The last year has been a very special one for soul singer William Bell.
Ever since the revitalized Stax label released his new album This is Where I Live, Bell’s profile has been sky-high, culminating with a recent Grammy win for Best Americana Album. He was also nominated in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category for “The Three Of Us” and performed his classic “Born Under A Bad Sign” on the Grammy telecast with Gary Clark, Jr. Three Blues Music Awards nominations and a May 5 performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival further testify to Bell’s renewed career momentum—he’s as hot now as he was back in the ‘60s, when the young singer with the burnished baritone was one of the first artists on the roster of Memphis-based Stax Records to break through to the big time.
The recording of This is Where I Live stemmed from another project that Bell was involved with, the acclaimed film documentary Take Me to the River, which featured a posse of soul stalwarts engaging in multi-generational collaborations. “Concord/Stax picked up the soundtrack to that, and I was approached after that about doing a project on me, just a single project,” says Bell. “Just the idea of being back on Stax Records had intrigued me. So we got together with Joe McEwen and my management company Blind Ambition, and had a meeting and put it together. And Joe McEwen hooked us up with John Leventhal, and that’s how it all came about. Once John and I met and everything, and found out that he was interested, and I was interested in working with him, we just started putting it together.”
Leventhal, the husband of country star Rosanne Cash, produced This is Where I Live and co-wrote all but two of its selections. “Once we met about two or three times, we just kind of picked each other’s brains to make sure we were on the same page as far as production things, and we hit it off right away and became friends,” says Bell. “Our first writing session, we knew that we had something special going, so I told him, I said, ‘Well, I feel real comfortable, and this is the first time I’ve been this comfortable with a musician since I worked with Booker T.!’ Because he just had that knack for knowing where I was coming from musically.
“He plays seven or eight instruments on the CD and a lot of the rhythm stuff, and did the mixing and everything engineering-wise, so we just had a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to work together,” he says. “We cut the parts at his studio in New York, and it was comfortable because it was a lot like working at Stax. We weren’t necessarily on the clock all the time. So if we cut something one day that we were not totally satisfied with, we could always come back the next day and redo it or change a couple of bass lines or something. We really scrutinized the songs that we wanted to include in the project, and we wanted to ensure that we had good musical content, good stories, and good melodic structures for the project. So we took our time and just really scrutinized everything and put it together. It took about a year.
“My writing style has not changed a lot. I think I like to be honest in my writing, and I like to be in a place where I believe in the songs that I’m writing about, and that way the honesty can come through in the music. So I haven’t changed my approach, but as we recorded, it changed a little bit with the new technology. But the approach to songwriting is pretty much the same. I get an idea and I kick it around in my head for months sometimes, and then we’ll sit down to actually write. I like to write with another person because we can bounce ideas off each other and come to terms with it. But my approach to songwriting is just real good storylines and lyrical content, and to structure it so that the listener won’t have to imagine what I’m writing about. It’ll be crystal-clear to them. And I think by doing that, that’s why I get a lot of covers on songs, because people can relate to what I’m writing about. I write about life.”
There was room on the album for a remake of “Born Under A Bad Sign,” the classic anthem that Bell wrote with Stax house keyboardist Booker T. Jones for blues guitar great Albert King. The revival was Leventhal’s idea. “When he said, ‘I’d like to do ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ on here, I’m going, ‘Well, I’ve done that before, John, and I don’t know.’ It’s such an iconic song, and I’m partly the writer of the song, but I’m saying, ‘I don’t know what we could do that would be different,’” says William. “He said, ‘I’ve got an idea that I would like to do that would broaden it a little bit as far as listeners, and it’s totally from left field.’ And that intrigued me.”
The remake is well removed from Flying V-wielding southpaw King’s original waxing, a Stax hit in 1967. “I was in the studio when Albert was cutting, and he was kind of fond of me and Booker and the stuff that we were writing,” remembers Bell. “He didn’t have enough tunes, and Jim Stewart asked if I had a song that Albert could do. I had this one idea that I was kicking around in my head, but I only had a bass line, a verse, and a chorus, and I hadn’t finished it. But I sang it for Albert and he liked it. So Booker said, ‘Well, why don’t we go to my house and write it, and come back the next day and cut it on Albert so he likes it?’ So that’s what we did. We went over to Booker’s house and he had a piano in his den. We wrote the song overnight, came back the next day and got with the rhythm section and created the track. Of course, Albert was just learning it and everything. Albert didn’t read, so I had to whisper the lines in his ear in between lines. But we got it down and he put his signature guitar on, and it came to life.”
Born in Memphis on July 16, 1939, Bell grew up in a gospel-steeped environment, singing in his church choir. But secular pursuits seduced the talented teen. “I did a Mid-South talent contest and I won the contest after a dare from some of my friends. Part of the prize was to sing in Chicago at the old Club DeLisa. And Red Saunders, who was the band there, knew Phineas Newborn out of Memphis. And he called him and said, “There’s this kid that’s from your hometown. You’ve got to listen to him.’ So I came to the attention of Phineas Newborn, and he asked if I would work on the weekends at the Flamingo Room, which was a block off Beale Street there. And of course, my mom screamed ‘No!’ But he won her over, because he had me and Junior and Calvin, his kids, playing in the band. And I could only work on Friday and Saturday nights, and what we called tea dancing, which it was actually a fashion show on Sunday afternoons.”
Vocal groups were hot during the mid-‘50s, and Bell was no stranger to their charms. “I put together a group called the Del-Rios, and the members were Louis Williams, Harrison Austin, myself, and David Brown,” says Bell. “We did all the doo-wop stuff on Fridays and Saturdays—the Flamingos and the Clovers and the Moonglows, all that stuff—and on Sundays I did a solo thing with the band. Phineas had a big band, kind of like the Count Basie band. I think it was a 14-piece orchestra. So I was privy to learn all of the standards and things like that of songs, and some jazz songs that from the fashion shows.” In 1956, the Del-Rios made their debut single for the local Meteor imprint, both sides featuring William as lead singer. “It was popular with the college set around the Tri-State area between Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee. And we got a lot of college work from it, but not that much else happened with it,” he says.
Chips Moman, one of the principals at fledging Stax Records, caught the Del-Rios at the Flamingo during the summer of 1960. “(He) asked me if I’d do a solo project,” says Bell. “I didn’t have anything. Hadn’t thought about it. But I wrote a song while I was in New York, and came home from that and met Chips again. And he asked me again.” Since the last time Moman had invited him to record for Stax, William had written the song that would make him a star.
“I had been traveling with the band for about three or four weeks during the summer. In New York, in a hotel room one night, it was raining and all that stuff. I was homesick and wrote this song. Didn’t think that much of it at the time. So when I came home to Memphis, I only had a couple songs that I had written. So I did that one and one other one, and I had to write two more. So I did four sides with (Chips), and ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ was the one that they picked to release,” he says. “It was a three-quarters time song, because I was right out of church. I started my singing in church and was influenced heavily by the gospel. Sam Cooke was one of my heroes. But this was real gospelly, a gospel feel to it. As a matter of fact, at first Jim Stewart thought it was too much like a church song to release. But Estelle Axton convinced him to go ahead and release it.”
Axton, the sister of label founder Jim Stewart and the “ax” in Stax, knew a hit when she heard one. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” cracked the pop charts in the spring of 1962 and was a huge R&B seller across the South. Bell followed it up with another original, “Any Other Way.” “I did that one because they wanted me to do some kind of up-tempo song, and mainly I was kind of like a balladeer,” says Bell. “So I kind of mixed up-tempo with ballads, like an up-tempo ballad with ‘Any Other Way.’” But Bell’s musical career soon came to a screeching halt. “By not applying for the college thing, I applied but I didn’t go,” he says, “I was drafted. So I went into the military.”
By the time Bell got back to Memphis in 1965, the Stax sound had changed. The label’s star-studded roster was built around Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, and Booker T. & the MG’s were the company’s eminently grooving house band. William forged a songwriting partnership with his old pal Booker T. “We had known each other our whole lives,” says Bell. “We kind of grew up together, went to the same high school. He was the organist in the church where we attended and all that, so we were familiar with each other. So he was kind of like an extension of me, and I was an extension of him, and we just kind of clicked. We had some great success together.”
The pair wrote a string of gems together that Bell belted beautifully: “Everybody Loves A Winner,” “Eloise (Hang On In There),” “Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday,” and “A Tribute To A King,” a moving tribute to their just-departed labelmate Redding. “It was devastating, his death. Just such a shock. And I write sometimes as therapy, just a cleansing. So I wanted to write this for Otis and send it to (his widow) Zelma, not intending for it to be a record or anything. Just to give it to her and the family. And of course everybody was coming after his death, everybody was coming with ‘We’ll Miss You Otis,’ ‘We Love You Otis,’ and all that. I didn’t want anybody to think that I was trying to capitalize on my friend’s death.
“So Booker and I wrote it and recorded it, and back then we had acetates. Made an acetate of it, sent it to Zelma, and she just loved it, and the whole family. She called and said, ‘We’ve got to put this out.’ And I’m going, ‘No, I’m not intending to put it out. I just wanted you to have it.’ Of course, Jim and Estelle wanted to put it out, she wanted to put it out, and even Booker said, ‘Maybe we should release this.’ And I fought against it for a long time, about a week. Booker and I had done another song that we wanted to release, and I said—I caved in and said, ‘I’ll put it on as a B-side, and the other song will be an A-side.’ And that’s what we did for the 45 out there. To make a long story short, when it got to radio, all the jocks went on ‘Tribute To A King.’”
Bell and Jones also penned William’s tender 1968 hit “I Forgot To Be Your Lover.” “It was just one of those ideas that I had been kicking around in my mind while I was on tour, because when you’re traveling, your love life is zip. So when I got back, they needed some more product from me and Booker, so we got together and this was one of the ideas that we started working on. Finished it up, cut it, and it became one of my biggest records at Stax,” says Bell. “Booker and I would sit for hours and just discuss a song before writing it, and get the storyline just right. Because we tried to make it complete in three verses, or in a chorus or bridge.”
That same year, Bell and New York singer Judy Clay teamed for a huge hit on another winner penned by William and Booker, “Private Number.” Bell hadn’t even conceived it as a duet. “Jim asked me if I had something that Judy could do because she was short on some songs during a session. I had this one idea for a song that I had thought about doing, but I said, ‘Well, I’ve got one idea, but I don’t know if she’ll like it or not.’ So Judy had to fly back to New York, and she said, ‘Would you finish?’ I hadn’t finished the song. She said, ‘Finish it and send it to me!’ So Booker and I got together and finished the song up and cut a track on it. I did the entire song and sent it up to her for her to learn,” says Bell. “So they got together and put Judy on it, doing the harmony on the chorus and doing the second verse. They kept my first verse on there and the choruses and everything. That’s how it came about. We didn’t do it in the studio together.” Their encore duet “My Baby Specializes” was a different story: “We did that in the studio together.”
Having been on a successful label for so long, Bell had absorbed the business side thoroughly enough to launch his own label, Peachtree Records, in 1969 in his newly adopted hometown of Atlanta. “I was going back and forth to Atlanta quite a bit doing concerts, and I fell in love with the city,” says William. “We had some acts that were like opening acts for the tours, but they didn’t have recordings. So we started the Peachtree label to give the supporting acts product and records to have on sale. So I wrote and produced for those guys a lot on the Peachtree label. Mitty Collier, Johnny Jones and all of those, Jimmy Church.”
Meanwhile, Stax kept on releasing Bell’s own product until shortly before the label folded in the mid-‘70s. The only R&B chart-topper he ever had came not long after that, when Bell was with Mercury Records. “Paul Mitchell was a good friend of mine and a musician around town. I wanted to have a co-writer, because Paul was a great songwriter and an arranger,” says William. We got together and wrote ‘Tryin’ To Love Two’ and three other sides. Most of the studios in Memphis were tied up and I didn’t know a lot of the people in Atlanta for that kind of purpose. I wanted to have a different sound, so to speak, so I called up Allen Toussaint in New Orleans and asked him if I could use his studio, and to find me a rhythm section. He said, ‘Great! We’d love to have you.’ I went down, cut the four rhythm tracks, and demoed ‘em while we were cutting and came back to Atlanta to finish up everything and mix, ‘Tryin’ To Love Two’ being the first thing that I took to Mercury after signing on with them. We hit it out of the ballpark because it’s one of my biggest records.” “Tryin’ To Love Two” paced the R&B hit parade in the spring of ’77.
Since then, William has operated another label of his own, Wilbe Records. He never stopped touring and recording, but there was nothing of the magnitude of This is Where I Live. Even if Concord Music now owns Stax, the label continues to mean something special to him. “It’s a good feeling,” he says. “The people, I’m comfortable with them. Even the younger, the newer people at Stax/Concord, they are familiar with William Bell and my career, and they know my history and my songwriting and all that stuff.
“It’s good to have come full circle and be back at home again at Stax.”
Visit William’s website at: www.williambell.com
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.