Atlanta singer wins honor from National Endowment of the Arts

Atlanta resident William Bell, songwriter and soul singer, and one of the first artists signed to the Stax record label in the 1960s, has been named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment of the Arts. Courtesy of Ginette Callaway
Atlanta resident William Bell, songwriter and soul singer, and one of the first artists signed to the Stax record label in the 1960s, has been named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment of the Arts. Courtesy of Ginette Callaway

Credit: Ginette Callaway

Credit: Ginette Callaway

Soulful musician William Bell is known as a hitmaker for Stax Records.

When booking agents seek out Stax music legend William Bell for concerts or festivals, they are sometimes put off by the size of his ensemble.

They ask: Do you really have to bring a 12-piece band?

The answer is yes. If they want the William Bell sound, which is to say the Stax sound, then they want four horns; they want backup singers; they want the full panoply.

“If they want the authenticity, with the soul thing, well that’s what it was back in the day,” said Bell recently, from his southwest Atlanta home. “I stick pretty close to the way it was. That’s why the music has lasted.”

While many of the Stax originators are gone, William Bell is still here. And Stax music and the Memphis sound are still here, too.

An example: last month Memphis native Justin Timberlake brought his city’s sound to the inauguration of President Joe Biden, with the new song, “Better Days,” (by Timberlake and Ant Clemons), performed in a video shot at the Stax Studios in Memphis.

Now Bell, 81, is being honored as a creator of the soul that put Memphis in the pantheon of American music, and as a teacher who has kept that tradition alive.

William Bell wrote and sang some of the earliest hits for the Stax record label in Memphis, Tennessee. He's lived in Atlanta since 1974 but is still an exemplar of the Memphis sound. Courtesy of Tony Knuppel
William Bell wrote and sang some of the earliest hits for the Stax record label in Memphis, Tennessee. He's lived in Atlanta since 1974 but is still an exemplar of the Memphis sound. Courtesy of Tony Knuppel

Credit: Tony Knuppel

Credit: Tony Knuppel

Bell is one of nine artists and craftspeople who have been named as National Heritage Fellows, recipients of the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. The lifetime award comes with a $25,000 prize.

On Thursday, March 4, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) will webcast a virtual presentation ceremony, which will introduce the country to Bell and his colleagues.

Said the soul-singing octogenarian, “It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s an affirmation of all the things, all the hardships and triumphs you had in your career. You think, ‘Maybe I did something right and somebody was listening.’”

Bell knows people have been listening since 1961 when he recorded his first classic single for Stax, the soulful, country-ish lament “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” The song was later covered by fellow Stax artist Otis Redding, then by the Byrds, and then by many more.

Shortly thereafter Bell wrote “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Booker T. Jones, a song taken to national acclaim by blues guitarist Albert King in 1967, then to galactic fame by Eric Clapton and Cream in 1968.

A hallmark of the Stax sound was the live feel of the records. The limited technology of the time meant that much of the music was, indeed, recorded live to a four-track tape deck, which meant that every band member had to have his or her part perfected. “It disciplined you as a singer or musician,” said Bell. “If your horn squeaked or something, or you missed a note as a vocalist, then you had to start all over again.”

In 1974 Bell left Memphis and came to southwest Atlanta, where he lived around the corner from some members of the Goodie Mob and down the street from jazz pianist Freddy Cole.

“We had a good musical community,” he said. Though he is forever associated with Memphis, he calls himself Atlanta’s “adopted child.”

Bell’s art lives in the worlds of soul, blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll. But is it traditional, as described by the NEA?

If a traditional art reflects the unique qualities of a particular community and is handed down mostly from person to person, then Bell’s music qualifies, said NEA member Cliff Murphy. So does the music of his labelmates Pops Staples and Mavis Staples, who were named National Heritage Fellows in 1998 and 2006, respectively.

“It’s exciting to see soul music recognized in the National Heritage fellowships,” said Murphy, director of folk and traditional arts at NEA. As a new fellow, Bell joins dancers, singers, a beadworker and a canoe builder.

Wayne Valliere, birchbark canoe builder from Wisconsin, is among the exemplars of traditional arts who the National Endowment for the Arts will be honor March 4. Courtesy of Tim Frandy
Wayne Valliere, birchbark canoe builder from Wisconsin, is among the exemplars of traditional arts who the National Endowment for the Arts will be honor March 4. Courtesy of Tim Frandy

Credit: Tim Frandy

Credit: Tim Frandy

“These fellows are seen as people who are exemplary practitioners of these traditions and exemplary culture bearers,” said Murphy. “People like William who practice this tradition, also take it upon themselves to share and to mentor, to bring along other people into these traditions.”

Bell has mentored younger musicians by putting them to work in his band, and also by his ongoing work with the Stax Music Academy, a six-week program for high school kids that was founded in 2000.

Stax students learn the elements of harmony, songwriting and performance skills and how to work with a band. Jazz bandleaders such as Charles Lloyd and Phineas Newborn Jr. helped bring a young William Bell up, and Bell feels like he owes it to the next generation.

“That is close to my heart,” said Bell, who has performed with academy alumni at Disneyworld and in other venues. “We’ve had a lot of those students that come out of the academy that go on to be successful in the industry, and that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

“I love it when the younger generation plays my stuff.”

The other National Heritage Fellows this year are:

Georgians who have been honored as fellows in the past include the McIntosh County Shouters in 1993, potter Lanier Meaders in 1983, and Bessie Jones, of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, chosen a fellow in 1982.

EVENT PREVIEW

The Culture of America: A Cross-Country Visit with the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows

The 2020 National Heritage Fellows will be featured in a pre-recorded virtual presentation.

8 p.m. March 4. Free. Stream at arts.gov.

In Other News