Soul music legend William Bell rides his career resurgence with new album

Soul legend William Bell is featured in two “Take Me To The River” documentaries, one focused on Memphis music and the other on New Orleans.

Credit: Ginette Callaway

Credit: Ginette Callaway

Soul legend William Bell is featured in two “Take Me To The River” documentaries, one focused on Memphis music and the other on New Orleans.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

It’s common enough for a classic era singer or band to enjoy a career resurgence after years away from the spotlight. But it is most uncommon for that resurgence to happen when the singer is in their 70s and 80s. Which is exactly what has happened for William Bell, the Stax Records icon who scored his first hit more than 60 years ago.

Soul legend William Bell was born in Memphis and scored one of Stax Records' first hits. He moved to Atlanta in 1969. (Photos by Ginette Calloway)

Credit: David McClister

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Credit: David McClister

“I’m a late bloomer,” Bell jokes, speaking by phone from his Wilbe Recording Studio in College Park. “I feel blessed. I tell everybody all the time, ‘I can still scratch my own itch.’ I’ve got a fan base that’s been good to me. That is the fuel that keeps you going and keeps you getting up in the morning.”

Bell, 83, scored his first Grammy Award for Best Americana Album in 2017 with his comeback album “This Is Where I Live.” He has just released a follow-up album, “One Day Closer To Home,” which kicks off with a scorching old school soul song called “I Still Go To Parties.”

“I call that my ‘old folks’ song,” Bell says with a laugh. “I still go to parties; I just don’t dance as much and I don’t stay as long.”

The one-two punch of those albums may represent the strongest work of Bell’s storied career. The new album is already inspiring critical acclaim. Consider this from No Depression magazine: “The review of this album could be very short: William Bell is a master of soul music who can tear out your heart with one vocal phrase and soothe and comfort with the next, and ‘One Day Closer To Home’ reveals a master at work.”

Bell was born in Memphis in 1939, and began singing as a child in church. By the time he was 14, he was performing in clubs and soon joined the blues band helmed by Phineas Newborn Sr. that included future jazz and R&B legends Phineas Newborn Jr. (piano), and saxophonists Charles Lloyd and Hank Crawford.

“All those guys were in their twenties and I was a kid,” says Bell. “They were hard on me, but they taught me a lot. I saw a lot of great jazz players in old man Phineas’ band who fell by the wayside because of substances and stuff. I saw some of the pitfalls. I had people around me who cared enough to make sure I didn’t fall into those traps.”

Soul legend William Bell is featured in two “Take Me To The River” documentaries, one focused on Memphis music and the other on New Orleans.

Credit: Ginette Callaway

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Credit: Ginette Callaway

Bell was one of the first artists signed to the Memphis label Stax Records and his debut single, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” in 1961, became a soul classic. He never reached the heights of other Stax artists — namely Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and The Staple Singers — but he was one of the label’s foundational figures as a vocalist and songwriter and guiding light.

Bell co-wrote “Born Under A Bad Sign,” the signature tune of blues guitarist Albert King and one of the greatest blues songs in history. There is irony in the lines, “I can’t read, didn’t learn how to write” because King could neither read nor write. In the studio for the recording, Bell stood behind King as he sang the vocals and whispered each lyric to him. “He just nailed it,” says Bell. “And it came to life when he put his guitar on it. I was going, ‘Wow!’ It became Albert’s song instead of mine.”

Bell’s songs have also been recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Warren Haynes, Bruce Springsteen and The Byrds. And his music has been sampled in recent years by Ludacris, Jaheim and Kanye West.

Bell moved to Atlanta in 1969 and continued to record, including the No. 1 R&B single “Tryin’ To Love Two” in 1976. He remained a popular stage performer, particularly in Europe, and founded his own label, Wilbe Records. In 2014, he was featured in the documentary film “Take Me To The River,” which included a recording session with Bell and Snoop Dogg. That film was dedicated to the music of Memphis, followed by a second one focused on New Orleans that also featured Bell. A third installment is in the works.

In 2015, Bell’s manager introduced him to John Leventhal, the New York City producer and musician whose credits include Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell, Susan Tedeschi and the Blind Boys of Alabama. He is the husband of Rosanne Cash.

Leventhal, who performed songs by Bell and other Stax artists in his teenage bands, was eager to work with the soul legend. He flew to Atlanta to meet Bell, then Bell flew to New York for writing and recording sessions. “It was wonderful to work with him,” says Bell. “His studio is in the basement of his home. It was not unlike what we did at Stax, there was no time limit. If we did something one day and we didn’t like it, we’d just cut it again. John and I became really good friends.”

Soul legend William Bell is featured in two “Take Me To The River” documentaries, one focused on Memphis music and the other on New Orleans.

Credit: Ginette Callaway

icon to expand image

Credit: Ginette Callaway

Cash even contributed a song to the album, “Walking The Tightrope,” which she wrote specifically for Bell. And Bell recorded a new version of “Born Under A Bad Sign.”

“This Is Where I Live” was a hit and garnered two Grammy nominations for Bell: Best Americana Album and Best Traditional R&B Performance for the single “The Three Of Me.” He didn’t expect to win and when his name was called as the recipient for Best Americana Album, Bell was so stunned that his manager, Charles Driebe, had to prompt him to get out of his chair. “It’s you!” Driebe exclaimed. “Go get your Grammy!”

For all his career accolades, it was Bell’s first Grammy. “When you’re creating, sometimes you don’t even know if you’re making a dent,” says Bell. “It was an affirmation that you’re doing something right in your career. It’s your peers and the industry that votes for you. I was just overjoyed.”

The songs for “One Day Closer To Home” began to take shape during the pandemic. Bell and his band couldn’t tour, so he began crafting songs and recording them. “It took about a year and a half to come up with the right combination of songs,” Bell says. “I took my time because I really wanted to have something to say about the times.”

He describes himself as a people watcher and observational writer, and puts an emotional charge into his music. “In traveling around from country to country, it’s a good education,” he says. “No matter where you go, people are people with the same wishes, frustrations and desires. I’ve been in places like Finland where they don’t speak a lot of English. But they feel the music and they feel the expressive way that you’re singing the lyric.”

Bell says he is in good health and once he gets a series of dental surgeries out of the way, he hopes to get back on the road. “I miss my audience,” he says. “I was telling someone the other day that as long as I can stand up for an hour and a half, I’ll keep working. That’s what keeps me grounded.”

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Scott Freeman is executive editor of ArtsATL. He is the author of four books, including the best-selling Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band (which is in development for a feature film) and Otis! The Otis Redding Story. He has worked as an editor at Atlanta magazine and Creative Loafing. He was a reporter for The Macon Telegraph and News, as well as The Providence Journal.


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