One recent afternoon, when longtime Atlanta-based singer-songwriter-producer William Bell answered the door at his recording studio near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, a funky new version of “Born Under a Bad Sign” was ricocheting from the speakers.
The blues classic was written by Bell and his childhood friend and longtime musical cohort, Booker T. Jones, and recorded in 1967 by Albert King at the legendary Stax Records studio in Memphis.
Founded in an old movie theater and known as Soulsville USA, Stax was home to Bell and such fellow Southern soul masters as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MG’s and Carla Thomas, and produced such hits as “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” “Soul Man” and “Knock on Wood.”
In its heyday, the record company rivaled Motown in creating one of the two steady streams of black American music that flowed during the turbulent era of the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement. But it was also known for its integrated roster of musicians that included the likes of guitarist and “Dock of the Bay” co-writer Steve Cropper.
“Those were heavy times and the best of times,” said Bell, who was born in Memphis and served in the Army in Vietnam. “I look back on it now and think what a great time we had at Stax, because we were young, energetic and doing the stuff that we loved to do. When we walked out of the studio, the reality hit us in the face, with all the segregation and everything. But inside the studio it was like utopia.”
The enduring power of Stax was highlighted in “Take Me to the River” — an award-winning 2014 documentary that celebrated the musical and social influence of Memphis and brought together several generations of artists to record an album of songs that reimagined the sounds of the times.
For his part, Bell teamed up with Snoop Dogg, and the duo’s singing/rapping version of another Bell hit, “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” became the unofficial theme of the movie.
“We just had a great time filming and recording,” Bell said. “The camaraderie between the older artists and the younger generation was a joy, and the respect was there. After we got involved with that, it has just opened all kinds of doors for us. Concord Records picked up the soundtrack and they asked me if I would do a CD for them to follow up.”
Bell’s new album, due out early next year, is a collaboration with John Leventhal, a Grammy Award-winning producer and guitarist who has a long history of working with singer-songwriters, including his wife and musical partner, Rosanne Cash.
“I went up to his studio in New York City and we tried a song and it just clicked,” Bell said. “He’s such a great musician. Kind of like Booker, he plays five or six different instruments. The album is all new songs, with the exception of ‘Bad Sign,’ and I did a cover of a Jesse Winchester song called ‘All of Your Stories,’ just acoustically with John and me.”
Along with the new album, which will mark his first major-label release in 30 years, Bell has been busy touring, including a stop to sing in front of President Barack Obama for PBS’ “In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul.”
Bell, who also is an actor and graduate of Atlanta’s Theatre Academy of Dramatic Arts, recently filmed a part for the upcoming Cinemax TV series “Quarry,” set to debut in early 2016. “I was asked to play a ’70s blues singer,” Bell said. “I said that wasn’t a big stretch. I could do that.”
Back home for a bit, he will play the Earl in East Atlanta Dec. 12, with his 10-piece Total Package Band. “They have horns, back-up singers, the total package, like a back-in-the-day soul band,” Bell said. “We will do all my hits from Stax and a few from some of the other Stax artists, like Sam and Dave.”
At 76, Bell is healthy, still in excellent voice, and said he has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. That’s reflected in a song from the new album called “This Is Where I Live,” which recalls the span of his life in music, going back to the earliest days at Stax and the first song he wrote and recorded there, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” later covered by Redding and the Byrds, among others.
“We came out with great music,” Bell said. “I didn’t know it would have the longevity. I sure didn’t know it was going to last almost 60 years. It was about the times and the music and people really identified with it. I guess between the ’60s and the ’70s, and between us and Motown, we kept the world dancing.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.