Born in Memphis in 1939, William Bell arrived at Stax in 1961, and quickly became an indispensable part of the organization. A gifted ballad singer, Bell gave the fledgling label one of its first hits with an early recording of his own composition, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (later covered, to great effect, by Bell’s friend Otis Redding): If not for a two-year stint in the army, which drafted him in 1963, Bell would have emerged as one of the studio’s brightest stars. Instead, he became known as one of Stax’s most accomplished songwriters — the author of “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” “Everybody Needs a Winner,” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” among not a few others. But Bell’s own albums, beginning with the 1967 classic Soul of a Bell, and stretching up to the latter-day releases available on eMusic, are well worth a listen.
Bell moved to Atlanta in 1969, and eMusic caught up with him there in March, just a few days before he flew to Austin, Texas, to play a Stax showcase with his friends and former labelmates, Booker T. and the MG’s, and Eddie Floyd.
eMusic: You’re playing with the MG’s again next week, at SXSW — that makes four decades of working together?
William Bell: Well over four decades! We’ve been working together, probably since 1961 or 62. It’s still a joy. They’re just consummate musicians and guys — they’re great friends. I arrived at Stax in 1961 — I mast have been 21, going on 22. I had been on a tour with a band the Phineas Newborn band, and while I was in Memphis, Chips Moman asked me about recording a solo thing. My mom and the family had wanted me to be the first doctor in the family. I even went to college for a year and a half, and I was studying all of that stuff — I wanted to work in a laboratory — but of course when I started doing records all of that fell away.
eMusic: Did you have other entertainers in the family?
WB: Well, my mom sang in church. And that’s where I got my training, I had to be in the choir no matter what. No matter what time you came in on Saturday, you had to go to Church on Sunday morning.
eMusic: And how did your family react to your singing secular music?
WB: My mom was resistant to it, and it was a long time before she got to see a concert of mine. And the public, after Sam Cooke crossed over, they were hostile to a degree. But, of course, the same people we’d see on Saturday nights we’d see in church on Sunday.
eMusic: When you were at Stax, who did you see as the competition? Motown, in Detroit? Hi, down the street?
WB: Oh, Motown were our biggest competitors. The major, predominantly black companies at the time were Motown and Stax. We were counterparts, and we kept America dancing for about ten years. Hi came along later on. Al Green had tried to get a deal at Stax, but we had so many male acts then that Jim Stewart turned him down, and that’s kind of how Hi got started.
eMusic: What was growing up in Memphis like?
WB: Memphis was a melting pot. We had rockabilly during those days — C&W type music — and we heard a lot of that, a lot of blues, and a lot of gospel. When R&B came into focus, bands like Hank Ballard & the Midnighters came to Memphis, as well. The music that came out of Stax was influenced by all of that.
eMusic: How different was the black church from the white church?
WB: In those days it was very different. We had the shouting, the rhythmic hand clapping, tambourines — that’s why Elvis would come to black churches and sit in the back pew. He’d come to clubs like the Flamingo Room, too, and sit in the back and listen. But there were a lot of mixtures in those times: Even my first song, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” was part country, part gospel, melodically. It was just my influences at the time. I had friends at Sun Records, you know? Rufus Thomas started at Sun Records. Everything was segregated, but we could still go into the white clubs, sneak in as musicians, and listen to different styles of music. Willie Mitchell started off playing in a white club.
eMusic: How far ahead were Memphis musicians, in terms of being racially enlightened, compared to other folks in the city?
WB: We were light years ahead. And we caught a lot of flak about it. But we made a difference, and we were instrumental in changing the times back then. Because we judged a person, not by color but, by what he could bring to the table musically. Of course, once we came out of the studios and clubs we had to go separate ways because otherwise we’d be harassed by the police. I actually had the first integrated club in Memphis. The Tiki Club. I had it for three years after I’d first come out of the military, and had another hit record, I opened it on old Highway 51 — the stretch that’s now Elvis Presley Boulevard — just down the road from where Willie Mitchell was playing. And they did everything to try to close me down.
But Stax—Stax was kind of an oasis in the middle of everything.
eMusic: What affect did the assassination of Dr. King have?
WB: I think it brought us at Stax, in a group, closer. We had to band together to protect each other. You know, racism was rampant — on both sides. We were in the ghetto. And a lot of blacks didn’t like whites. Of course, a lot of whites didn’t like black people. There was burning, looting, rioting and stuff. But as testament to the respect people had for Stax: Not a rock through the window. Not a torch on the roof. Nothing. And after King’s death, they had me, Isaac Hayes, and David Porter on the radio, calming people down.
eMusic: And Otis Redding‘s death?
WB: It was a tremendous loss. You know, when I went into the military, Otis was the premiere act there. And when I got out, Otis and I toured together. And of course, his untimely death along with that of the Bar-Kays — who were like little brothers to me, and were my house band at the Tiki Club, where Otis discovered them — well, we had to redouble our efforts, and step up to the plate. We’d just left Atlantic, we’d lost our catalog, and so we went to work creating a new one. We really put forth an effort to create that new catalog. And, of course, we started picking talent up along the way.
eMusic: I’d like to ask you about the Stax sound. What made it so unique?
WB: I think it was the makeup of the studio itself. It was an old theater, with high ceilings, so acoustically it was a different sound, almost like a live recording. We only had two tracks, so, while we had breakers separating bands and singers, the band played and the singer sang at the same time. It was live, and we had no arrangements — everything was head arrangements. I would hum a horn line, and the horns would come along and play it. We were flying by the seat of our pants, but we were creating great music. We had that mixture of country, gospel, and rockabilly. We had the ultimate drummer in Al Jackson — he could structure a song, rhythmically, on the drums. And of course Booker T, who was one of the first people I knew who could play many, many instruments. Isaac was a creative force. David was a good lyricist and writer. That, coupled with our sound being totally different, and our old theater building? You know, we had reverb, but we made it ourselves by hanging a mike behind the draperies! Everything we did was unorthodox, but creative.
But then, Memphis just has so much talent, and it’s been that way since before I was alive. In the generation before mine you had the BB Kings, and Bobby Blands. And before that you had WC Handy. So it was always a melting pot of talents, both black and white. In the neighborhood Stax was set up there was just a ton of kids with nothing to do. We were in the heart of the ghetto, and I think that, when Stax opened there was a floodgate of talent that came through. You needed an outlet for all of this talent.
eMusic: When did things begin to sour at Stax?
WB: From my vantage, it began to sour when we left Atlantic. We were floundering, looking for another distributorship, another pressing deal, going from place to place like orphans. And a lot of times the people that signed us on didn’t necessarily want to take on a label to distribute — and compete with them. They were labels themselves, and wanted to take us out of the competitive market, basically. Systematically. So we got into a financial crunch, and started borrowing money.
eMusic: What did the folks at Stax make of the white bands who tried, so hard, to sound like you? When I listen to CCR now, I just hear Booker T. & The MGs.
WB: We loved it, because they gave us a broader fanbase. Our record sales tripled after the Monterey festival. At first, we had very little play on white radio. And the white audience — well, we had a few kids, the hipper set, and they’d have to listen to our records when their parents weren’t home. Then all of the sudden, America discovered this wonderful, energetic, danceable music. It was an awakening outside of the black radio. So our fan base increased, and we started thinking more or less along the lines of what Motown would do — polishing it up with strings, to where it would a little more acceptable to a white mainstream.
See, we didn’t mind. Cream cut “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which we had done on Albert, and with their fan base, they were able to sell eight million, as opposed to Albert doing a couple of hundred thousand. It was good for us. The only thing was, sometimes people would think these bands were creating the song they were copying. But when we finally got big enough to have a PR department, and got the word out, everything was just fine.
eMusic: What do you think of the Stax Museum?
WB: After they tore the building down Rufus Thomas and Deanie Parker and I would have long talks about having to rebuild it. It was a grown-over lot, with beer bottles and stuff. We worked long and hard talking to business people, and trying to get people to invest. And seeing it now, built to the original specifications, is a dream — actually it’s even more space than we originally had. It’s a dream come true, to walk through the doors.