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Memphis Soul Legend Headlines Bluesfest

June 8th, 2017

written by Bill Dahl

It’s been quite a year for William Bell.

The legendary Memphis-born soul singer has been red-hot since the release of This is Where I Live, his highly satisfying album for the revitalized Stax label (now owned by Concord Music), last June. The CD won a Grammy for Best Americana Album and earned him three Blues Music Awards nominations, including two in the soul-blues category.

Bell and producer John Leventhal created an album that avoids pigeonholing into any one genre. “We were really stretching a little bit,” says Bell. “John being from the Americana agenda and me from soul and blues, we just put it all together, and my gospel background. So we just stuck it all in there.

“We’re getting some rave reviews over it. We’re just tickled to death.”

All that positive reaction has propelled Bell back onto the touring circuit with a vengeance. “We’ve just been going full tilt,” he says.

Bell headlines the Chicago Blues Festival this Saturday evening from 8:15 to 9:30 p.m. at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, and he’s bringing his entire troupe with him.

“This will be a full concert with me and the band. Got my whole band coming, so it’s good,” says Bell.  “We mix it all up and do the new ones and the old ones and mix it all together. So far, people are loving it.”

Bell made his debut on the Meteor label in 1956 as lead singer with the Del-Rios and polished his vocal delivery in Phineas Newborn’s orchestra before producer Chips Moman invited him to sign with the fledgling Stax label in 1960. Moman particularly dug William’s distinctive ballad “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which Bell penned while in New York with Newborn. “In a hotel room one night, it was raining,” he says. “I was homesick and wrote this song. Didn’t think that much of it at the time.”  

Fortunately, Moman did. The song was issued on Stax in 1961 as half of Bell’s debut single and cracked the pop hit parade. But an extended stint in the military interrupted William’s career momentum. By the time he was back in civilian togs in 1965, he had to kick it into high gear all over again. Bell teamed with Stax house keyboardist Booker T. Jones to write several hits for himself (1968’s intimate “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” was the biggest), as well as Albert King’s immortal 1967 hit “Born Under A Bad Sign.”

“We wrote the song overnight, came back the next day and got with the rhythm section and created the track,” says Bell. “Albert didn’t read, so I had to whisper the lines in his ear in between lines. But we got it down and he put his signature guitar on, and it came to life.”

Another of William and Booker T.’s soul-steeped creations, 1968’s uplifting  “Private Number,” was originally destined to be a solo vehicle for Bell but ended up a duet hit with Judy Clay. William had already laid his vocal on the backing track when Stax boss Jim Stewart asked him to get Clay involved. “We didn’t do it in the studio together,” says Bell. “They got together and put Judy on it, doing the harmony on the chorus and doing the second verse. They kept my first verse on there and the choruses and everything.”

William remained on Stax practically until the label’s mid-‘70s demise, but he didn’t put all of his eggs in one basket. He relocated his homebase to Atlanta in 1969 and launched his own Peachtree label to produce other artists. Bell’s only R&B chart-topper came in 1977 with “Tryin’ To Love Two,” which he wrote with Atlanta bandleader Paul Mitchell. “I wanted to have a different sound,” he says, “so I called up Allen Toussaint in New Orleans and asked him if I could use his studio, and to find me a rhythm section. He said, ‘Great! We’d love to have you.’” Out on Chicago’s Mercury Records, it outsold anything he’d done for Stax.

At age 77, this soul great is as busy as he’s ever been. He’s already brainstorming song ideas for a followup album. “At this stage of my career, to be viable in the industry, I’m just elated over it,” says William. “We’re looking forward to coming to Chicago and playing there for the people!”