WILLIAM BELL BACK TO BRING SOUL HOME
Updated: Apr 2
ATLANTA — The title song from William Bell’s forthcoming album, One Day Closer to Home, opens with a blues guitar riff that sounds at first like rock 'n roll, a slight musical departure for the soul-music legend.
Then again, it’s Mr. Bell’s authentic blend of soul, country, gospel and blues influences that have made him a master of melody and turn-of-phrase — and one of the greatest R&B singers and songwriters of all time.
“Out here on this highway, standing in the rain,” he sings on the new single. “It's still a long way to Memphis, but I'm one day closer to home.”
Now 83, as wise and friendly as ever, Mr. Bell seems to be reflecting on his own legacy — of an incredible career that’s not over yet — and also the recent loss of his beloved wife. It’s all done with a slide guitar and a flat, easy groove on the drums that hearkens back to the Hi Rhythm Section of the 1970s.
“We were trying to do something that’s a little bit different, after doing soul and R&B for so long,” Mr. Bell said in an extensive interview. “Blues and soul are so closely related.”
One of Stax Records’ first artists in the early 1960s, Mr. Bell said his new album arriving this fall spends time “crossing genres like I did a little bit on This Is Where I Live,” his excellent 2016 album that won a Grammy Award and was nominated for another.
“There’s a little country flavor, a little soul, a little blues… more southern soul ballads,” he continued. “The album itself has more of a William Bell flow to it that people expect — and a couple of things in there that cross a few genres and country-soul and all of that.”
It’s the kind of music that has attracted fans around the world and the adoration of many musicians, because it’s absolutely some of the finest soul and R&B music ever recorded.
Often backed by Booker T and the M.G.’s (Stax’s legendary original house band), Mr. Bell sang with the passion of a gospel singer, delivering memorable melodies and often a soaring chorus or finale. Even as a young man, his phrasing was exquisite.
“There’s a love of what I do, and I try to create honestly and truthfully,” Mr. Bell explained.
After cutting his early singles for Stax, Mr. Bell left Memphis in the mid-1960s to serve in the military. When he returned, he recorded several new songs, and Stax added those to his earlier cuts to make uphis first album, The Soul of a Bell, in 1967.
A landmark album in soul — some listeners call it the best country-soul record of all time — its songs and performances are remarkable.
Bruce Springsteen seems to agree, singing two of Mr. Bell’s songs — Any Other Way and I Forgot to Be Your Lover (the latter with the legendary Sam Moore) — on his own new album, Only the Strong Survive, a salute to American soul music. The Boss also covers classics by The O’Jays, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Jerry Butler, The Temptations, the Commodores, The Four Tops, Dobie Gray and others.
“I’ve tried to do justice to them all — and to the fabulous writers of this glorious music,” Springsteen says on his website. “My goal is for the modern audience to experience its beauty and joy, just as I have since I first heard it.”
The confluence of sounds in Mr. Bell’s music was on full display when he performed during Steve Cropper’s 80th birthday concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in September 2021. The concert for the former M.G.’s guitarist and Stax producer also featured Eddie Floyd, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Randy Owen of Alabama, and others.
“I got a standing ovation before I could sing a song,” Mr. Bell said.
It wasn’t his first time on stage at the former home of the Grand Ole Opry. In 2016, the Americana Music Association honored Mr. Bell there with a Lifetime Achievement Award, after the release of This Is Where I Live.
Talking about last year’s tribute show got Mr. Bell talking about his years at Stax and the genre-crossing Memphis music scene of the 1960s, when top-line musicians of that era, Black and white, often played together.
“Everybody knew everybody. Ronnie Milsap and T.G. Sheppard and all those people, Dickey Lee,” Mr. Bell recalled. “We had my doo-wop group (The Del-Rios). We would do backups for them.”
“Steve Cropper and Duck (M.G.’s bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn) and I used to go to the Thunderbird where he (Milsap) was working. We shared a lot of moments in the early years,” Mr. Bell said. “Steve Holt, my drummer, went to work for Ronnie when he left me.”
(An aside: Milsap’s first album, in 1971, produced by Dan Penn in Memphis, was a rock-and-soul workout, in contrast to his countless country hits in the 1970s and 80s. He moved from Memphis to Nashville for a gig at Roger Miller’s King of the Road Hotel.)
Many musicians from Memphis (and Muscle Shoals), especially white players, migrated to Nashville, three hours east, and would later be heard on hundreds of country records in years to come. The links between musicians in Memphis and Nashville are inextricable.
“How do you figure?” Mr. Bell asked. “Because we’re of the same timbre.”
Dickey Lee, who recorded for Sun Records and would write George Jones’ She Thinks I Still Care and Clarence Carter’s country-soul classic Patches, would become a longtime country-music recording artist after moving to Nashville.
Mr. Bell also recalled singing jingles and recording radio commercials for Pepper Tanner, a Memphis company that eventually did jingles nationwide.
“It’s a close-knit family of artists and creators. Chips Moman produced my first record,” Mr. Bell pointed out, “and then he came to Nashville and produced Willie Nelson, Elvis, Roger Miller and a lot of other people (including Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Jessi Colter and The Highwaymen).”
Moman, a studio engineer and producer at Stax, then left to start American Sound Studio in Memphis, where classics by Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, B.J. Thomas, Merrillee Rush, The Box Tops and others would be recorded. (Moman also co-wrote the soul standards Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, and country classics as Luckenbach, Texas and Hey Won’t You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song).
Only 21 when Mr. Bell arrived at Stax Records, he was already an experienced singer from the nightclubs on Beale Street and other sections of Memphis. He grew up in the neighborhood and was one of the teenagers who’d hang out at the Satellite Record Shop on McLemore Avenue, owned by Estelle Axton, a white lady, next to the old movie theater that would become the Stax Studios.
Those who've read about Stax’s history, of course, will know that Ms. Axton depended on the Black kids from the neighborhood to know which records were hot. That knowledge informed Ms. Axton and her brother, Jim Stewart, a country fiddler, when they started the record label.
“We got inside the confines of those doors, even the clerical people were just like family. We were family in there,” Mr. Bell said. There was a “spirit of acceptance. What mattered was whatever you brought to the table, your creativity and talent. That was instilled in us.”
Some of the best American music would be made there — classics by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas and her father Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes and many others, along with those artists affiliated with Stax but who mainly recorded in Muscle Shoals, such as The Staple Singers (with the great Mavis Staples) and Wilson Pickett.
“There’s been so many great artists come out of Memphis and out of Nashville. Most artists came out of the South, the talent out of Mississippi and the South,” Mr. Bell said.
Joining the gang at Stax, Mr. Bell soon started writing and singing his own songs. Incredibly, his first single for the label was You Don’t Miss Your Water, a gospel-inspired R&B classic from the get-go, later covered by Otis Redding after he arrived from Macon, Georgia, on his 1965 album, Otis Blue.
“Jim thought it was too much like a gospel song, a church song. But Chips loved it and Ms. Axton loved it,” said Mr. Bell, who would one day perform the song for President and Mrs. Obama at a White House concert.
Many other cover versions of Water would follow, most importantly perhaps by The Byrds with Gram Parsons on their visionary country-rock album Sweetheart of the Radio in 1968. Mr. Bell’s song was featured alongside those of Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Woody Guthrie, and the Louvin Brothers.
On Mr. Bell’s later single, Everybody Loves a Winner, the opener on The Soul of a Bell, Booker T. Jones follows a little Black-gospel flourish on the piano with a Floyd Cramer-style lick that’s as country as cornbread — borrowed from Cramer’s Last Date, a song that would be covered hundreds of times and made a country smash again by Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band in 1982.
Mr. Bell delivers that song, though, like a bluesman come to church. The Memphis Horns — primarily the Black-and-white duo of Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson — appear throughout the album.
There's an uncredited string section, too, like on the Motown hits of the era and some of the lush “Nashville Sound” country records from that time. Linda Ronstadt, known to cover both R&B and country songs early in her career, sang Everybody Loves a Winner on her 1973 album, Don’t Cry Now.
The newer songs recorded for The Soul of a Bell also presaged lush arrangements by Marvin Gaye, Issac Hayes and Al Green in Memphis, Philadelphia soul and disco.
Any Other Way, written by Mr. Bell and a chart hit for Chuck Jackson in 1963 (who’d also score with the original version of Any Day Now, later a smash for Ronnie Milsap), might have even influenced The Supremes’ 1966 classic You Can’t Hurry Love.
All these Memphis soul songs borrow straight from country and the blues.
“Even You Don’t Miss Your Water had a country tone to it, without the twang. It was more a church-soul,” Mr. Bell said. “There’s not that much difference in lyrical content between a country song, a soul song, a blues song, a song in church. It’s a common denominator (for Southerners), and when you grow up in certain regions, you hear all of that.
“That’s why these songs are cut by these different artists,” he continued, noting that Al Green recorded Hank Williams songs in the 1970s. “It’s all closely related, and we all grew up in the same kind of atmosphere there back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
While Mr. Bell said the talented young musicians at Stax were conscious of their blend of influences, his songs also seemed to come naturally. “It was a combination of all the things we had been exposed to in Memphis,” he said.
Radio stations in the 1950s and ‘60s catered to multiple audiences by necessity. “Dewey Phillips, he played everything (in Memphis) and then John R. in Nashville (a white radio disc jockey who specialized in R&B music) as well.”
“I don’t know if it’s in the water (or what),” but much of American popular music grew out of the “lifestyle and the hardships and all of that that went on” that gives Southern musicians such grit and soul, Mr. Bell said.
Aspirations are a common theme in his own songs, he added. “I try to write in such a way (that he imagines) how I’d react in this situation. And the phrasing? I started at 7 years old in a gospel church, Baptist church,” he said, then recalling those nights playing Memphis’ nightclubs at the age of 14, backing Rufus Thomas early on.
“It’s just been years of that knowing how to (do it),” Mr. Bell said.
“It’s like a good writer: You know how to phrase a good line or sentence and how to project it. Part of it is experience. Part of it is acting experience. You’re delivering dialogue in terms of a melody, but if you didn’t say it like (you meant it), it might not be understood,” he continued. It’s simply “a lot of years of experience of doing that both live and knowing what people respond to.”
Still, the nation — and the South especially — at a tipping point in the 1960s. There were racial tensions and disagreements even at Stax, as Memphis scholar Charles Hughes has shown.
Mr. Bell acknowledges it.
“Were there any frictions and stuff? Yeah, like in any family,” he said. “It was always worked out internally. Nobody could say anything about us outside those doors.”
The tenor in Memphis (and many U.S. cities) then underwent an immediate transformation in 1968, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel, just three miles from Stax.
Right away, Black residents’ outrage became much more prescient. Even the blocks around Stax were dangerous for white musicians. South Memphis was so volatile that Mr. Bell said he and others would guard Cropper and M.G.’s bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn in the Stax parking lot.
“We’d walk ‘em to the cars and everything,” Mr. Bell recalled. “Sometimes, late at night if Steve was taking me home, if I was taking home (we) would get pulled over.”:
Mr. Bell remembers how he “talked to the neighborhood people. Everybody was in turmoil there. A testament to staff was that not one cinder was (ever) thrown on Stax’s roof” in the protests after Dr. King’s death, he added.
The musicians still traveled the South together at times, just as they’d done for years. Sometimes they’d encounter a roadside café where Black and white people couldn’t dine together. Black patrons weren’t allowed in many establishments in the South at all.
“If they wouldn’t serve you, we all walked out,” Mr. Bell said. “We were together on everything.”
Mr. Bell said he’s grateful that “we’re still like that. I talk to Steve and Angel. We are still very much a family unit, for the ones that are still left.
"I talk to Deanie (Parker) a lot and Al Bell and Eddie (Floyd), we’re all getting older — and even Jim (Stewart), he’s ailing now and up in age. Sometimes Bettye Crutcher will call,” he said. (Editor’s note: Ms. Crutcher passed away in October, following this interview with Mr. Bell.)
Many white leaders in Memphis, however, seemed content to shutter much of the city —
later including Stax itself — rather than embrace racial integration and make progress. In response, many of Memphis’ best white musicians migrated to Nashville.
Like many 1960s R&B artists, simply Mr. Bell's presence on the radio, in record stores and on stage made a powerful statement. Occasionally, Mr. Bell’s songs delved more directly into themes of civil rights and freedom.
Albert King, the bluesman who would influence just about every rock guitarist who followed him (most especially Stevie Ray Vaughn), had a major hit with Mr. Bell and Booker T. Jones' Born Under a Bad Sign in 1967, one of the most clever and desperate lyrics in the blues canon:
Born under a bad sign
I've been down since I learned to crawl
If it wasn't for bad luck
I wouldn't have no luck at all
On his own version of the song in 1969, Mr. Bell adds a rap filled with hope, telling listeners to keep on pushing. “When I was just a little boy, my Daddy left home. He left me and my Momma to go it all alone,” he says. “Lord knows, it’s a mystery to me how she managed to keep us alive.”
Mr. Bell’s military service — and the heartache of leaving home — is reflected in his 1966 single Marching Off to War, written by Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper.
Then there’s Mr. Bell’s A Tribute to a King, written with Booker T. Jones after their friend Otis Redding, along with six others, perished in December 1967 when their airplane crashed on its final approach into Madison, Wisconsin.
“If you learn something from a song — and I think with our platform as creators and entertainers, that’s what we’re supposed to do — in helping them realize and become awake to certain situations… I try to do that, and I try to do that honestly, sometimes from personal experience,” Mr. Bell said.
Even Mr. Bell’s groovy, open-key duet in 1968 with the elegant Ms. Judy Clay, Private Number — one of my all-time favorite songs and a top 10 hit in the United Kingdom — alludes to a soldier who’d been away, then returned to try to find his love.
Private Number is yet another of Mr. Bell’s unforgettable melodies — backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s and propelled by their drummer Al Jackson’s incredible groove, and a prominent string section that again foretold of 1970s Philadelphia soul.
What makes the song work so well?
“It’s the simplicity of it,” Mr. Bell said. “Five or six notes and two or three bars. It’s that one note that you can feel that matters. Sometimes when you’re creating, simplicity is the hardest thing to do, especially when you become seasoned into it.”
“With the amount of notes that you have to work with, if you can find something — a simple melody and a good lyrical content — something that touches people,” then that’s what makes a song so memorable, he said. “There’s nothing fancy about it.”
Before the Stax era ended, Mr. Bell was part of the Wattstax concert in 1972 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, following the uprising in Watts. Now 50 years since the concert, made into two films and now the subject of as documentary. (See our forthcoming story marking the concert’s 50th anniversary.)
Wattstax attracted nearly 100,000 fans — possibly the largest gathering of Black people in American history. Even in times of protest and tumult, the gathering turned out peacefully and as a moment of Black unity and hope. “It meant a lot to us because we took a page from Woodstock, but we were trying to raise funds to help the people of the Watts community,” Mr. Bell said.
“I did emcee for quite a few of the artists who came on,” he remembered. “It was hot on that stage that day. It was almost a spiritual awakening.
Mr. Bell continued that same approach when he moved to Atlanta in 1969 and started recording other soul artists on his own Peachtree Records. He kept recording for Stax, though, until 1974.
But some of Mr. Bell’s best-selling records were yet to come. After Stax's demise, he signed with Mercury Records and released the smooth-soul album Coming Back for More in 1977, which included Trying to Love Two, his No. 1 R&B smash with another lyric that comments on a situation many listeners could understand.
“Trying to Love Two, I Forgot to Be Your Lover (another brilliant performance by Mr. Bell, a single for Stax that hit No. 10 on the soul charts, then later sampled by the rapper Ludacris), all of that is from personal experience. Being in a business where you’re gone all the time and hoping she’ll be there when you got back,” Mr. Bell said.
“Things that you experience, you incorporate it into songwriting—you have things happen in your life. Now, how can I simplify this… in a way so that the average listener can identify with it?”
I also asked Mr. Bell about the late Hi Rhythm Section drummer Howard Grimes in Memphis, whom I’d spent time with and wrote about before he passed away. Mr. Grimes also played on some early Stax sessions, possibly including Mr. Bell’s recording of You Don’t Miss Your Water.
“After Steve (Holt) left me, I hired Howard Grimes. All my drummers leave me,” Mr. Bell said. “Howard was the first drummer I took on the road with me for a while. Then he went to work—when I started doing a lot of recording and writing, I lived in New York for a little while.”
That’s when “Howard went to work with Willie Mitchell,” alternating with Al Jackson on many classics by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, O.V. Wright and others recorded at Mitchell’s Royal Studios.
Grimes “wasn’t a fancy drummer,” Mr. Bell said, but “solid as a rock. We stayed close until his death.” (Read my story on Mr. Grimes' special book event and concert at the Stax museum, and this tribute for Salvation South magazine after he passed away.)
In the 1980s and ‘90s, Mr. Bell kept releasing his own albums on the Wilbe label.
He also continued to tour, especially overseas. Audiences in Europe and Japan would still fill auditoriums and festival grounds to hear him croon Born Under a Bad Sign. Hundreds of artists have covered that song, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Cream, Etta James and even Homer Simpson.
Later, Mr. Bell made a record with guitarist and producer John Leventhal in New York. Husband to Rosanne Cash (who has asked Mr. Bell to make special appearances at some of her shows), Shawn Colvin, Jim Lauderdale and many others.
Leventhal asked his soulful pianist-and-singer friend Marc Cohn (famous for Walking in Memphis) to join Mr. Bell in the studio. The trio wrote several songs for Mr. Bell’s album,This Is Where I Live, released on the reconstituted Stax label, now part of Concord.
The record won Mr. Bell a Grammy Award for Best Americana Album in 2017, and he was nominated for another for the album’s standout track, The Three of Me (which he wrote with Leventhal and Cohn).
Mr. Bell sings it with restrained fervor:
Last night I had a dream And there were three of me There was the man I was, the man I am And the man I want to be…
Oh, the three of me, the three of me I've got to figure out who I wanna be
It took losing your love to make me see
That there ain't no room
for the three of me
On the Grammy Awards show, Mr. Bell even performed his classic Born Under a Bad Sign with neo-blues guitarist-singer Gary Clark Jr. (who does his own take on Albert Bell’s solos). Mr. Bell also re-recorded the classic on This Is Where I Live.
He’s made plenty of other good music in more recent years, participating in the 2014 Take Me to the River documentary film and soundtrack.
A salute to Memphis music and culture, the project paired R&B legends with ties to Memphis, such as Mr. Bell, Booker T. Jones, Mavis Staples, Bobby Rush and Bobby “Blue” Bland, with younger hip-hop artists from the city: Yo Gotti, Al Kapone, and 8Ball & MJG. (A new edition of Take Me to the River, focusing on the music of New Orleans, was released earlier this year.)
For the film soundtrack and soundtrack and documentary on Memphis, Mr. Bell performed Eddie Floyd’s Knock on Wood and his own I Forgot to Be Your Lover with Stax Music Academy students — joined on the latter song by Snoop Dogg.
Mr. Bell has also recorded songs in recent years with the talented Memphis band Southern Avenue and with the North Mississippi AllStars.
The series also featured singles by Margo Price, Al Green, John Prine and Nashville singer Erin Rae, mostly recorded at the Sam Phillips Recording studio, which Phillips built after his success at Sun Records and Memphis Recording Service around the corner. (See the SoulCountry feature on Matt Ross-Spang and his work with Mr. Bell and these other artists.)
And Mr. Bell’s not finished yet. You might say he just keeps coming back for more.
He recorded his new album, One Day Closer to Home, at his own studio in College Park, a village between south Atlanta and the world’s busiest airport, with members of his touring band and Memphis producer, musician and engineer Scott Bomar.
The bluesy title track represents only one style of music on the album. “Scott and I wrote this particular song three or four years ago,” Mr. Bell said. “I knew it was a good song, and I had just had to have the right time to record it and put it out.”
Mr. Bell has recorded and toured with The Bo-Keys, the group of R&B veterans and younger musicians that Bomar began a couple of decades ago with Skip Pitts (who played the opening guitar riff on Isaac Hayes’ Theme from Shaft) and the dynamic trumpeter Marc Franklin.
The group has also featured soul singer Percy Wiggins, Ben Cauley (trumpeter with The Bar-Kays and the only survivor of the plane crash that killed Redding and others), and Howard Grimes and organist Archie “Hubby” Turner from the Hi Rhythm Section, among others.
The Bo-Keys have also backed former Hi Records singer-songwriter Don Bryant, and the group’s 2016 album Heartaches by the Number features some of the finest in Memphis R&B performing country classics in their own soulful way.
How much Mr. Bell’s music still touches people was also evident when the National Endowment for the Arts honored him with National Heritage Fellowship — one of the country’s top honors for artists of various types who reflect America’s roots.
“It’s an affirmation of people are watching,” Mr. Bell said. “There was somebody looking, and I’ve accomplished something.”
More stories highlighting the music of William Bell:
SoulCountry's feature on soul music and civil rights, based on a panel discussion with William Bell and former Stax Records President Al Bell (no relation), organized by the Take Me to the River project
The SoulCountry feature on the incredible Stax '68 box set, with writer Andrea Lisle as our guide
MORE GREAT MUSIC FROM MR. BELL: