'X Factor' Crooner Is 'Livin' It Up'

LeRoy Bell, 60, who once hit it big with a disco favorite, has a second chance at fame.

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LeRoy Bell

Fans of American TV's newest musical competition, The X Factor, might be enjoying contestant LeRoy Bell's warm, smoky voice without realizing that they may have heard -- and danced to -- it in the long-ago golden age of disco.

Bell's neo-soulful crooning doesn't hint at his hit anthem of days gone by. His voice has mellowed and sweetened with age, even if he looks a fraction of his 60 years. Some fans want proof of age, prompting Bell to offer to post his original birth certificate once he gets 100,000 followers on Twitter. (So far he has around 7,000.) But doubters have only to check out the top-20 1978 hit "Livin' It Up (Friday Night)" and see Bell Afroed, mustached and brooding to understand his journey.  

Despite his professional past -- an advantage on an amateur competition show like The X Factor -- Bell said that the show is making him work harder than he's ever worked.

"I haven't really pushed myself this hard ever," he told The Root. "Now I'm competing with people who have as much as or more talent than me, and they're younger than I am." Bell, who is still in the running on the show, admitted that his age and experience have helped him in some areas. "I have so much more to sing about, so much more to tell, and it's matured into the voice I like much better than the voice I had 20 years ago. I feel happy that I got out of my comfort zone and tried out for this show."

The gamble has paid off so far for Bell, whose trek from a youthful brush with the big time to a final shot at fame is full of detours, regret, determination and hope.

Bell discovered the guitar, drums, singing and songwriting as a teen in Tacoma, Wash., then got serious about music after connecting with his uncle, music legend Thom Bell, the famed producer-writer-arranger whose megahits established the Sound of Philadelphia with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in the mid-1970s.

"I went to Philly and worked with him in the studio," Bell said. "That's what I really cut my teeth on, working with the Spinners and the O'Jays, being in the studio every day, immersed in the whole scene."

In 1976 Bell, 25, had his first song published, "You're All I Need in Life," performed by the Spinners. "I figured I was in the big time with a real song on a real record by a real artist on a major label," Bell said. He returned to the Pacific Northwest and met Casey James in a pickup band, and the two wrote songs as Bell & James for the artists Thom Bell was producing. They recorded their own demos and, in 1978, hit the top 20 with their disco classic "Livin' It Up (Friday Night)" on A&M Records.

Their flirtation with fame included co-writing two hits for Elton John, whom Thom Bell was producing: "Mama Can't Buy You Love," which peaked at No. 9 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979; and John's No. 1 adult contemporary hit, "Are You Ready for Love," which went gold.

Wanting a better deal, Bell and James changed managers. "We made some bad decisions, listened to some bad advice," he said. "We didn't get a better deal, and that was it."

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