18 May 2010
Tighten Up (Part 1)
b/w "Dog Eat Dog"
Archie Bell & The Drells
Written by Archie Bell & Billy Butler
Ovide Records (later distributed by Atlantic Records)
This story is about a regional group that had an "overnight" hit record with some strange twists along the way. Like the fact that the lead singer singing about a dance craze was shot in the leg while serving in Vietnam. And while recovering from his wounds, kept making calls overseas pleading with DJs to stop playing the "wrong side" of his group's record - the "A" side.
But let's allow the lead singer to begin the story, as he does on the "B" side that became a smash.
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
Archie Bell formed a group with four friends from high school in 1966. They called themselves "The Drells," a derivative of Archie's family name. Having won some local talent shows, The Drells' first champion was local DJ Skipper Lee Frazier. In 1967, the five young men recorded "Dog Eat Dog" for Frazier's Ovide Records. The flip side was a dance number called "Tighten Up."
Fate intervened (for good and for bad, it turns out). The Vietnam War was raging in the South Pacific. Bell was drafted and immediately inducted into the army. According to one version that has been passed around (and perhaps perpetuated by the singer himself), when he was sworn in, Bell raised his right hand in a black power salute and was answered with a one-way ticket to the platoon facing the worst of the fighting at the time.
Wounded in the leg by gunfire in Vietnam, Bell was sent to recover in Germany. While convalescing, he was advised by other members of the group that "Dog Eat Dog" was getting some significant airplay in Houston, and, of all places, New York City. He took to the long distance lines, calling DJs and telling them that they were playing the "wrong side" of the 45, even though "Dog Eat Dog" was - per custom in the days of the two-sided single - designated as the "A" side for promotional play.
The badgering of radio jocks worked. "Tighten Up" sold 800,000 copies in the New York metropolitan area alone, and over 3 million copies in the US. It hit Number 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B singles charts the week of May 18, 1968, only to be knocked off its perch by Simon & Garfunkel ("Mrs. Robinson") and Stevie Wonder ("Shoo-Be-Doo-Da-Day"), respectively.
Bell's explanation for how "Tighten Up" was written is a fairly direct one, not uncommon to many records of the time: a simple suggestion or observation. In this case, group member Billy Butler was dancing around backstage before a show. Bell told him that he didn't recognize the dance steps. Butler replied, "It's a brand new dance called the 'Tighten Up'." Bell took it from there, creating a unique call and response between the vocalist and the drums, bass and organ, no doubt influenced by the great James Brown's dominance of the soul charts during the '60s. From there he upped the ante: Bell recruited some horn players from Texas Southern University ("the Tornadoes") to pop the melody together with syncopated hand claps.
The result is a stone cold classic that instinctively makes you turn up the car radio as soon as you hear the first guitar chord. Or get up off your feet in the living room, because "everybody can do it" - The Tighten Up.
Listen to the original 45 rpm recording of "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell & The Drells.
Watch Archie Bell & The Drells perform "Tighten Up" on TV (date unknown; video is subpar):