William Bell on Stax, Otis, race and regression 

click to enlarge The first Stax solo artist to score a hit record, Bell is back with a Grammy-winning album and a touring Memphis soul revue. - GINETTE CALLAWAY
  • Ginette Callaway
  • The first Stax solo artist to score a hit record, Bell is back with a Grammy-winning album and a touring Memphis soul revue.
‘You don’t miss your water, till your well runs dry,” observed William Bell in the chorus of his 1961 Stax Records debut single. But from a career perspective, over the course of six decades and 16 albums, the Memphis soul legend has never let that happen.

In recent years, he has performed at the Obama White House, played Royal Albert Hall, and been inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame alongside Justin Timberlake. He was also prominently featured in the documentary Take Me to the River, which inspired his touring show of the same name with an all-star band that includes Bobby Rush and Charlie Musselwhite. (“One of the best things we saw at Bonnaroo,” declared Rolling Stone magazine.)

Earlier this year, the 78-year-old artist won his first Grammy, and, during the awards telecast, shared center-stage with the 33-year-old Austin bluesman Gary Clark Jr. Together, they performed another Bell classic, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which he’d co-written with fellow Stax artist Booker T.

This Is Where I Live, which was nominated in both the Traditional R&B and Americana Grammy categories (it won the latter), is an album of soulful yearning and hard-earned satisfaction that captures the magic of the Stax Records sound that Bell helped pioneer alongside his labelmates Otis Redding, Steve Cropper, Carla Thomas, David Porter and The Staple Singers.

It’s the kind of record that would have been eagerly sought out in the ’60s and ’70s by the crate-digging club deejays who promoted England’s “Northern Soul” scene, where Bell’s classic 45s regularly filled dance floors. Bell recorded the album with John Leventhal, who won five Grammys of his own for producing and playing on his wife Rosanne Cash’s album The River & the Thread.

“It’s just a joy to work with John,” says Bell. “He was a student of the old Stax Sound and knew all of my songs, so we just took our time and put it together. And by winning the Grammy, I guess we did a good job.”

The fact that Bell was nominated in those two very different categories proves his new work is no more easily pigeonholed than it was back in the day. In the years since, Bell’s songs have been covered by a remarkably diverse range of performers that includes bluesman Albert King, classic rockers Cream, country-rock legend Gram Parsons, reggae artist Peter Tosh, ’80s-pop icon Billy Idol and, perhaps most improbably, ambient musician Brian Eno.

“I think a lot of artists in every genre of music relate to my songs because I come from a viewpoint of truth, and I try to write in such a way that there’s nothing ambiguous about it,” says Bell. “I try to make it simple and plain, and a lot of artists can relate to that.”

Such comments are typical of Bell’s affable humility. Music historian Peter Guralnick, by contrast, describes This Is Where I Live, which was released on the newly revived Stax imprint, as a “deeply soulful, deeply introspective album.” That praise is borne out by its classic R&B sound and lyrics that are among the songwriter’s best:

One day you’ll wake up
To a world of regret
All the things you can’t remember
I’m still trying to forget

One of the memories Bell could never forget took place 50 years ago, when he received word that his friend and labelmate Otis Redding’s private plane had crashed in a lake outside Madison, Wisconsin, cutting the soul legend’s life short at the age of 26.
Bell, who’d spent the previous week in the studio with Redding, is still haunted by the loss. “He and I liked to hang out when we weren’t touring, and I had been in the studio with Otis all that week while he was recording ‘Dock of the Bay,’” recalls Bell. “He had just come out from having his throat operated on for some polyps, and was concerned that ‘Dock of the Bay’ was turning out to be so different from the hard-hitting stuff that Otis used to do. But we’d tell him, ‘No, man, it’s great for you just to sing a quiet melody, it sounds great.’”

As it happened, the two musicians were each scheduled to play out-of-state shows after the sessions were over. “I had a gig in Chicago and, that Friday, Otis was like ‘Why don’t you just come on and go with me? I’ll drop you off in Chicago and then I’ll go on to Wisconsin.’”

But Bell’s show was canceled due to heavy snow falling in Chicago, so he was at home when he got word of the tragedy. “I got a call from a disc jockey friend of ours in Milwaukee and he asked me, ‘Have you heard about Otis?’ And I said, ‘No, did he have a great show?’ He said, ‘No, his plane is missing.’

“I couldn’t take all that in at once,” says Bell. “I told him ‘Don’t kid around,’ but he told me he was at the radio station and had come upon a ticker tape. He said, ‘No, I’m reading it now and it says that they haven’t found him yet, it crashed in the Bay or something.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, Otis is a good swimmer, he’ll be able to come out of that.’”

Bell’s wishful thinking turned out to be short-lived.

“It started going across the screen of the television that the plane had gone down and it just… [pause] I got up and I guess my intentions were to drive to Stax. I drove around for about an hour and a half — and I could not tell you to this day where I went — but I wound up in front of Stax. It was Sunday and a couple of people were there in the studio with the lights on, manning the telephones. It was just a sad, sad time for all of us.”

Like most R&B artists of his era, Bell grew up singing gospel music in church, but the world of secular music soon came calling. “I would sneak down to Beale Street, and hang out and watch Rufus Thomas and all of those different people that came through town. And everybody knew me because I was already singing around town.”

Bell was barely a teenager when his father took him to a Sam Cooke concert at the Memphis Auditorium. “That was a pivotal moment for me being an entertainer,” he says, “because I thought he was just so cool, and had the crowd in the palm of his hand, and he was so dynamic on stage. I had never seen a complete show that I wasn’t part of. And that just blew me away.”

A few years later, he recorded his first single, “Alone on a Rainy Night,” as part of local doo-wop group The Del Rios, and afterward signed to Stax Records, initially as a staff writer.

The Stax recording studio was housed in a repurposed movie theater with a sloped floor and high ceilings. Bell recalls its unique acoustics being a crucial part of the Stax Sound, just as Berry Gordy’s Detroit basement was to the Motown Sound.

“I loved that sloped floor,” says Bell, somewhat evasively, when asked which studio had the better sound. “You have to work it a little bit for just the right sound you’re trying to develop, but they make great studios.”

This Is Where I Live finds Bell still recording on analog tape, but he loves the fact that it can now be transferred over to digital for editing and mixing.

“It’s no longer that old razor blade shuffling back and forth with the tape,” says Bell, recalling how he and his cohorts could cut out a single sentence — or even a word — from a vocal and make it work. “We called ourselves surgeons,” he laughs. “We became experts, but it was definitely a tedious process.”

Bell lives in Atlanta now, but he still makes regular sojourns back home to Memphis. “Most of my immediate family, they’re all gone now because we’re getting up in age and they’re dying out,” he says. “But there are still some nieces and nephews, and my brother and his wife and family. And yeah, I was just inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, so they came out to that and we had a wonderful time.”

So how different is Memphis today from the era when Jerry Wexler had to persuade Billboard to change the name of its black music chart from Race Records to R&B?

“Memphis changed quite a bit after Dr. King was assassinated,” says Bell. “And it changed for Stax when Otis died. For a while, the music in Memphis just kind of died. But now I can see where there’s a resurgence in the music. I can see that energy in Memphis coming back, and that feels good.”

As for the current state of the union as a whole, Bell is less optimistic.

“It’s like we’re regressing,” he says of our current culture of intolerance, “and I hope that we don’t regress all the way back to square one. I lived through that, and it is no good for any of the races. It’s no good for anybody. But I don’t think we’ll let that happen again.

“At Stax,” he says, “we didn’t care what color you were, what gender you were, or whatever. It was what you brought to the table in terms of creativity and talent that mattered. But outside the studio, we were fighting that battle every day.”

Bell recounts one particular incident where he and Stax guitarist Steve Cropper were finishing up a late-night recording session.

“The police used to park across the street in front of the grocery store,” he says. “They’d sit in that parking lot all the time. So we came out to lock the doors of the studio, and they came screeching over.

“I don’t know, I guess it was because we were black and white males together at 3 o’clock in the morning. But they came over with guns drawn and everything, and had us there with our hands up.
And we were telling them we’re locking the door, we’re not breaking into the studio.

“That’s how bad it was, yeah. But inside the studio, we were indeed a family. And we still are to this day.”


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