Biography All Music Guide
All Music Guide:
Ed Bell's Paramount record of his own "Mamlish Blues" is the kind of performance that has the power to suspend the listener in the eternal present moment. Its simple, repetitive, ascending, and descending scale evokes a magical sensibility that is echoed on the flipside, "The Hambone Blues," and the other two titles he cut in Chicago in September 1927. Bell's modest but substantial recorded legacy places him in league with more famous individuals such as Blind Boy Fuller, Tommy Johnson, Charlie Patton, and Robert Johnson. The magic that waits within Bell's recordings to be discovered by open-hearted listeners was clearly defined by trumpeter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, philosopher, and educator Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, who once said that growing up in the Mississippi Delta among blues musicians taught him "to feel that whatever I play relates to a gigantic field of feeling. To me, the blues is a literary and musical form and also a basic philosophy. When I get ready to study the mystical aspect of black people, I go to the blues; then I feel that I'm in touch with the root of black people."
Ed Bell was born in 1905 on the Davis Plantation near Fort Deposit, AL and moved with his family to Greenville where African-American string bands had been active for a long time. His older cousin Joe Pat Dean took young Ed to Muscle Shoals in 1919 where the boy learned to play the blues firsthand. Legend has it Dean soon resented Bell's popularity; his own career would be cut short when a jealous husband took him out around 1924-1925. Bell spent the first half of the decade gradually decreasing his involvement in agricultural labor while devoting ever more of his life to music, running with a posse of young players which included guitarist Pillie Bolling. Throughout the '20s, Bell was on the road a lot, gigging in Pittsburgh, PA and Toledo, Youngstown, and Cincinnati, OH. Bell's first four recordings, including the best-known, "Mamlish Blues," were cut in Chicago in September 1927 and released on the Paramount label. His next opportunity to record occurred in April 1929, when he cut eight sides for QRS at a studio in Long Island City, NY. Bell was identified on the label as Sluefoot Joe; Clifford Gibson of St. Louis sat in on guitar and piano. The rest of Bell's recordings were made in Atlanta, GA in 1929 and 1930. These records were released on Columbia with Bell now billed as "Barefoot Bill from Alabama," and his old friend Pillie Bolling sat in on some of the sides. According to his half sister Pauline Porterfield, Bell eventually wearied of the blues musician's life and crossed over from the sacred to the secular, becoming a Baptist preacher, marrying and establishing himself in Montgomery, AL as a reverend at the head of his own congregation. Once a regionally respected bluesman, Bell achieved the office of Moderator of the Southern District later in life and passed away in Greenville in 1966.