Interview: William Bell

As the Americana world expands almost daily in terms of what its defining characteristics are, we are seeing musicians and artists from the likes of the blues and soul arenas crossing over more and more. William Bell, practically a household name in that world produced 2017’s Grammy-winning Americana Album Of The Year with his excellent ‘This is Where I Live.’  AUK’s Iain Patience catches up with the elderly soul statesman.  Veteran blues-soulman William Bell smiles when I suggest he’s been working the music business for half a century, before correcting me with a laugh.  “Sixty years now, in fact,” he says.

Bell, one of the earliest Stax musicians, signed to the label back in 1961 primarily as a songwriter and always had an ambition to make his mark as both writer and performer. An ambition he readily achieved and three-score years later, he continues to deliver top-notch material with scarcely a trace of effort.  Currently working on a new album, a much-anticipated follow up to 2017’s ‘This Is Where I Live‘ Bell is studio-bound though he still loves life out on the road.

I never tire of the travel, meeting the fans, working hard,’ he confirms. ‘Right now I’m working on a bunch of new songs, some for other artists, and some for a new release I’m working with.”

When Bell talks of writing for others, it’s near-impossible to overestimate his past power, a force that remains vital and dynamic. With credits that include co-authoring the massive blues standard ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ and ‘Private Number’ – recorded with Judy Clay in 1968 – this is a guy to take note of. He is particularly pleased to add, “when Carole King, a wonderful writer, records one of your songs, ‘Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday’ you know you’re doing something right.”

Born Under A Bad Sign’ is one of those songs that has a near-timeless feel to it, a track he originally wrote for Albert King after a chance studio meeting when King was recording an album but urgently needed some additional material.

I went off with T.Bone Walker (a co-author) to his place,” remembers Bell,  “and we worked through the night on it. I already had a bass-line, a verse and a bit more in mind, so it came together real quick. Albert loved it and then a few months later, Cream, with Eric Clapton, recorded it and it took on a life of its own. Jimi Hendrix ever did an instrumental take.”

Bell was initially a backing vocalist, a member of the Del Rios, when he was asked to work with Carla Thomas’s Gee Whizz. He became a great friend of the late soul legend, Rufus Thomas, and considers the entire Thomas clan to be ‘family.’

Music is central to my life. I used to go along to the Flamingo on Beale Street in Memphis. Rufus was originally a comedian and dance-man. He eventually had a go at a talent contest and his career took off,” he laughs. “I still miss him. We had some great times together.”

Like many of his generation and background, Bell started out in church.

I started singing in Baptist Church with the choir at about seven years old. By the time I was ten, I was singing solo. My mother was so proud.” When  asked about his own, personal heroes, he quickly singles out Sam Cooke, whom he eventually met with in Atlanta, Georgia, when his then manager fixed up a meeting while Bell was riding high in the US soul music charts with his debut hit, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water.’

But Bell is also renowned for his connections to another true soul music legend.

I was in the studio with Otis Redding when he was cutting ‘Dock of the Bay,” he says with evident delight. “When Otis passed many wrote and recorded tribute songs about him. I also wrote one, but it was meant to be a low-scale, private affair, a song I wrote purely for Otis’s widow, Thelma. I didn’t want to be seen as trying to cash-in or anything like that. We were great friends. But when I played it, ‘A Tribute to a King,’ to Thelma, she loved it and insisted I should record it. I ran it past the guys at Stax and they were the same. So I reluctantly agreed but recorded it with the sole proviso that it go out as a B-side.

Currently preparing to take to the road with the music documentary film, ‘Take Me to the River,’ where he plays a leading role, Bell is pleased to have picked up a Grammy.

It’s my first Grammy,” he laughs, “And it’s only taken me sixty years.”

This Is Where I Live is out now

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