Leroy Bell's Breakout Year

And he's only . . . 60?

LeRoy Bell made it all the way to the final eight on the first U.S. season of The X Factor, but he almost hadn't gotten the chance to audition. When the FOX show hit KeyArena for auditions in June, a reported 5,000 would-be contestants showed up. It was nearing the 10 p.m. cutoff, and Bell had been waiting in line for hours. At exactly 9:45 he was finally summoned and ran onto the stage. But there was another problem: Bell had only learned that day that on The X Factor, contestants mainly sing covers, not originals. Bell hadn't performed a cover in 10 years.

Bell's spent his entire adult life working on his own material—as part of the late-'70s Philadelphia soul duo Bell and James, who had one funky single, "Livin' It Up (Friday Night)," hit #15 on the Billboard Hot 100; as a songwriter, composing tunes for the likes of Elton John, Lou Rawls, and Jennifer Lopez; and currently as the frontman of the rock-and-soul trio LeRoy Bell & His Only Friends, who've toured the country and shared the stage with Etta James, Al Green, and India.Arie, among others.

Covers weren't part of his repertoire, but he whipped up "Lean on Me" on the fly. "I didn't even remember the verse," he said in a recent phone call. "But luckily . . . I sang the chorus, and the crowd was with me." He was off to Los Angeles.

Bell grew up as an army brat; his father retired at Fort Lewis, and Bell spent his teens and early adult life in Tacoma before moving to Seattle in 1979. (He now lives in Edmonds with his wife and 13-year-old son, who appeared on the show a few times cheering on his dad.) It's hard to believe Bell's young adulthood was 30 years ago. He's got hip style—black-framed glasses, slouchy beanies—and a youthful face and figure that belie his 60 years.

The judges quickly fell for his rich, soulful vocals, a style he says he first picked up from his uncle Thom Bell, a Grammy Award–winning producer who helped create the 1970s Philadelphia brand of soul music by mastering records for early R&B groups like the Spinners and the Delfonics. LeRoy's last performance on The X Factor stage, a gritty rendition of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down," was one of his best showings. But on November 23 he was eliminated. "Like anybody, I felt disappointed, because I wanted to go a little farther," he says. "[But] I never thought of it as a competition. If there was any competition, it was between myself and learning something new."

But Bell didn't exactly walk away empty-handed. Thanks to his newfound national fame, he's already booked the Moore Theatre for New Year's Eve, in what will be his band's biggest headlining show yet.


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