Linda Creed memorial fund-raiser will benefit breast cancer research

Lisa Brownstein established a foundation in Linda Creed's name a year after her friend died of breast cancer.
Lisa Brownstein established a foundation in Linda Creed's name a year after her friend died of breast cancer. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 30, 2012

Linda Creed, one of the best songwriters in Philadelphia history, wrote the lyrics to "The Greatest Love of All" two weeks after a mastectomy.

"The lyrics take on a completely different meaning when you realize this," said Lisa Brownstein, who founded the Linda Creed Breast Cancer Foundation a year after her friend's death in 1986. For example:

No matter what they take from me

They can't take away my dignity.

Whitney Houston sang the song to the top of the charts as Creed lay dying.

Creed's songs with co-writer Thom Bell for the Stylistics and Spinners - "You Are Everything," "Betcha by Golly, Wow," "Break Up to Make Up," "You Make Me Feel Brand New" - touched millions.

And what was created in her memory - the breast cancer group - has helped thousands in a more tangible way.

It celebrates its 25th anniversary Saturday with a $50-a-ticket luncheon fund-raiser at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Linda Creed was a Jewish girl at Germantown High with a burning passion to make it in Philadelphia's sizzling soul music scene. Randy Cain, a member of the Delfonics, urged Bell to give her an audition.

Bell was born in Jamaica but grew up in Philadelphia and was a classically trained pianist. "Beethoven and the boys got stale for me by the time I was 19," Bell said, "and that's why I started to create my own music."

"We struck up a friendship from the first moment I saw her," Bell, 69, who now lives in Washington state, said of Creed. "But I didn't think I could do much for her or with her as a singer. She was good but didn't work for me."

Bell wanted to try writing with her, but he was too busy with the Delfonics. She grew impatient and went off to New York to try to it make on her own.

"Creative people have odd ways about ourselves," Bell said. "We don't have certain senses. Creed was always gullible. Always. She got hooked up with the wrong folks. I didn't hear from her for like a year. . . . I saw her in New York and she looked sick."

Six months later, Creed's father asked Bell to go to New York and bring her back.

Bell made her a promise: "If you come back to Philly, you and I will work together, OK?"

He brought her home, but she locked herself in her room. Her father again asked Bell for help. "I'm not Moses or David or Jesus," Bell said. "But for some reason, she always believed what I said. I never lied to her. Most other cats were into her like a girl. I was into her like a musician, like a baby sister."

The first song they wrote became a hit for Dusty Springfield, "Free Girl." "We just started writing from there," said Bell, "bing boom bah."

The hit-makers

The pair began writing for the Stylistics and composed hit after hit, literally day after day.

Bell would work on a melody all day, then give it to Creed. "Lyrics make me itch," Bell said, "but you could not beat her when it came to lyrics. Next day and she came in with a lyric that fit the melody exactly to a T."

They felt such a comfort and trust with one another they could follow their creativity to the extreme without fear. "We rode the ethers of creativity together," Bell said.

"They never knew we were black and white," added Bell, "and we kept it that way. They didn't really appreciate a white woman with a black man. . . . 'Oh, he's a pimp and she's a hooker.' You won't hardly ever find pictures of us together."

Meaning in lyrics

In 1973, Creed wrote the lyrics to "You Make Me Feel Brand New," which sold a million records.

The songwriters had an agreement: no politics or religion. But when Creed first sang the new lyrics for Bell and got to the line "God bless you," he stopped her cold.

"If that's not religious, I don't know what it is."

"It's about you, Bell. I wanted to thank you for all the things you did for me."

With that context, the words have new meaning:

Precious love, you held my life within your hands

Created everything I am

Taught me how to live again

Only you came when I needed a friend

Believed in me through thick and thin

This song is for you

Filled with gratitude and love

God bless you

You make me feel brand new.

They had fun together, teasing each other. Once, Bell wanted to write a song about his son, who was overweight, and gave Creed a tentative lyric.

"Come on, Bell. That's crap," she said in mock anger. "I don't write that kind of nonsense. I'm going to call the NAACP on you."

He'd dish it right back. "You go ahead and write the song. And if the song goes top 10, I'll take your name off it."

She changed the lyrics. "Rubberband Man" by the Spinners reached No. 2. Her name stayed.

Bell was with Creed when doctors diagnosed cancer and she went through treatments. He was amazed at her spirit, her resolve, her work ethic.

Idea for a foundation

In 1981, in a nail salon, Creed met Brownstein.

The two were getting manicures, side by side, and they got to talking. Brownstein, a clothing designer, had gone to school with Creed's husband. The two became such close friends - soulmates - that Brownstein says she was sure they had been together - lovers, siblings, something - in a past life.

"What attracted me to Linda?" Brownstein asks. "Her ambition. Her drive. For me, a woman slavishly instructed to believe that the perfect life was defined by marrying a nice Jewish doctor and raising a good family, Linda's ability to take a different path was inspiring."

Creed died in 1986 at 37 after 10 years of fighting cancer. When doctors first found the lump in her breast, they just watched it. It was a different time.

A year after Creed's death, Brownstein bolted up in bed one day with the idea to create a foundation in Creed's name.

There weren't any other breast cancer groups in Pennsylvania at the time. There was no sea of pink, no charted path.

"From the beginning," said executive director Donna Duncan, "we focused on direct service. We provide the three parts of good breast health: clinical exam, screening mammogram, and breast health education. It's not a voucher program. Hospitals block out time for us and each woman gets an appointment time."

The group relies on private fund-raising and has a $350,000 annual budget. In 25 years, it claims to have helped more than 8,000 women. Its emphasis has always been on uninsured or underinsured women. A focus now is outreach within the African American, lesbian, and transgender communities.

At Saturday's luncheon, Creed's songs will be played throughout. Memorabilia will be auctioned off. Guests will remember the joy she brought to people when she was alive, and all the good accomplished in her name after she died.


If You Go

For more information on Saturday's luncheon at Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue, 4200 City Ave., call the Linda Creed Breast Cancer Organization at 215-564-3700 or

go to www.lindacreed.org


Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639, mvitez@phillynews.com, or follow @michaelvitez on Twitter.

 

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