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."
At age 30, his fall from grace "was hard to take." He kept writing songs, but changes in the music industry spelled doom. Bell played drums in a local cover band, forgoing his dream of "the big deal I felt I was destined to have."
For 20 years, Bell worked as a mail carrier and watch salesman to support himself and his family. But a decade ago, at 49, Bell realized he couldn't live with himself unless he tried again. He formed a band, LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends, and released four independent CDs. He crossed the country as an opening act for such stars as Erykah Badu, B.B. King, Al Green, Etta James, Joe Cocker, India.Arie and Michael McDonald, fueling his hunger to be the headliner.
Enter The X Factor. Once Bell learned that there was no age limit, he "jumped at the auditions," singing his own songs in the preliminary rounds. For the big audition, he had to sing something they hadn't heard. "I pulled out 'Lean on Me,' and I was in!"
But will fame be fickle or friendly the second time around? Bell's fan base grows weekly, gaining traction on Twitter with each performance. King 5's Evening Magazine recently named him one of the 25 Most Beautiful People in the Pacific Northwest.
With contestants eliminated from the show weekly, he's gunning for his lifelong dream with a new sense of urgency. "I'm just hoping to keep going in this competition because I want to reach as many people as I can — not only to sell records, but to continue to write music and do what I love, and keep bringing joy to the people who hear it."
TaRessa Stovall is an author and blogger based in New Jersey whose most recent book, My Blue Suede Shoes: Four Novellas, was written with a trio of sister-authors to use entertaining fiction to heal from domestic violence.