Southside Johnny, Hearts of Stone under a Grapefruit Moon

Some 30 years ago, when Springsteen released his seminal Darkness on the Edge of Town, John Lyon, better known as Southside Johnny did the same with his Hearts of Stone. Though the album didn’t sell all that well at the time years later Rolling Stone magazine would vote it as one of the best albums recorded at that period of time and it has since achieved some kind of cult status. Those in the know recognize Hearts of Stone as one of the best Rock and Soul albums of the late seventies. I sought out Southside Johnny to talk to him about that unrecognized master piece and was thrilled to find the man is as much a fan-boy like his audience. Throughout the interview Southside remained charmingly humble about his achievements and his talent, coming across as a man who is simply thrilled that he’s still able to perform in the shadows of his heroes on stage.

Southside Johnny first started to make his mark at the Upstage, a club down the Jersey Shore. Which according to Southside was more or less a musicians bar, “after all the clubs had closed, we used to just come there and jam into the night,” he recalls some 40 years down the road. Because of its loose atmosphere the Upstage was a draw for musicians from all over the garden state. Southside lived not to far from the club so he would walk up there nightly. Pretty soon he was the constant factor on stage, “because I knew how to sing all those songs,” he explains today. Southside Johnny had been spoon fed Jazz and R&B by his parents. “There wasn’t any Monteverdi or anything like that in our house,” he remembers “they would come home from work and open a beer, have a great time listening to Big Joe Turner or Ray Charles.” His love for R&B made him a perfect match first for Garry Tallent, Springsteen’s future base player, and later for Miami Steve, whom he met at the Upstage club. Southside knew Tallent and Vini Lopez, the first drummer from the E-Street Band, through school, but Miami lived in a whole different area. So if it hadn’t been for the draw the Upstage had, Lyon and Van Zandt might never have met. With a similar sensibility to music his friendship with Miami would later prove key to Southside’s early career as van Zandt became his producer and manager.

The Asbury Jukes, as Southside’s band is called, didn’t form over night however. Southside recalls today that most of the time, whenever somebody scored a gig at the Jersey shore club scene, bands were just formed then and there for the occasion. Lyon was the logical choice to do the vocals, again because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the R&B classics. “It was all less formal than having a band just trying to make it, we were all just musicians learning,” Lyon explains “Nobody was really ambitious, we just wanted to make music and do things.” Things changed when Little Steven started to work in construction, “he was working on the New Jersey turnpike, working a jackhammer, he had been working the guitar for years and years, except there was no money and he had to do something.” Steven had no place to stay, so he was staying at Lyon’s, “one day he walked in, he was covered in asphalt,” Southside remembers “I looked at him and said, Stevie you can’t do this.” Realizing that day jobs wasn’t what was going to make them happy Steven and Johnny started to get serious about music again.

Right around that time Springsteen finally got his big break with Born to Run. Southside got offered a record contract in the slipstream of that success. Something he still is baffled by today. Lyon remembers he was convinced that “they are never going to give us a record contract, they must be crazy! But they did!” Adding with a laugh, “up to this day I don’t know why!!” Steven and Southside went into the studio before all the formalities were taken care of, convinced the record company would change their minds. “We kind of sneaked into this recording studio, the Record Plant, and we didn’t have any money,” he confides today. Jimi Iovine, who had engineered Springsteen’s Born to Run, aided and abetted. “There really was a lot of pressure on us to go out there and make this happen right away,” Lyon explains “Once Born to Run hit, Bruce was swimming in a sea of sharks, he really needed somebody close who he could rely on and relate to, and that was Steven.” So it was also a matter of the Jukes signature guitar player being swooped up in the circus that Springsteen’s career would soon become.

By lucky coincidence Ronnie Spector made a cameo on that very first album. “Jimmy Iovine was engineering that first album, sneaking us into the studio” Southside elaborates, “He had just come of from working with John Lennon on that roots album. Phil Spector produced that, and Jimmy met Ronnie Spector.” While in the studio working with Johnny, Jimmy got a call from Ronnie. Jimmy seized the opportunity and asked Ronnie if she would be interested in recording a duet with Southside. Much to the latter’s excitement, she accepted, “for us she was just a Goddess from our youth!” That fan mentality, the sheer love of the music translated well unto the album and, for that time, it sold very respectable, some 250.000 copies, “so the record company looked at us with some favor” Southside laughs. Yet ’75 proved to be a watershed in the music business, just before the mega million sales started to dominate the market. Southside’s debut was released at the same time as Boston’s first album, “they broke right out of the box office!” Lyon recalls. “We did some shows with them,” he elaborates, “and we were the better band. But they sold 12 million copies, so now the record company is looking at us……”

With the company aiming to repeat Boston’s success, Southside Johnny’s relationship with them would soon sour. Always convinced the record company wouldn’t allow him to do another album, by the time Lyon started working with Steven on Hearts of Stone, this fear was rapidly starting to become reality. To top it off the recording sessions for Hearts of Stone didn’t exactly go as smooth as planned, “we already recorded eight songs, but then decided that they just weren’t what we wanted. It didn’t sound right, it didn’t feel right, so we decided we had to start all over again. The record company by this time was fed up.” Complicating matters was the fact that Miami and Southside had already ran over budget even before they started working on the new batch of songs. “The record company was very, very unhappy with us. They didn’t like the music, they didn’t understand the music, they didn’t really like us. A regime change had happened, people we didn’t know, people who had no history with us. So I told Steven, it’s over”

Hearts of Stone was recorded Southside’s and Steven’s back against the wall, literally on their way out. It was possible that this was their last shot at ever making an album together. “We were under such pressure to make this record that it came out as an intense emotional experience” Lyon reflects on it now “it was one of those moments where you realize that making music is more important than anything else in your life, it made me dig deeper inside myself”. The difference between Hearts of Stone and its predecessor is indeed striking. Where This Time it’s For Real was still laden with stylistic exercises (complete with a Leiber and Stoller pastiche featuring the Coasters), strings and sugar sweet blue eyed soul, Hearts of Stone became a whole different ball of wax. In little under 35 minutes all the anxiety and frustration from dealing with the record company, combined with the sheer love of the music, just comes poring out. Hearts of Stone is at the same time jubilant as it is uneasy, brimming with mixed emotions. Steven’s stiletto like guitar slashes though the Motown Soul with raging love. Lyon delivers a vocal performance of a man who is trying to cling on to the love of his live as she’s walking out of the door. In what sounds like a clash between the Four Tops and the King’s Men, Miami and Lyon delivered an album that is a text book case of how a Rock album should sound, a feverish exorcism, a raging celebration. But without the support of the record company, the album sank like a rock.

Despite all that was going on, Southside Johnny remembers that working with Steven on the album, the latter being notorious for his headstrong views on how music should sound and be recorded, was easy. “Because we had faced the adversity of the record company, it gave us the inner strength to say; we know what we’re doing, so we’re going to go out and do it and come hell or high water we’re going to go do it the way we know it should be done,” he reflects on it now, “and of course Steven and I had the same view point on how recording should be done, that it should be a visceral experience, that it should be honest music. So that part was pretty easy, except it was late nights and I’d come of the road, the tour bus would drop me off at the studio and I would sleep on the studio couch.” Despite Hearts of Stone turning out to be one of the best Soul albums recorded after ’75, Lyon doesn’t feel he trumped his heroes, “we paid the best tribute we could” he humbly says today.

When Hearts of Stones was released, Lyon was swimming against the current with his music. “It was actually a time when music had become a little bloated,” he explains “and I think we were part of the reaction against that.” Southside explains that “all the records that I love are moments caught in time, they are not as produced and structured.” From that perspective Lyon was able to relate to the punk movement as well, even though his brand of music (and the Asbury Park scene) was quite a bit more sophisticated. Lyon acknowledges they had different roots, “but we certainly understood each other. Steven and I used to go and see the Ramones in CBGB’s and they were great! Holy shit! The punk scene to me was kind of a breath of fresh air too, for some reason we managed to get along with them. I think there’s a real bond between people who are not part of the system and don’t want to be part of that system.”

With Hearts of Stone sinking, the Jukes were threatened with a life in the bar scene again. Southside Johnny admits that he resented it at the time, “I felt we were better than that.” Lyon was determined not to give up and continued to keep touring while his career hang on a thread. “We just kept going and that’s 30 years ago” he laughs at it now. Lyon elaborating on how he “just want to have a chance to be me and be honest about what I feel,” might just be the key to why he continued to struggle with record companies. Lyon is not the type of artist to compromise his music in favor of current trends. He is first and foremost a fan of music like his audience. Lyon is capable of recounting is first James Brown concert in the early sixties in a fashion that makes it sound like he just stepped out of the venue, still brimming with excitement. Record executives concerned with sales figures, big sales figures, have a hard time following that train of thought. “Most of the people in the business have nothing to do with music,” Southside claims, “and that’s an immediate alienation for most of us.”

It is the same fan boy like admiration that seeps through on his latest project, Grapefruit Moon, a big band take on the songs of Tom Waits. On the surface Waits’ music might seem like a big leap from the R&B records by the Drifters Lyon loves to collect, but as Southside explains, “I think there a real connection between that, there’s a little Howlin’ Wolf in Tom, there’s certainly a lot of cool Jazz like Charles Brown. There’s a real R&B background in Tom, you can really feel it,” adding with a laugh, “he sounds like he’s down on the street, where he belongs.” The big band project first came into fruition when Johnny met Tom after an Amsterdam show Waits just gave. Lyon sprang his idea on Tom and Waits immediately warmed up to it, “so I said ok, if he can understand it, than I’m alright.” Lyon admits that covering Waits was a challenge, “it had been done but it had not done very well. Not to be cool or anything, but I knew if we did it the way I wanted to do it, it would be different” Eventually Lyon got up the courage to ask Tom if he wanted to sing on the album, Tom agreed. “It was a great moment, I was standing in this funky little hippie studio in California, and it was one of these little moments in your life where you just say I’m grateful to have this opportunity.” Southside Johnny’s drive to approach music open and honest, maybe surprisingly, makes Grapefruit Moon an artistic success. The album is as much about the love of music as the music of Tom Waits.

Lyon’s career has been rough and bumpy, and as he admits not without regrets. “I’ve regretted it many times. I hate to be blunt about it, but its true. You know, pulling up four o’ clock in the morning at a gass station where they have a little lunch counter and you know you’re gonna eat a chili cheese dog at four in the morning and be sick, and you’ve got a gig to do that night and the next night, with ten hours of driving in between and you just think, What the fuck am I doing.” Still he is quick to add, “once you get on stage, it all clears up, you understand what you do.” With charming humbleness Southside admits that his aspirations were modest, “I just wanted a chance to tour, a chance to see the world, it may not see like much to most people, but that’s what I wanted.” The audiences all over the world still respond with a fervor to the Jukes on stage. Southside explains “mostly what I wanted to do is have fun. I know that seems like a small ambition but I never wanted to be a R&R hero. I wanted people to come to the shows and have a good time, just enjoy themselves.” Southside in that sense is R&R’s foremost anti-hero. Standing on stage in a plain jeans shirt and small sun glasses, he looks like he just stepped out of an auto parts shop or the construction site Little Steven escaped all those years ago. As such Southside Johnny is easier to connect to than most of R&R’s super stars, maybe even easier to connect to than Springsteen, in whose slip steam he got his first break. “I didn’t think my fans had to worship to any throne or anything like that,” Lyon says about it himself, “I wanted it to be like the music I used to see, where you would go and see the Drifters and just enjoy yourself, I never wanted anything more than that.” Going by that standard you might just say that Lyon’s career has been a great success, a success in honesty and love of music.

“Gotta Find a Better Way Home”

From Hearts of Stone

Grapefruit Moon is available on line through the Southside Johnny store and Amazon

Tom Morello, The Fabled City

“The Fabled City” is Tom Morello’s second solo outing as the Nightwatchman. Though Morello admittedly performed a lot of these songs “amidst the tear gas attacks at the G8 protest,” there is, again, little common ground between this solo album and his work with Rage Against the Machine. Though in both projects Morello presents himself as a socially and politically engaged artist, the methods are strikingly different. Morello has called the Nightwatchman as his antidote against arena rock. In tone and approach of the complex social issues Morello likes to address it is exactly that, the opposite of Rage Against the Machine vicious guitar riffs and raging vocals. Morello’s album is more reminiscent of a Rubin produced Johnny Cash album, his voice strikes a resemblance to Iggy Pop, sans the irony, the content closer to a Steve Earle record. On the surface there’s little what links the two projects.

Morello’s inspiration for the Nightwatchman came from a rather unexpected corner for most Rage Against the Machine fans, I can imagine. Explaining the project today Tom claims that “the clear model for me was seeing Bruce Springsteen on his Ghost of Tom Joad tour. I was stunned at how powerful and heavy a concert could be without any Marshall amps in the room.” For Morello fans who view Springsteen through Reagan’s patriotic shades this link might be somewhat of a shocker. But fans who paid attention to Rage Against the Machine’s cover of the “Ghost of Tom Joad” and managed to look beyond the synthesizer layered sound of the “Born in the USA” album, might have found quite a bit of common ground between the two artists. From Springsteen Tom went back and explored the extensive catalogs of Dylan and Woody Guthrie, from where the Nightwatchman started to take shape. Though the two artists shared the stage for a fiercely rocking version of the “Ghost of Tom Joad”, their approach to songwriting bares little resemblance to each other’s work.

Where Springsteen constructs his songs as miniature novel or films, Morello’s songs are decidedly more abstract. Using quite a bit of biblical imagery, Tom paints a rather apocalyptic picture of American society. Though the protagonists Springsteen likes to use, you know, the working class and disenfranchised, Morello chooses to take snap shots of them rather than chronicle the events that mark their lives. Morello’s songs are more like the murals from Diego Riviera, images of working class heroes and victims of capitalism’s shadow populate his songs. Though explicit criticism of the current Bush administration drifts in and out of the songs, the songs keep a certain abstract quality. Where the songwriting at Rage Against the Machine was littered with the same catchy, though strikingly more vicious and rebellious, one-liners politicians like to use, Morello’s albums leave more room for your own reflections.

Question is of course which approach is more the more successful. Graduated from Harvard university with honors as a Political Science master, Morello has always been more of a political activist than he was a rock star, even though his current appearance in the Guitar Hero video came might have you suspect otherwise. Like Woody Guthrie, Morello is a songwriter with a mission. Though lacking the depth Morello’s Nightwatchman has, Rage Against the Machines hard rocking one-liners might just be more effective in getting the attention of a large audience. On the other hand, Rage Against the Machine’s albums have never been as thought provoking as “the Fabled City.” One-liners can be rather off putting in their uncompromising insistence. Morello’s acoustic albums may never reach such a large audience as Rage Against the Machine has, but for who is willing to listen, there is quite a bit more room for developing your own opinion on the issues Tom addresses.

In all, while the record breathes a sense of resilience and rebellion, its atmosphere is dark and dreary. Another vital point where Morello differs from Springsteen, who’s records are always balanced with songs that breathe an enormous amount of hope (though less so in his acoustic albums). Morello’s more skeptical outlook on the elections is no surprise after listening to “the Fabled City”. Where Springsteen is an open supporter of Barack Obama, Morello’s opinion of the man is steeped in criticism. While he concedes that an Obama presidency would be a major step forward symbolically, he also adds :”I firmly believe that it’s the system that’s the problem, rather than one party or the other. When a candidate steps forward who will end poverty and end the war and save the environment and be unbending to capital, we’ll see. Racism is as American as apple pie and baseball. A black president would definitely be a step in the right direction for civilizing the nation. But at the same time there’s Obama’s vow to continue a war in Afghanistan and saber-rattling in Iran. Whatever the voice is in his soul that whispers the good things, there are political demands. That’s why I’m a guitar player and a singer. I answer to no one”

“Whatever it Takes”

Morello will tour behind “the Fabled City” this fall.

Exclusive: Alejandro Escovedo Still Talking

Alejandro EscovedoBack in Austin after the demise of Rank and File, Escovedo went on to form the legendary True Believers with his brother Javier and with Jon Dee Graham. The band was a three-headed monster — each man equally impressive at both songwriting and guitar-playing. “The Believers were like a full-on rock band kind of wanting to be the Mott the Hoople of the Southwest,” reflects Escovedo.

Click HERE to view the second exclusive Twangville podcast.

Q&A with Richard Julian + a Giveaway

Richard Julian poster

RICHARD JULIAN, Sunday Morning in Saturday’s Shoes (Manhattan)
Official Site | MySpace | Samples (Amazon) | iTunes

One album you might find under the radar this year comes from New York City’s Richard Julian, a singer-songwriter whom you may know from his recent work with close friend Norah Jones in a side project called The Little Willies, a concept originally conceived as a Willie Nelson cover band. The album is called ‘Sunday Morning in Saturday’s Shoes’ and it consists of 11 mostly acoustic tracks exploring styles ranging from folk to blues to pop. Seen regularly around the Big Apple, you may hear Julian compared to such greats as Paul Simon, Lyle Lovett and Randy Newman but let us not forget John Prine who should also be included in the comparisons. Yet Richard Julian is his own artist. Drawing writing inspiration from the big city in which he resides his lyrics are full of wordplay and irony. One need to look no further than the title of the album to see this clever wordplay in action. I’ve had this record in high rotation for much of the year and it gets better every time. Give fan favorite “If You Stay” a try and be sure and listen to my personal favorite track “A Thousand Days”.

Richard Julian and Sideways Media were kind enough to answer some questions and offer up a signed poster along with a copy of ‘Sunday Morning in Saturday Shoes’ to a lucky Twangville reader. See below for details.

Q&A with Richard Julian

[Twangville] “Sunday Morning in Saturday Shoes” really does a great job of showcasing your songwriting abilities, was the material for this album something you had been holding on to or did you set out to make a record from scratch?

[Richard Julian] The songs weren’t written all at the same time for a specific record. It wasn’t like I was focused on a singular idea. I was just writing over the course of time since my last record. It all just kinda congealed organically.

[Twangville] What do you do as preparation to get in the songwriting mode? Does it come naturally over biscuits and gravy or is it something that you really need to work at?

[Richard Julian] I try to write as often as possible. Even if it’s just a line or two. I work on songs most mornings. First thing if I can make it happen. I’ll sit down and try something even if I don’t necessarily feel inspired. Other times it just sweeps over you like a tidal wave. That’s a good feeling. If biscuits and gravy are included, that’s even better.

[Twangville] Paul Simon sometimes comes up when referring to you and it seems that NYC is synonymous with both of you. Is that true, would you ever find yourself anywhere else?

[Richard Julian] I find myself everywhere else all the time as I do a lot of travelling/performing. The current songs I’m working on are reflecting that more I think. But New York has always been an inspiration. It’s a city like no other.

[Twangville] Where is your favorite place in NYC to perform?

[Richard Julian] When I have new material I need to road-test, I always call the Rockwood Music Hall. That’s a club built with all the right intentions. Good room to let loose.

[Twangville] Where can fans expect to see you in the near future?

[Richard Julian] Newport Folk Fest Aug 3rd. Gonna try some new material at the rockwood Friday Aug 1st.

[Twangville] Any chance for a Little Willies reunion?

[Richard Julian] Well we never broke up so I don’t know if we can have a reunion. There is talk of another recording though. I would like that.

The Giveaway

Richard Julian and the fine folks at Sideways Media are offering up a ‘Sunday Morning in Satuday’s Shoes’ CD and signed poster right here on Twangville and all you have to do is leave a comment below to be eligible. Please limit yourself to one comment per person. Contest ends Friday, 8/15/08 at midnight EST. Winner will be contacted by e-mail prior to any announcements.*

Purchase ‘Sunday Morning in Saturday’s Shoes’ at Miles of Music and Amazon.

* By participating in this contest you agree to allow Twangville to post the winner’s name and city on our web site.

William Bell, Stax and Soul

“(C)2008 Jelmer de Haas”

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