” he told me. “I was laying on the couch, and the radio was playing, and Billy came in doing this little dance. It kind of cheered me up and made me forget about my problems for a minute. I said, ‘What’s that you’re doing?,’ and he said ‘It’s the Tighten Up.’ So I took it from there and started writing some words down. (Butler) didn’t write the song, but he gave me the idea.”
The song’s title phrase, Bell says, “was slang, like ‘right on’ or ‘word up.’ We’d say, ‘Check ya later, man, tighten up.’ Or you’re playing football and your team’s losing, and you’d go ‘Man, you got to tighten this shit up.'”
Bell’s famous spoken intro was motivated, he says, by a sense of Lone Star pride. “About two weeks before, I had heard a DJ say that nothing good ever came from Texas, because of Kennedy being assassinated here. So I wanted people to know that Archie Bell and the Drells were from Texas and that we were good.”
According to Frazier, though, “Tighten Up” began life as an instrumental by the TSU Toronadoes, a popular Houston R&B combo that had originally formed at Texas Southern University. Frazier also managed the Toronadoes, who released several singles on Ovide (now prized by funk-soul aficionados) and often backed the label’s other artists in the studio.
“At that time, the TSU Toronadoes were the hottest band in town,” Frazier told me in 2006. “They used to play at Ray Barnett’s Cinder Club on Dixie Drive in Houston, which was one of the finest clubs you’d ever want to go into.
“Entertainment in Houston was integrated long before the lunch counters were, and the Cinder was a popular club for all races,” Frazier explains. “The stage was level with the tables and chairs, but at showtime, they’d punch a button and the stage would rise, and an MC would come out, ‘Showtime, ladies and gentlemen….’
“Anyway, the TSU Toronadoes’ leader was a guy named Leroy Lewis, and he told me, ‘We have this tune that we play at the Cinder Club. We don’t have a title for it and we don’t have no words, but when we play it, everyone gets up to dance.’ So I went out there to hear it, and said ‘Boy, that sounds good, let’s record it.'”
Frazier cut the instrumental with the TSU Toronadoes, and then added Archie and the Drells’ voices at a subsequent session, outlining some words for Bell to ad-lib over the track.
“Archie had to work around what was already on the tape, so it took a long time to get it done,” Frazier remembers. “We stayed in that studio from eight o’clock till about three in the morning. Archie kept saying ‘Give the drummer some,’ and I kept saying ‘Wait a minute, cut, that’s James Brown’s thing! You gotta keep saying ‘Tighten up’ all through the record.'”
As for the song’s writing credits, which snubbed the TSU Toronadoes members who’d written the music, thus robbing them of the lucrative publishing income that “Tighten Up”‘s success would generate, Frazier offers, “I didn’t know nothing about the business at the time, but BMI told me that I needed to form my own publishing company. So I formed a publishing company and copyrighted the song. I didn’t know songwriters get royalties, so I just put Billy Butler and Archie Bell as the writers.”
“Tighten Up” was initially released on an Ovide single in December 1967. Frazier had initially consigned it to the b-side, thinking that the more conventional soul number “Dog Eat Dog” had more commercial potential. He reversed the sides after a female radio colleague insisted that “Tighten Up” would be a hit. The independently distributed disc took off in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, and was picked up for national distribution by Atlantic Records after some string-pulling from notorious Houston music-biz player Huey Meaux.
“I was selling the record out of the trunk of my car,” Frazier recalls. “I’d take it to the distributor, and when they’d sell out, I’d take him some more, and finally I’d get a check. Huey Meaux said, ‘Skipper Lee, I can get your record hooked up with Atlantic, but you got to give me a percentage.’ I didn’t know nothing about that kind of thing then, so I said ‘Yeah, I’ll give you two per cent, go for it.'”
Over half a century after its release, “Tighten Up” remains a one-of-a-kind R&B landmark.
Atlantic’s initial pressing of “Tighten Up” featured “Dog Eat Dog” on the flip side. But a monetary dispute with one of that tune’s writers caused the company to repress the single with a new b-side, “Tighten Up (Pt. 2).” Despite its title, “Tighten Up (Pt. 2)” is actually an alternate take from the Drells’ original vocal session, with Bell exclaiming “Here we go again!” in place of the familiar spoken intro, and with the other Drells singing backup and whooping it up over the TSU Tornadoes’ original instrumental track.
“Tighten Up” debuted on Billboard‘s national Hot 100 on March 30, 1968, and reached No. 1 on May 18, simultaneously topping the R&B chart. But while the song was flooding America’s airwaves, the man who sang it was stationed in Germany (not in Vietnam as some sources claim), and had little chance to bask in his new fame.
“I was in the Army making $156 a month,” Bell laughs, adding that “Tighten Up” “was a hit in Europe too, and the other guys had transistor radios, and I’d tell them ‘That’s my tune on the radio!’ They didn’t believe me until Overseas Weekly, the military newspaper, ran a story on me saying I was the richest G.I. in the Army. I got a little band together with some of the other guys, and we’d get a weekend pass and go and play in France, Holland, Germany or Italy.”
Archie kept saying ‘Give the drummer some,’ and I kept saying ‘Wait a minute, cut, that’s James Brown’s thing! You gotta keep saying ‘Tighten up’ all through the record.'”
Meanwhile, back home, the success of “Tighten Up” created a demand for live performances. With their frontman stuck overseas, the other Drells attempted to keep the momentum going by playing some shows without him. But the absence of a full-fledged touring lineup led to bogus acts stealing some of the Drells’ thunder.
“There were so many phony groups out there saying they were Archie Bell and the Drells,” Bell asserts. “I saw a picture of one of them and it was nine white guys! This was before the computer age and before videos, so nobody knew what we looked like.”
Bell did manage to fly back home to do some promotion, perform a few live dates and record tracks for the album that Atlantic had been clamoring for.
“Tighten Up” – Archie Bell & the Drells, live 1968 appearance, a master class in tightening up:
That LP, titled Tighten Up, was padded out with songs cut prior to Bell’s departure, new tunes recorded without Bell’s involvement and recycled TSU Tornadoes numbers. Listeners didn’t seem to mind, since the album included the hit (in a three-minute, ten-second version that clocked at half a minute longer than the edited single a-side), along with “Tighten Up (Pt. 2).”
When Bell returned from the service for good in April 1969, he notes, “things had cooled down a little bit, but I came back and went right on the road.” By then, he and the Drells had hooked up with the fledgling (and soon to be hugely successful) Philadelphia producer/songwriter team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who’d recently scored breakthrough crossover hits with the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart” and The Intruders’ “Cowboys to Girls.”
The Drells’ collaboration with Gamble and Huff proved fortuitous, producing the exuberant follow-up hits “I Can’t Stop Dancing” and “There’s Gonna Be A Showdown.”
I Can’t Stop Dancing · Archie Bell and The Drells:
The quartet released two more Atlantic albums, also named I Can’t Stop Dancing and There’s Gonna Be A Showdown, before leaving the label in 1970.
[There’s Gonna Be A] Showdown – Archie Bell and The Drells:
They continued to record, scoring some minor R&B hits before experiencing a disco-era resurgence during a four-album stint with Gamble and Huff’s TSOP label, which yielded such dance hits as “Let’s Groove (Part 1)” and “Strategy.”
“Let’s Groove” – Archie Bell & The Drells:
Skipper Lee Frazier remained active in Houston music. After shutting down his labels in 1971, he put his entrepreneurial spirit to work in other areas. Until his passing on October 15, 2016 at age of 89, he and his sons operated the Eternal Rest Funeral Home in Houston. He simultaneously continued his six-decade radio career with a daily gospel show, which he broadcast from his funeral home office, on Tyler, TX’s KGLD.
I had heard a DJ say that nothing good ever came from Texas, because of Kennedy being assassinated here. So I wanted people to know that Archie Bell and the Drells were from Texas and that we were good.”
Archie Bell still lives part of the year in Houston. He released a new album, There’s Gonna Be A Showdown Again, in 2017, and continues to perform in the U.S. and overseas, attracting old fans as well as a new generation of young soul aficionados. Notwithstanding the popularity of his subsequent hits, “Tighten Up” remains his signature number and a reliable centerpiece of his live sets.
“Even after all these years, when you play ‘Tighten Up,’ people are out on the dance floor,” Bell enthuses. “No matter what problems those people are having or what’s going on in their lives, you can make them forget for awhile. And that might be enough to charge their batteries, so they can go back and do what they’ve got to do.”
“Strategy” – Archie Bell & The Drells:
Here we go again..