Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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William Bell: Ringing in the new

William Bell PHOTO: David McClister
William Bell PHOTO: David McClister

“During the early years of Stax, we were kind of like a family and working on different projects and being creative we had hit records actually. We didn't know we'd have that kind of longevity but some great hit records came out” William Bell says, reminiscing about the golden age of the legendary Memphis-based record label. “Later we became a big corporate structure and hired a lot of people that didn't have the same interests or that didn't have the same values we had so it all changed. After that, I wanted to go back to being a small company where we genuinely care about artists and were trying to build careers as opposed to just trying to make money”.

Due to financial and distribution issues, Stax Records filed for bankruptcy in 1976. Industry insiders have since considered the story of the label's demise to be a masterclass in how corporate greed can potentially destroy even the most innovative and profitable venture. But that was not the end of the story for Stax. Fantasy Records went on to buy it's back catalogue and later Concord Records relaunched the label itself, resigning some original artists and launching the careers of new ones. The musical home of legends like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas rose from the ashes in 2006 so it seems only right that Bell returns to Stax for his first studio release in almost four decades, “This Is Where I Live”.”Yes absolutely, (It's inspired by my return to Stax) the whole project, with the songs that we choose and everything. “ This is Where I Live” is about my career, my life and coming full circle to Stax Records”.

“We did a movie called “Take Me To The River” and Concord/Stax picked up the soundtrack to that. After that, I was approached by Concord Records about doing a project for them” regarding the catalyst for the album… We got with my management, we had a meeting. Then Joe McKeown put John Leventhal together with us”.

A reflective and personal record, “This Is Where I live” chronicles Bell's life through honest, heart-felt lyrics and a beautiful, timeless, vocal performance. It has been quite a journey for the 76-year-old singer. Christened William Henry Yarborough, he first discovered his talent for performing in church. Early aspirations to be a doctor would be replaced by musical ambitions after winning the recording contract with Stax in a talent competition. Hits like “You Don't Miss Your Water”, “I Forgot To Be Your Lover,” “Born Under A Bad Sign”and “Private Number” followed.

“We do a lot of reflecting as we grow older” William shares. “I look back and think I've had a wonderful life, a great career and it's still going and I'm still in demand - I look at that and I don't take that lightly. I'm blessed to be still in the business and vibrant at this point. You look back on your love and reflect on it but it teaches you to be more aware and more sensitive to another person's feelings. As long as there's life you keep growing”.

Over the years, Bell has grown both as an artist and a businessman. After the closure of Stax, he founded Peachtree Records and became involved with a music management company, Bel Wyn Management. He also released music through his own label, Wilbe Records, a change which William says was important to him “Absolutely! We were kids when we first came to Stax and we didn’t think it would ever end. After it went under, I took a hiatus for about three years and did some acting with the Academy Theatre here in Atlanta. Then during that period, we started the Peachtree label, which I was writing and producing for. But I wanted to just try to take my career into my own hands. Once I did that, we did a production for Mercury Records, which “Trying To Love Two” came out of. Then we started Wilbe productions and my own Wilbe record label.

Stax Records did, however, blaze a trail in the area of race relations, becoming an integral voice of the civil rights movement during the 1960's in America. One of the first labels to integrate black and white artists during the time of segregation, labels founders, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton were passionate advocates for racial integration. “When Stax started segregation was in full bloom in Memphis and around the U.S. It was difficult but inside the walls of Stax Records we didn't care about race, we didn't care about gender. All we cared about was what you could bring to the table in terms of creativity and talent. Black and white bands where together inside Stax to create the product that we created. There are a lot of influences in there. You've got rockabilly, the blues, country and western and jazz influences coming from all the different entities, so it created a different sound. It was a joy to be working inside of that, but once we went outside the door we were hit with the racism and the segregated laws and we caught a lot of flack from that. We worked to eradicate that and we did make a lot of changes through the music and touring, incorporating the mixture of the races but it was not an easy task going against the powers that be”.

Social unrest stirred among those going against “the powers that be” sparking riots in Los Angeles during the 60's. Wattstax was a benefit concert, featuring the Stax roster to help those affected by the trouble. “That was a wonderful experience but it was kind of scary in a sense that we were surrounded by a sea of people and the only thing that kept us apart was this little chain link fence around the stage - the people were not unruly. We went through the whole thing with very little disturbance, expect when Rufus (Thomas) got up on stage people wanted to dance and boogie, but he was really instrumental in getting people to sit down and enjoy the performance. It was way over 100,000 folk because there was people sitting on rooftops. The stadium held 80,000 people and that was packed, there was people on the street and up telephone poles and everywhere! (Laughs) It was like the West Coast ‘Woodstock’ so to speak. I did a lot of Mc’ing (on the day) that wasn't in the movie”.

“We just hit it off” Bell continues, remembering his dear friend Otis Redding. “We hung out together, I was in the military during the time we first met, but I happened to be home in Furlow. He was actually driving Johnny Jenkins into the session. Johnny did not have enough songs and Jim Stewart asked if anyone had anything Johnny could sing. Otis said, “I've got this song but I don't know if anyone is going to like it”. They put him on the mic and the band started playing along…it was such a dynamic presentation that everyone said we've got another ‘artist’ here. When I had another hit record after coming out of the military, Otis and I travelled and toured and had fun. When we were not touring we were hanging out together. His death was devastating to me, I wrote that song (“Tribute To A King”) as a tribute to him, but didn't want to release it. I wanted to send it to Zelma, his wife and family. Zelma loved the song and said, “you've got to release this”. I fought against it because I didn't want people to think I was trying to capitalise on my friend’s death but (I was convinced) and finally caved in and I put it out as a B-side to a 45 recording at that time. The radio station jocks started to play it and made a tremendous record out of it”.

“Well, when people can identify with something I have created, it's a joy for me to realise that they can identify and relate to it too. I'm not someone who doesn't want other people to cover their songs” William says of other artists sampling his work, which include Kayne West and Ludacris. “It's a form of validation of my creativity, so if other people want to add to it with their spin of creativity on it, that's fine with me. It's rewarding to me to sit back and hear how they interoperate something. There's so many up-and-coming artists…John Legend, Joss Stone who I just did a duet with. There's Jennifer Hudson… we call them ‘the new guns’. I think the music is alive and well in their hands and it's a good legacy to be able to be a part of the creativity of soul music and have the youngers really embrace it. I do a lot of work with the Stax kids (from the Stax Music Academy) and note for note the Berkley school kids… teaching them the fundamentals of the creativity of the music. So I'm overjoyed when I see a fifteen or sixteen-year-old take a piece of music that was done 60 years ago and do a great presentation of it. My mind is wide open where creativity is concerned. I love working with young people so that's a motivation to me. I'm a people lover, and I love performing. As long as I'm healthy and vibrant I'll keep doing it”.

The album “This Is Where I Live” is out July 7

William Bell Performs at The Union Chapel Theatre in London on July 9th, 2016
Words Karen Lawler

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