July 19th – Waiting for William Bell at an Amsterdam hotel, I was sipping on some coffee while all the classic Soul hits played in the background. The records from Stax and Motown, that once shook the world, struck me as the perfect background to interview the man who was a big part of the Soul genre’s birth. What at one point, as William would put it, was the Devil’s music, now was enough part of our collective musical memory to soothe us over a hotel breakfast. Sitting down for coffee with a man I consider to be a legend, I was truck with how accessible mister Bell was. Pushing 70 years of age, Bell looked like a man in his late forties. A youth he would radiate later that evening on stage in the Hague while delivering his classic hits such as “You Don’t Miss Your Water (till the well runs dry) and “Private Number.”
William Bell was born William Yarbourgh in Memphis Tennesee 1939. William started his singing career in the Baptist church at a very young age. “I was six or seven when I started singing in church,” William remembers. At the age of 14 William entered a talent contest at the Mid-South Fair, “I won first price and that brought me to the attention of Phineas Newborn who had a big 14 piece orchestra, kind of like a Count Basie type orchestra”. Looking back William really feels his stint with the orchestra, including top talent like Fathead Newman and Hank Crawford, was like going to the university that would prepare him for the rest of his career. “Some of the things I learned back then I can still apply today, how to read an audience, how to time your shows”. Phineas also taught him all William needed to know about chord progression and taught him the basics on the piano. The most important lessons William remember however was to “always leave your audience wanting more” with a laugh he adds, “when you see you’ve got them at a fever pitch…..exit!” A lesson William still applies today.
Coming from a working class background Williams parents weren’t very supportive at first. “Mom was in the choir” William explains “this was what they called Devil’s music” he adds with a chuckle, “they had much rather that I had gone the gospel route, but since old man Phineas’ sons were in his band and he had asked my mum about joining the orchestra, she reluctantly agreed as long as I was back in time on Sunday for church.” Added to his parents reluctance was the fact that both his parents worked hard to make ends meet, “so we weren’t super poor” Williams remembers. But that didn’t take away from the fact that his parents had hoped William would go off to college as the first in the family and become a doctor, “but at that time I had the music in my head.” Music and writing was important to William, “I was always a poet, even as a ten to twelve year old. That was like an escapism, I was always writing lyrics.” Over time the support of his parents grew so when he formed the Del-Rios, a doo-wop group, with some class mates, they were allowed to practice in the house.
The Del-Rios saw William shifting from Jazz to modern music. Like so many performers of his generation it was radio that had first introduced him to R&B. In William’s case it was WDIA that played a key role. As the first black radio station in the country it was through them he got acquainted with the sounds of Little Richard, the Clovers, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters and B.B. King. WDIA also organized teen talent contests, which Bell would use to further hone his performing skills. “They had B.B. King with a fifteen minute show where he would play and sing and then they had the teen talent singers where we would play three songs or so” he remembers. With the Del-Rios he would start to play his first matinees in Memphis and get his first recording experience when they cut “Alone on a Rainy Night” for Meteor records with Rufus Thomas’ band the Bear Cats backing them up. Bell fondly remembers Rufus, “I knew him both as a comedian and a DJ, he kind of was a surrogate father to all of us.” With Thomas being a jack of all trades William picked up a lot of how to become an all round performer.
William remembers Memphis as a melting pot where you’d hear all the different music styles coming through the radio and having Sun records right across town where Elvis Presley and Rufus Thomas had cut their first records. As he explains that melting pot was key in the Stax sound, which married Country and R&B. Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn came from a Rockabilly background, William remembers and explained how that sound mixed with Booker T’s church background, creating a sound that was as unique as it was revolutionary at the time. When William was growing up, Memphis was still segregated. William still clearly remembers the white only signs and the blatant racism, although he does admit he was more or less sheltered from the worst part of it. “It was weird, my neighborhood was like the dividing line between black and white” William explains. Right across the street of him lived a white family, Bell remembers that “early in the morning my mother would have coffee at the kitchen table and exchange recipes with the white lady across the street, so I grew up with more of an open mind. When I got with Stax, having the camaraderie with black and white, it was a mixture there, once we closed those doors, we locked the world outside.” The only tension William remembers amongst his fellow musicians was over how to play the chord changes. Inside they only argued about the important stuff, “it didn’t matter if you were black or white, it was all in terms of what you could bring to the table in terms of your musical abilities.” Stax was the first integrated company in the country Bell remembers, “it was like a family, we opened a lot of avenues by being mixed.”
How much of a family Stax actually was becomes tangible when William reminisces on Estelle Axton, the sister of Jim Steward. Jim was the St of Stax, she was the Ax. “She was like a mother to us, she was nutritious, she kept us on the straight and narrow a lot of times, because we would be teenagers back than, it didn’t matter to her if you were black or white, if you’d do something wrong, she’d be all over us” he remembers with a warm smile. Estelle also ran the record shop, Satellite Records, that was an instrumental part of the Stax operation. As a small independent operation, Stax didn’t have the financial buffer to take too many risks on their records. So before a record was pressed Estelle would play the record in the record store and see of it commanded a response from the kids who were visiting. If they started to dance, Estelle would know they had another hit.
William claims today he was the first male singer to be signed to Stax, encouraged by Chips Moman, an influential Memphis based guitar player and record producer. William was reluctant at first. His memories of recording for Meteor had left him with a bitter taste in his mouth for the recording industry since he never got paid for that. Bell wasn’t sure he wanted a career as a signed singer for himself. He rather went out on the road with Phinaes which provided him a stable income at the time. However, during a long stand in New York, William started to get homesick and penned “You Don’t Miss Your Water (till the well runs dry)” to give expression to those emotions. Back in Memphis Bell first recorded with the Del-Rios again for Stax, soon however the army stepped in and drafted about half of the group, “So I wound up being a solo” Bell laughs remembering. He cut his song and building regionally it would become his first hit for the company. The simply philosophy that made the song stand out would later become Bell’s trade mark. “As a kid I was always surrounded by grown-ups” Bell explains “So I got a lot of that home spun wisdom from my grandparents and my parents and everything”. These wisdoms would later find their way into other signature songs such as “Everybody Loves a Winner” or “I Forgot to be Your Lover,” making them easy to connect to.
Ironically Bell was drafted himself soon after he had his first hit. When he came back out of the army, Stax had signed Otis Redding who became their first bona fide super star. Almost by default William is compared to Otis these days, even though their vocal styles are strikingly different. “His background was Gospel too, his father was a minister” Bell says explaining the similarities between them. “But of course he was more of an up-tempo singer, wham! wham! ” Bell relates, “and I was more of a hopeless romantic” he says laughing. Explaining further Bell relates that their respective regions were key in how their vocal styles formed. Being from Macon Georgia, Otis was more influenced by Little Richard according to Bell. While William himself was more influenced by Bobby Bland and B.B. King, “Coming from Memphis I got a little bit of everything” he adds, again stressing the melting pot Memphis was.
Despite their differences William and Otis hit it off and started touring together for about a year and a half in 1966. Touring in cramped cars, becoming road buddies was almost a necessity, “we used to flip coins to see who had to sit in the middle portion” Bell laughs. The touring schedule was frantic, “I think in one year we did almost 300 one-nighters.” Bell remembers a specific incident where they came from a show in Washington and had little time to catch the plane after that. Unfortunately the car stalled about a mile away from the airport. Otis and William had to jump the fence and run across the runway to be able to catch the plane, which as about to embark. Luckily the purser, while they were already taking away the ladder from the plane, was a fan who recognized the duo and stalled the plane so they could catch it. “We were lucky we weren’t ran over by a plane” Bell laughs, “these days you probably couldn’t do that without being shot,” he adds.
William cut a couple of albums for Stax. The first one, “The Soul of a Bell,” he produced with his youth buddy Book T, whom he knew from church and high school, at the Stax studios. “Bound to Happen” was produced by All Bell, the company’s president at the time, at Muscle Shoals. Explaining the differences between the two William relates that “Booker was more musical inclined, All was more of a feel person, he approached it almost from a religious point of view, Booker wanted it all to be structured musical correctly. He was such a great musician, really a multi-instrumentalist long before it was fashionable.” He admits that writing with Booker T came easy to him, they could almost read each other’s minds. William explains how he would often come into the studio with just the skeleton of a song, “but then he came in and would take it to another level.” Though sometimes, Bell added, “it was the music that almost dictated the subject matter”.
Though producing records with Booker T at Stax, William wasn’t signed to them as such. That gave Bell the liberty to form his own record label in Atlanta, Peachtree, in 1969. Where talent just kind of floated into Stax through the record shop, in Atlanta however William had to hunt down his own talent. Bell worked together with his then manager Henry Wynn on this, who as a promoter did all the big black acts those days according to William. Wynn also had a few acts signed without any material out. So what Bell would cut those artists to wax, backed by his own road band, Johnny Jones and the King Casuals. As an independent it proved difficult to get their material plugged at radio stations, so Wynn would make sure to make courtesy stops at the local stations whenever the Peachtree acts, like Mitty Collier, would come to town, building a name for them regionally when this was still possible. But the times were changing. By the time Stax went bankrupt in 1975 the market left less room for little labels that could. The big companies had tightened their grip on the market, big FM radio stations with their formats were slowly pushing out the smaller regional stations and Disco started dominating popular tastes.
Ironically William Bell closed the era of what is now considered the golden age of Soul with a bang. After Stax went down William was signed to Mercury. Again his affiliation with this new label came with reluctance from Bell’s part. “After Stax filed bankruptcy I was so disillusioned, because as kids growing up we never thought that Stax would end” he muses today. This time after being motivated and chased down by Peachtree’s distributor Charles Fach, also vice-president of Mercury, Bell reluctantly gave in and agreed to cut four songs for Mercury to be used as 45rpm releases. “At that point I didn’t actually have any songs” Bell admitted with a laugh. By the time he had the songs written, amongst which “Trying to Love Two” which would become Bell’s first number one hit in 1976, the Rhythm section he had wanted to use was no longer available. Bell called upon New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint who set him up with a backing band, possibly Chocolate Milk, but William isn’t exactly sure. After “Trying to Love Two” hit Bell expanded the sessions into an album, aptly titled “Coming Back For More.”
“(C)2008 Jelmer de Haas”
Even though the first Mercury album hit big, Bell, like so many of his peers, got lost in the flood of the changing times. Because of a change in executives at Mercury interest in Bell waned within the company and Bell himself had difficulty to adapt to Disco. William can laugh about it today, “Disco was a 120 beats a minute and it was killing us.” Bell explains, “of course the producers became the stars then.” It wasn’t long before Saturday Night Fever hit after that and the DJ became King William reflects on it now, “even though a lot of artists are still around they never came back.” Reflecting on what the music business became Bell relates “it’s too much a melting pot these days, I like some of the modern stuff, but to me individuality is what makes and artist. All of the great artists, whether its B.B King, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix or Clapton, they all had a distinct sound you’d easily recognize.” Bell feels music is missing just that individuality these days. “A lot of it is lost in the generic music of today because they use the same instrumentation, the same chord structure, it just comes across as fast-food music.” Bell suspects a lot of the appreciation for the craft got lost when the small clubs started to close down, “artist don’t have a place to go and hone their craft” he clarifies, “you have to be able to look your audience in the eye-balls.”
Despite the musical and cultural musical changes, William Bell keeps producing music for his own production company Wilbe. It’s the love of it that keeps him going, “it keeps me young.” Something he would prove in spades on stage later that night. Showing to all the Amy Winehouses and Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reeds out there how the game is really played.
Live photos courtesy of Jelmer de Haas
About the author: I started blogging out of a fascination with Soul music, Bruce Springsteen and Americana in general. Over at Boss Tracks I'm blogging on Bruce Springsteen and the songs he covered. http://bosstracks.blogspot.com/