As stars like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Sam & Dave dominated the charts during Stax Records’ reign during the 1960s, William Bell quietly churned out some of the most iconic songs in the Southern soul cannon. His elegant ballads and forlorn love songs stood in stark contrast to Stax’s signature gritty soul, simultaneously pushing him into the background while also heightening his unique and vital contributions within the label.
Born in Memphis in 1939, William Bell grew up infatuated with the ballad singers of the era: “I was a weird kid. Of course, Sam Cooke was my hero, but I also liked Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Even as a young kid I was listening to more love ballads and the romantic type of music,” Bell said. He was also influenced deeply by church music, which is where he first began singing at a very young age. By the time he was fourteen, Bell had moved on to singing secular music and was soon working with Rufus Thomas and Phineas Newborn, Sr. on the weekends. “I had the opportunity to be coached and schooled by some of the best from the time I was about 14, and I soaked all that in like a sponge,” he told the Chicago Tribune.
I was born in Memphis in a different world”
In 1957, Bell formed the Del Rios, a doo-wop singing group that gained regional popularity around Memphis and on college campuses. The Del Rios soon found itself in a friendly competition with the Veltones, another group that included future Stax label-mates Isaac Hayes and David Porter. “We all knew each other. We were good friends. I knew David from many years. Isaac went to a different school, but I knew him. We all sang with the Teen Tones at one time or another,” Bell said. In addition to their own recordings, the group also backed Memphis luminaries like Phineas Newborn, Ben Branch, and Willie Mitchell. In 1960, the group provided backup vocals on Carla Thomas’ hit record “Gee Whiz,” which resulted in Bell being introduced to legendary producer Chips Moman. Moman tried to persuade Bell to pursue a solo career, but Bell, who was both wary of the music industry and studying to become a doctor, declined.
In 1961 while on tour with Phineas Newborn in New York City, Bell began feeling a deep sense of melancholy. “That summer I was up there I guess I was homesick, so I wrote “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and a couple of other tunes, and, when I got back, before I could call [Moman], he called me,” Bell recalled. Moman invited William Bell to come to the fledgling Stax Records, which Bell knew from his session with Carla Thomas and from hanging around the Satellite Record shop as a kid. Both the Del Rios and Bell signed a contract with Stax and he got to work immediately on recording the tracks “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Formula of Love.”
Released in the fall of 1961, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is a beautiful, sorrowful ballad that soon reached the Billboard Hot 100 and became an even bigger hit locally. It is now considered one of the finest examples of early soul music and has been covered by Otis Redding, The Byrds, and Taj Mahal. Bell left college to tour behind the single, landing a one-week stint at the Apollo and another six months of gigs elsewhere. With the imminent tour and his song climbing the charts, it seemed that Bell was well positioned to become Stax’s leading man. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam had other plans. When Bell was about half way through his engagement at the Apollo, his mother called and told him that he had received a draft notice for Vietnam. Within the week, Bell was stationed in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and his burgeoning career was put on hold.
There is not really such thing as an overnight success.”
When Bell returned from the Army, he entered a scene that must have felt completely alien. Stax Records was now a hit-making powerhouse and artists like Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas were tearing up the charts, while Bell had moved to the bottom of the totem pole. Despite the setbacks, Bell was determined to get back to work and in 1967 he released his magnificent debut album The Soul of a Bell, which featured the Top 20 single “Everybody Loves a Winner.” Bell also renegotiated his contract to allow him to have a larger role as a song-writer, which would prove to be a wise choice for both Bell and Stax. Along with writing partner Booker T. Jones, Bell engaged in the most prolific songwriting period of his life.
For the next couple of years, Bell and Jones penned some of soul music’s most enduring and beloved hits, including “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday,” “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” and the blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which they wrote for Albert King.
We were in the studio after a session, and Albert was looking for a song. I had this one idea, a bass line and the first verse and the chorus, that I had in mind for Rufus. But I sang it for Albert and he just said ‘wow!’ I went over to Booker’s house that night, and we put the structure to it.
The next day, I had to stand behind the mic and whisper the lines to Albert as he sang during the recording, because Albert didn’t read and he was just learning the song,” Bell said. The song became a massive hit for King and was subsequently covered by countless artists, including Cream and Jimi Hendrix.
The same year, Otis Redding and many members of the Bar-Kays were tragically killed in a plane crash, an event that was devastating for Bell. In 1968, Bell released the stirring “A Tribute to a King,” an ode to his departed friend that was released with the blessing of Redding’s widow Zelma. “I didn’t want anybody to think that I wanted to capitalize on his untimely death, because we were too close and I was close to the whole family, and still am. But she insisted,” he said. The song was a hit and helped to provide comfort to a grieving nation.
Later that year, Bell teamed up with singer Judy Clay on the irresistible single “Private Number,” which became a major hit that prompted Stax to invest in many more duets.
We were competing directly with Motown. Marvin and Tammi had major hits, and Judy and I had ‘Private Number,’ so they kinda took Stax artists and threw it all out to see what would work,” he explains.
Bell followed up the success of “Private Number” with the song “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” a beautiful lover’s lament that perfectly showcases Bell’s smooth and impassioned voice. “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” quickly became Bell’s biggest hit and has since been covered by everyone from Billy Idol to Ludacris.
As the decade came to an end, things began to fall apart at Stax. Bell’s long-time partner Booker T. Jones had left for California and the family atmosphere that had made the label so special was beginning to deteriorate. “It was just devastating,” Bell said. Recognizing the writing on the wall, Bell relocated to Atlanta and began his own production company and record label. In 1977, Bell released the biggest hit of his career with the R&B Chart topper “Tryin’ to Love Two.”
After a number of years outside of the limelight, William Bell surprised everyone with the release of 2016’s This Is Where I Live, an album of vintage soul that many critics have hailed as the finest work of his career. Produced by John Leventhal, This Is Where I Live was released on the revamped Stax label nearly 50 years after his first recordings with the imprint.
We created a new genre, and it’s a responsibility to uphold that and also try to bring it forward a little bit,” Bell told The New York Times.
“As kids, we never thought that Stax would stop going, and then when it folded, it was devastating to us. So to have it come back, I don’t take it lightly.” As the introspective title track of This Is Where I Live comes to an end, the 77 year old William Bell sings “I’ve been around the world, now I’m heading home…man, it’s good to be home again.” We couldn’t agree more.