William Bell – a true Soul survivor – is 81 years young. The Memphis born William Yarbrough – he chose the name Bell to honor his grandmother Belle – started his career in 1960 and is still going strong today.
William Bell’s mother sang Gospel and William followed suit from the time he was 7 years old. While his mother would have been pleased to have him carry on the tradition, she was more of the mind that William should become a doctor. But the smooth singing Bell had other ideas.
Not long after winning a local Memphis talent contest at 14 years of age, Bell started to find work in local clubs, (mostly backed by early mentor Rufus Thomas’ band The Bear Cats). Gaining some notoriety, (Bell said “Everybody on Beale Street knew me including B.B., Junior Parker, Bobby Bland …”), William came to attention of Memphis Jazz legend, drummer Phineas Brown, and accepted Brown’s offer to join his orchestra for both local gigs and extended tours. With an impressive line-up of 14 musicians including Hank Crawford and Charles Lloyd on sax backing him, William remembers singing all the standards including “Unforgettable” and “Moonlight In Vermont”. It was quite an education for the young Bell and he grew up in a hurry. (It was while on tour with the Brown band that a 16 year old homesick Bell would try his hand at writing and came up with his first hit, the soon to be Southern Soul classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water”).
Bell had now established a musical vocabulary of Gospel, Standards, and Blues (that he both heard and sang on Beale Street). He added Doo Wop to those expressions – first singing under the streetlights with Maurice White, (later of Earth Wind and Fire fame), and David Porter, (future Stax resident songwriter), before forming The Del Rios.
William sang lead for The Del Rios, (whose line-up would be fluid), a quartet that included locals Louis Williams, Norman West, and James Taylor. The Del Rios were one of the hottest young groups in Memphis and bolstered their reputation with the release a number of singles that received local airplay. It was the summer of 1960 when Chips Moman – then a primary decision maker at Stax – heard them one night at their resident gig at The Flamingo Room located on Hernando, just off of Beale. Moman was impressed with the group and with the 21 year old Bell in particular. So much so that he convinced owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton to sign both the group and Bell as a solo act. (Estelle knew Bell as one of teenagers that regularly hung out at The Satellite Record Shop that she operated as a store front of the Stax building)
At that point in time, artists signed to the Stax roster were either singing groups or instrumental groups such as Carla & Rufus (Thomas), The Vel-Tones, The Chips, The Triumphs, The Tonettes, The Canes, and The Mar-Keys. William Bell was the first male solo act signed to the label. And, with the exception of the Thomases and The Mar-Keys, while the aforementioned acts serve mostly as a footnote in Stax history, William Bell consistently turned out hits, and was the only artist to stay on the label until the demise of the first chapter of Stax in 1975.
The Del Rios’ first point of business at Stax was singing back-up on the 18 year old Carla Thomas’ first hit “Gee Whiz”. This was followed by a double sided single pairing two Bell compositions, “Just Across The Street” b/w “There’s A Love”. In addition, Moman organized a Bell solo session cutting two demos: “Formula Of Love”, (another Bell work), and the aforementioned “You Don’t Miss Your Water”. Moman was pleased enough with the result that he released the demo as a two sided single with “Formula Of Love” designated as the “A” side in 1961.
The non-success of “Formula Of Love” was preordained when a DJ in New Orleans started the trend of flipping the single and making “Water” the “A” side. Program directors and DJ’s across the country fell in line resulting in the song becoming Bell’s first hit record. “Water” sold over 200,000 copies and placed # 95 on the Pop charts – William Bell was on his way to Southern Soul history.
“You Don’t Miss Your Water”, cited by many as a cornerstone of Southern Soul, is best described as a fusing of Black Gospel and White Country, and found Bell using his completely developed ballad style to full advantage. (Bell explained that he always saw himself as a ballad singer, and preferred the style because it lent itself to telling a story while drawing on his Gospel background). And the song’s influence wasn’t lost on Bell’s contemporaries as the song has gone on to be covered by such diverse artists as Otis Redding, The Byrds, Taj Mahal, Fred Neil, Johnny Adams, and Peter Tosh.
A year later Stax released Bell’s follow-up to “You Don’t Miss Your Water” – the Bell authored and Sam Cooke influenced “Any Other Way”. Although the song barely charted for Bell it would be covered and be a hit for Chuck Jackson (# 62 R&B). “Any Other Way” would be followed by more singles including “I’ll Show You” the first song penned by the songwriting team of Bell and Booker T. Jones, (Hammond B-3 maestro, multi-instrumentalist, and leader of Booker T. & The M.G.’s). Although showing modest results at # 63 on the Pop charts, it held promise for future Bell / Jones co-writing endeavours. That promise would come to fruition when the tandem would later write a timeless Blues staple for Albert King – “Born Under A Bad Sign” – in 1967. And the duo would strike it rich again the next year with one of the great Soul ballads of all time – “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” – that Bell took to # 45 Pop and # 10 R&B.
William Bell and Booker would go on to write a number of great songs together while both were at Stax. Bell stated that their success as a songwriting team was attributed to the fact that both he and Jones recognized that the subject matter had to be something that would be relatable for the listening audience. Bell would sum up his writing experience with Jones by saying “We just fit like a glove”.
In 1963, William Bell rivalled Booker T. & The M.G.’s as Stax’s most prominent artist but Bell’s career would hit a bump in the road when he was drafted the same year. When he returned from the army in 1965, he found that he was displaced in the Stax hierarchy by the soon to be King Of Soul, Otis Redding. Incidentally, no rivalry ensued in that Bell and Otis became close friends. It’s been said that Bell provided Otis with some inspiration for the song “Respect” and that Otis contemplated giving Bell a co-write credit. (Bell sings the “hey, hey, hey” on the original studio recording of the song). A year after Otis’ death Bell would release “A Tribute To A King” that reached #16 on the R&B charts.
It took some time for Bell to get his bearings when he was initially back on the scene in that he felt out of touch with what was hitting in the world of music. But it wasn’t long before Bell acquitted himself well with a handful of charting singles that led to his first full length recording, the excellent The Soul Of A Bell in 1967. A lot of albums in this time period featured one or two of the artist’s hit singles with the rest of the recording consisting of “filler” type material. Not so with The Soul Of A Bell that boasted the hits “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, “Any Other Way”, and post army charting singles “Everybody Loves A Winner”, “Never Like This Before” “Eloise (Hang On In There)”. And, in addition, well-chosen covers that displayed Bell’s rich Gospel drenched vocals rounded out the set.
A number of charting singles followed on Stax (including his # 8 R&B duet hit with Judy Clay, “Private Number” and the aforementioned “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”), and Bell had some successful moments as well after the company folded. Of those the most prominent was his R&B chart topper “Tryin’ To Love Two” on Mercury in 1976. The song demonstrated that Bell was keeping up with the trends in that “Tryin’ To Love Two” is a perfect rendition of 70’s Philly Soul.
Recording activity going forward – including those on Bell’s own Wilbe imprint – was sporadic into the 2000’s as the comparatively overlooked Bell fell away from public consciousness. (It should be noted that Bell resurfaced briefly as a guest vocalist – along with the likes of Otis Clay and Charlie Musselwhite – on The Bo-Keys’ superb 2011 release Got To Get Back! – with his contribution, “Weak Spot”, an album highlight).
As it would happen the revitalized Stax, (now owned by Concord out of Beverley Hills), came calling in 2015 about making a recording; and, in so doing, offering a beckoning back home of sorts. Bell took some time responding, but agreed in the hopes of having the latitude to deliver a product to his liking – one with more of present-day feel. With that in mind, Stax turned to premier producer and multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal to oversee the effort. Leventhal was extremely knowledgeable of Bell’s work, and although Leventhal had made his mark to date in Country tinged Roots music, he has always maintained a deep appreciation for Soul. Accordingly, Leventhal was pleased with the opportunity, and accepted the offer contingent on being able to write with Bell. In describing Bell, Leventhal said “There’s a restraint and dignity in what he does…You feel the poet lurking behind the façade of Soul music”. Bell’s take on Leventhal was just as laudatory: “It’s the first time other than Booker that I really clicked with a writer that felt the same mood thing that I did”
And Leventhal and Bell were of the same mind of using groove driven Stax-like arrangements as a baseline on which to create their own vision of contemporary music. The two took their time; This Is Where I Live was a year in the making, and was well worth the wait. The result is a seamless, flawless release with every track a true gem. Along with 9 Bell and Leventhal co-writes, rounding out the album are an update of “Born Under A Bad Sign”, Jesse Winchester’s tender “All Your Stories”, and the Leventhal / Rosanne Cash highlight “Walking On A Tightrope”.
All the songs have a tendency to stay with you. For instance, after listening a few times it’s hard not to want to sing along with the title track:
This is where I live
This is where I live
This is where I give
Or do the same with the album closing, anthemic, hymn-like “People Want To Go Home”:
Cause when you’re tired
People wanna go home
When you’re lonely
People wanna go home
When you’re weary from your heavy load
People everywhere just want to go home
(As an aside – strictly from a musical appreciation perspective, and not to compare the two works – when I first listened to This Is Where I Live it brought to mind Bobby Purify’s Better To Have It. For me, the two releases share a certain spirituality and tonality. In fact, I tend to play the albums back to back for a soul satisfying listening experience)
Bell, (and Leventhal), were deservedly rewarded with a 2017 Grammy Award for “Best Americana album” and Bell performed “Born Under A Bad Sign” with guitarist extraordinaire Gary Clark Jr. on the Grammy Awards telecast. The Grammy is added to the recognition that Bell has garnered in his 65+ year career including:
- The R&B Pioneer Award from The R&B Foundation
- The W. C. Handy Heritage Award from The Memphis Music Foundation
- The BMI Songwriter’s Award
- Induction into The Memphis Music Hall Of Fame
- Induction into The Georgia Music Hall Of Fame*
*Bell has been an Atlanta Georgia resident since 1969
In a recent interview Bell restated his secret of effective songwriting. Specifically, that secret involves focusing on subject matter that people can relate to; of putting forth the human factor and the wishes and desires that everyone shares. And, lastly, of being mindful of including a loving touch (that’s needed today more than ever before). In the same interview, Bell also revealed that he’s written and recorded a number of songs with Roots multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (ex Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Rodney Crowell, et al), that he hopes will be part of a new album in the not too distant future.
So Bell isn’t done yet. But, as it stands today, his first and latest statements The Soul Of A Bell and This Is Where I Live stand as twin pillars of a outstanding Soul career of the unheralded singer and songwriter – Mr. William Bell.
A SUGGESTED WILLIAM BELL PLAYLIST
- There’s A Love (The Del Rios)
- Just Across The Street (The Del Rios)
- You Don’t Miss Your Water
- Any Other Way
- I’ll Show You
- Everybody Loves A Winner
- Eloise (Hang On In There)
- Never Like This Before
- Share What You Got
- Private Number (feat. Judy Clay)
- I Forgot To Be Your Lover
- Tryin’ To Love Two
- Weak Spot (w/The Bo-Keys)
- The House Always Wins
- Born Under A Bad Sign
- All Your Stories
- Walking On A Tightrope
- This Is Where I Live
- Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge
- People Want To Go Home
- Rico Ferrara, June 2021