Coming Back For More:
It’s Happening All Over For William Bell
Though he’s never stopped working, by any measure William Bell’s public profile has been surging upward in the past dozen or so years. Certainly the revival of interest in classic soul music has lent his career new momentum, but there’s also a concerted effort on the part of Bell and his manager, Atlanta’s Charles Driebe, to get back out there, as it were – to shift out of idle and take the wheel.
These days, as the singer himself succinctly puts it, “I’m all over the place.” Born William Yarbrough in Memphis in 1939 (he adopted his stage surname in honor of Belle, his grandmother), in recent years William Bell excelled during a rousing Stax Records 50th anniversary concert in 2007; played a star-studded salute to Curtis Mayfield at Lincoln Center in 2012; participated in a gala Memphis music tribute at the White House in 2013; took his 1968 hit “Private Number” to new heights with Joss Stone on Jools Holland’s BBC TV show on New Year’s Eve; bonded with Snoop Dogg in last year’s cross-generational documentary on Memphis music, Take Me to the River; will perform “Born Under a Bad Sign” on the pilot episode of Cinemax’s new noir drama series Quarry (based on the series of novels by Max Allan Collins), premiering in February; and has recorded a brand new, high profile album, This is Where I Live, due out June 3rd, 2016 via the current incarnation of Stax Records, the highly influential Memphis-based soul label that Bell called home for most of the early portion of his career. It’s will be his first album on Stax in 42 years.
Where Bell lives, on the rare days that he’s home, is Atlanta. He’s called the city his full-time base since the early ’70s, yet he estimates that his last major show in Atlanta was in 1988 at the Civic Center for a Stax reunion tour also featuring Isaac Hayes, Johnny Taylor, Rufus & Carla Thomas and Sam & Dave, whose Dave Prater died six days later in an automobile accident. Oh, there’ve been little one-off mini-performances, like when he was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1997, but nothing that felt like a real show. That’s one reason to not miss, under any circumstances, Bell’s upcoming intimate, full-band performance headlining Stomp and Stammer’s 19th birthday shindig at the EARL on Saturday, December 12th. Another reason is: he’s still got it.
Being a fan, and knowing he lived in the area, I’d been considering asking Bell to play a show for several years. Last year I met him at the Atlanta screening of Take Me to the River, where we briefly discussed setting it up. Then in July I saw him perform a mere two songs at the Macon Film Festival after-party for Take Me to the River, and that was all it took. He blew me away, and I knew right then and there that we had to make this happen. I repeat, for emphasis: he’s still got it.
In early November, I sat down with William for an amazing conversation that lasted well over two hours. What follows is a mere fraction. It seemed logical to begin at the beginning…
Like so many of the early soul and rhythm & blues singers, you grew up going to church, surrounded by gospel music, and you had some gospel singers in your family.
“Yes, myself included! You know, early on, the church was kind of like the focal point in the black neighborhood. Every Sunday morning, you had to be in church. So, my mom sang gospel in the choir, and I started at about seven singing in the choir. And then about eight or nine, I branched out into singing solo with the choir behind me!”
Breaking out as a star already!
“Yeah! Until I was about 14, and I got the itch for secular music, and started doing what the doo-woppers and all those people were doing.”
I know what happened – you hit adolescence and your hormones started pumping, and you wanted to get the girls’ attention.
“That’s right! Ha ha ha! Well, the singers got the girls, you know! We didn’t make any money, but we got the girls! But early on, a friend of mine entered me into a talent contest, the Mid-South Talent Contest, between Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. And I won first place. And I hadn’t planned on doing it, but it was a dare from some good friends of mine. So my reward was $500 and a trip to Chicago to sing at the old Club DeLisa with a big band. The Red Saunders Band.”
Do you remember what songs you sang?
“Oh, old Hank Ballard songs, and… I did about five songs. I also had a kind of adult attitude, because as a kid, I was around adults all the time. For ten years, I was an only child, until my mom remarried. So, I did the show, and did so well that [Red] called back to Memphis, where I was living at home, and told Phineas Newborn, another big artist – he and Red were friends – he said ‘There’s a kid that came up here from your town – you should listen to him!’ [Phineas] asked me, ‘My kid’s in my band, would you like to sing in the band?’ So my mom of course, being religious, [said] ‘No!! You’re not gonna sing devil music!’ Ha ha ha! ‘No way!’”
If she only knew how innocent that music sounds compared to today.
“Yeah. But he finally convinced her, and told her he’d look after me just like he would look after his own kids. And he did. But I started singing on the weekends, on Saturdays, and sometimes on Friday nights. I’d have to stay backstage, and they’d bring me a Coke, and the band played 30 minutes, and I’d come on and sing fifteen. But it was all pretty much jazz and standard things that I started out doing. ‘Cause he had a big band, kind of like a Count Basie, 14-piece orchestra. And all the jazz musicians including Charles Lloyd and Hank Crawford came out of that band. He had Phineas Jr. on keyboards, his own son. So I just cut my eye teeth with great musicians! I lucked out, in other words. So that’s how I really got started.”
So were you like a big shot at your high school?
“Well, I would sing and raise money for the band uniforms and the football uniforms, at the sock hops and stuff. The popularity was there, but I didn’t really care that much for it in the end, because I didn’t think I was gonna make a career out of it. My mom wanted me to go to school and become a doctor. All my studies were chemistry and all this stuff, and I wound up being a blues singer. Ha ha ha!”
Speaking of high school, didn’t you go to school either with – or they went to the same school – Booker T…
“Yeah. Booker T, Al Jackson Jr., yeah, we all went to the same high school. David Porter. And actually lived in the same surrounding neighborhood. David and Maurice White [from Earth, Wind & Fire] and I lived on the same block. We were neighbors, and the [adults] would run us in at night – we’d be under the streetlights, singin’, and Maurice beatin’ on garbage can tops with his sticks…”
So they were all starting to do music the same time you were.
“Yeah. It was just crazy. But it was a good crazy. I went on and cut my first record at 14 [for] Meteor Records. I had written this song ‘Alone on a Rainy Night.’ And I had formed a vocal group called the Del-Rios, and Rufus Thomas’ band Bear Cat backed us up, and we cut it on a little two-track machine.”
I bet an original copy of that is worth some change.
“Oh yeah, quite a bit. But that was the only thing that we cut until I came to Stax. And I came to Stax when, well, I was sixteen and a half. I turned 17 while I was there.”
It wasn’t even Stax though, at that point.
“It was Satellite Records. And they cut a song of Carla Thomas’, and they wanted somebody to do some backup with her, and… I had studied some piano with Phineas Jr., and some of the guys in the band, after rehearsals and stuff, so I knew enough chord progressions and everything. So me and the Del-Rios sang backup behind ‘Gee Whiz’ with Carla Thomas.”
Carla is Rufus’ daughter – did she go to high school with you, also?
“No, she went to Hamilton, which was across on the other side of town… I knew Carla, we all sang in the teen talent [shows] – me, Isaac Hayes, Carla, and David… hey, we were all kids around the neighborhood, and I knew Carla and her brother Marvell – he played piano on my first session, with ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water.’ And Chips Moman produced it, so all of us, we all knew each other.”
What an astonishing group of talented kids, though, coming up around the same time, same area. And Stax, of course, came up at the perfect time to capture and chronicle it all. Your first single for them, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” is your signature song to this day.
“There were no Southern soul records out, as far as the ballads, then. And to me, it was just a natural thing to do it like a church thing. I was enrolling in school, and they put it out in I think November or something like that, of ’61. Nothing happened. (laughs). Well, they played it in Memphis, and they were playing it in a couple other [places], but nothing much because it was late, during the Christmas stuff, and nothing that much happened. And I just said, ‘Well, I’m just going on back to school and get my degree and everything.’ So come January, we get a call from New Orleans, and it’s the number one record in New Orleans. Then we get a call from Baton Rouge, and a couple other places, Mississippi, so it’s spreading. And they were like, ‘You gotta come and do a concert!’ And I’m going, ‘Oops…that’s gonna cut into my college studies…’ Ha ha ha!.”
So once again, you disappointed your mom!
“I did. But the money was good. For a kid, you know, we weren’t dirt poor, but we weren’t rich either. So I said, okay, I can make enough money with gigs now to pay for my own college education and everything. By I think March of  we had a full-fledged record. And so (laughs), okay, instead of going to school this year, what I’ll do is go and do some concert dates! Actually we did a Henry Wynn tour, Henry Wynn out of Atlanta with Supersonic Attractions [booking agency], got on one of his tours, and we played I don’t know how many theaters and concert dates and auditoriums. All on a bus. Six artists and a band on a bus, touring.”
Everyone knows “You Don’t Miss Your Water” now, and it’s been covered by so many people, but you look back, and while it did pretty well on the R&B charts, on the pop chart it was only 90-something. Today, it seems like, how was that a hit? But it was.
“Back then, you know, black records just didn’t make the pop charts. Unless it was just totally a ‘pop’ something, like Louis Jordan or somebody like that, or unless you were a Little Richard or something. A ballad? No. But it set a standard for Southern soul ballads. But we weren’t really the ones that started it. Sam Cooke was really the one that started it with ‘You Send Me.’ But I guess from Stax I was the first to do it.”
What, from your perspective, distinguishes Southern soul from other varieties?
“It’s a feeling, an emotional feeling that you’re getting while you’re recording or while you’re singing the song. Basically, no soul singer will sing the same song exactly the same way twice. Because if you do, you’re not singing what you’re really feeling. Whatever it dictates at that given moment. And it’s a combination of the musicians we use, the influences that we had had during that time, which were mainly from blues to cotton field gospel, rockabilly (which was country and western), and then jazz, out of New Orleans and Memphis. We had all that on one radio [station]. For two hours they would play gospel in the morning, then they would skip to something else, then late at night they’d play jazz, so all of those influences we got a chance to hear as kids. And so when we started creating, that was just the natural transition.”
So many different people have covered that song and others of yours – maybe those qualities are part of what makes it more adaptable to different versions in different styles of music.
“Yeah. And when you hear the next CD, it’s totally different from what I do. It’s William Bell, but it’s almost Americana. You’ll hear some stuff on there that will surprise you. But it’s soulful, because it’s got to be!”
Then you got drafted into the Army and were out of the music picture for a couple of years.
“Yeah, I got drafted, because I dropped out of school, and see, they thought I was going to college, ha ha ha! I was on tour, I had been on the road for about a month, workin’ the theater circuit. And we were at the Apollo and came offstage, and the backstage manager said, ‘You got a phone call.’ ‘Who is it? Take a message.’ ‘No, it’s your mom.’ And I’m thinking something is wrong, you know. So I come to the phone, and she says, ‘Oh, I finally caught up with you! You got some letters here – you got a letter here from the government.’ And I said, ‘Well, what does it say?’ ‘I didn’t open it.’ I said, ‘When did I get it?’ ‘Well, you got it a couple weeks ago.’ And I told her to open it and read it to me, she read it to me, and it said, ‘Greetings…’ of course. ‘We saw that you didn’t actually enroll, so…’ Ha ha ha! ‘You’re over 18 now, so welcome…’” In those days you worked a whole week at the Apollo. And I had two more days at the Apollo, and then a couple days off, while the band travels and so and so. My thought process was, I’m gonna fly down, and I’ll go down and get a deferment (laughs). So I’m already two weeks late on checking in, right? So I go pick up my car, go down, park and walk in, and asked the desk sergeant, ‘I’d like to talk to somebody about a deferment. I’m so and so and so…’ He goes, ‘Hold on a minute.’ So he pulls some papers out, and he said, ‘You were supposed to be here two or three weeks ago, weren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I was on tour.’ I thought, –innocently, really – I thought, I can talk to these people and tell ‘em my situation (laughs). He said, ‘Yeah…um… step back here in the next room here.’ So I step in the next room, and he had three or four guys sittin’ around in there, and I don’t know what they’re waiting on. Then another sergeant comes in and says, ‘Raise your right hand.’ ‘…Okay…’ ‘And repeat after me…’ And I’m going, ‘Okay, but I’d like to talk to you, sir…’ ‘Repeat after me…’ And I did that, and he said, ‘Alright, just wait here a minute, and we’ll have somebody to take you.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute! I need to talk to somebody about getting a deferment!’ He said (laughs), ‘Your deferment is, you in the Army now.’
“They put us on a bus, took us out to the veterans hospital, gave us our shots, put us on a Greyhound-type bus, and the next morning we were in Fort Polk, Louisiana, ha ha ha! I was signed with Universal Attractions in New York City, I had to call them and say, ‘Look, these people have drafted me into the military, and I can’t…’ I had missed a gig [already]. I said, ‘I didn’t get a chance to make a phone call to you, but I’m calling now and telling you you’re gonna have to cancel me out.’ I said, ‘Call anybody else that you know, call the record label, tell ‘em I’m down in Fort Polk.’ And that was it. So I spent three months doing infantry training, another three months with AIT, and oddly enough I became ‘soldier of the cycle.’ It’s like the top soldier for that cycle [of recruits]. I didn’t try! My uncle, when I had a chance to call home, I talked to my uncle about everything, and he said, ‘Well, don’t volunteer for anything – just do what you’re told, and you’ll get through it.’ Already, I got blisters, I mean, big water blisters on my hand. Because I’m a musician, singer! (laughs) And Fort Polk was just reopening, and we were digging ditches at four o’clock in the morning. By the time we got through, it was just dark, and I’m hot, sweaty. I had a friend, a staff sergeant, who took pity on me. Gave me some brine and something else to put on my blisters. I’d wake up, I’d put stuff on ‘em at night, and you could only sleep a couple hours before you’re back up at 2 or 3 o’clock ‘cause you’re runnin’ and trainin’, and he said, ‘Look, soak your hands in these…’ But we were diggin’ ditches, it was like being on a chain gang. And layin’ water pipes for the water line and all that.
“But I didn’t complain, and they gave me a few tests and I passed with flying colors. They wanted to make me an Assistant Squad Leader, which handles the squad that you’re in. I didn’t want that. So they were like, ‘Okay, you don’t want that – we’ll put you in the trenches with everybody else.’ Now, they knew I had been an entertainer, so they were trying to be lenient with me! (laughs) But I didn’t take it, so I’m out there digging ditches. They’d bring me back in from time to time and ask me, ‘Did you change your mind?’ ‘No, no, I’ll stay where I am, I don’t want any responsibility.’ After a while, out in the hot sun, diggin’ ditches, and there were googobs of all kinds, snakes down there and everything, in Louisiana, it was swampy. Fort Hopeless. It was a cesspool down there. So I went and asked him, ‘What does a squad leader have to do?’ ‘Well, you’re in charge of the squad, and you have to make sure they dig this right, and you’re an intelligent guy, you scored high on your test, you’ll make a good assistant squad leader.’ And the actual squad leader, he said to me, ‘You need to take it.’ (laughs) ‘Cause I mean, I was in bad shape! My hands were all taped up. And, um, I said, ‘Alright, I’ll do it.’ So, I did that for a while, but I still worked along with my squad. And at the end of that three months, we had a showcase for the general and the inspector general and all that. They knew that I had been an entertainer, so they said, ‘We saw you leading your company the other day from the rifle range when you were singin’ ‘The Banana Boat Song.’’ I had taught the different squads harmonies to ‘The Banana Boat Song.’ And I was singing the ‘Daaaayyy-oh’ part, the Harry Belafonte part. ‘Cause it made it better marching five miles from the rifle range. And the general passed by, and they took note of it. ‘We want you to teach the whole battalion that.’ ‘What?’ So I had to teach each company the harmony parts! But I did it before the inspector parade and they made me soldier of the cycle. For the leadership. I wasn’t buckin’ for it! Ha ha ha! And after six months, I was transferred to Hawaii.”
Well, that doesn’t suck. Better than a Louisiana swamp, right?
“Well, I was there for a little bit, but of course, most of my outfit, we trained in the jungle. And I lucked out, because I was there a short time, and most of my outfit went to Vietnam.”
You never saw any sort of combat, then.
“Not combat, but we did what they call, uh, relay flights to drop supplies and everything to the soldiers. And, you know, you had to hang out of the thing, with the machine guns and everything, crossing the delta area. Because it was full-fledged war. Yeah, we went through all of the helicopter training, and training with the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, we trained with all of ‘em. I was stationed in Hawaii and since I only had about four months left, they said, ‘You’re a short-timer, so what we’d like for you to do is work with [the chorus]. So I was Assistant Choral Director for the chorus. I taught them some shows and stuff to put on there, and entertain the officers and generals and things when they came to have meetings. That’s what I did for the short time I had left.”
So you were still in the entertainment business, then, in a way.
“The last four months, yeah (laughs).”
A lot changed in the music world between the time you went into the Army and the time you got out. And your career had been stalled for two years.
“I had met Otis [Redding] when I came home on furlough, and I went by the studio where they cut four or five singles on me, so they’d have something to release while I was in the service. And while I was at the studio, Johnny Jenkins came in with Otis, and Otis and I met and became friends, and kinda hit it off. And then I went overseas. So when I got back, Otis was popular, Rufus was big with ‘Walkin’ the Dog,’ and so I was like, doing catch-up. Because I had been over listening to surfing music and all that stuff for the last year and a half in Hawaii! I didn’t really know what my niche was, as far as the Americanized sound, you know. And they had David [Porter] and Isaac [Hayes] and a couple of the other writers write some stuff for me, and it just didn’t fit. Steve Cropper and I wrote some stuff together, and cut some stuff that didn’t happen. So I asked [founder] Jim [Stewart], I said, ‘Do me a favor – let’s don’t cut anything else. Obviously you have some great writers here, but their material is not fitting me. So let me sit here and glue my ears to the radio, and find out what’s going on musically, and let me start back to writing.’ And for two months, that’s all I did. And my first song after coming back, I wrote ‘Everybody Loves a Winner.’ And, it hit. And I was back out there again.”
You had a nice little string of hits there in the second half of the ’60s.
“I wrote ‘Bad Sign’ for Albert, and ‘I Got a Sure Thing’ for Ollie & the Nightingales [both co-written with Booker T. Jones]. I wrote a couple other things for a couple other folks – I was writing for other artists, also. Because I was on the road, and there was nothing to do on those long hauls, so I’d sit there, and write songs. And when they had the little tape recorders that were like in the briefcases, I bought one of those the minute they came out! And they had a little remote mic, reel-to-reel. And I bought a little melodica, and I would sit there, in the back – I always tried to get the back seat of the bus, ’cause everybody else, either they were gamblin’ or doin’ something on the bus. And I’d get back in the quiet spot, and I’d sit back there on my little melodica and write songs. And when the cassette players came out, I’d have a little tape recorder with me. And that was my thing. My briefcase with my stuff in it, and that’s what I did while I was traveling.”
Do you happen to remember the first time you played Atlanta?
“Yeah, it was at the [Municipal] Auditorium and I think it was Jackie Wilson, and Major Lance, and the Impressions, I believe. And I played Atlanta again at [Atlanta] Stadium with Bill Cosby and Isaac Hayes. And then I played the Royal Peacock two or three times, because that was Henry [Wynn]’s club, really. I played there with Dionne Warwick – they’d always pair me up with some female artist at that time who had a hit record. I had put together my own five-piece mini-band then, complete with Hammond organ, Leslie speakers and we had to haul all that around the country! (laughs) But it was cool! I paid my dues.”
That must’ve been fun hauling all that up those stairs at the Peacock.
“Oh yeah! I used to talk to Henry, I said, ‘Why don’t you just buy an organ and put it up there in the Peacock?!’ We were a tight little group. I have fond memories of the Peacock. It was the place to be back in the day. [Auburn] Avenue was jumping back then. Oh yeah, all the artists, you’d come down on the avenue and they had Henry’s Grill, where you ate, and right there at the corner of Piedmont and Auburn, he had a hotel there, I think it was maybe 20 or 25 units, and the liquor store was right across the street, and then you had B.B. Beaman’s down the street, so everything was right there. You’d get off the bus, they’d drop you off at a hotel or something, and you didn’t have to go a lot of places to get something. And everybody played the Peacock. Sam Cooke, Chuck Jackson, you name it – the artists that went through the Peacock… that should be a national monument! That was THE place back in the day.”
Did you move to Atlanta in the late ‘60s or were you splitting your time between Memphis and Atlanta at that point?
“I lived in an efficiency apartment off of Peachtree Street there for a long time, like a hotel apartment thing, and I just leased it, and I wouldn’t stay there all the time because I was on the road. When I was in town, though, I was spending so much money and everything, and I figured this would save me money. And I realized I might as well buy a home. Because in one year’s time, I had spent I don’t know how many dollars in that lease, ‘cause I leased the furnishings and everything. I bought a home in southwest Atlanta, and I still had a home in Memphis, so I left one car here and one in Memphis, and I’d fly in and out. And then my mom passed, and then Stax got in trouble in ’74, and I just needed a change of venue and scenery. And Booker moved to California, L.A.. ‘Come out here, man – I love it out here!’ I went out there and stayed with Booker for three weeks, And I just didn’t like the lifestyle of L.A. It’s too alien. I’m a Southern boy! It was too alien for me and too pretentious. So I just told Booker, ‘Nah’ and I moved to Atlanta. And Stax went under, bankruptcy and all that stuff. I knew the writing was on the wall when I left Stax, and we left amicably, and Jim said ‘Good luck,’ and [co-owner] Al [Bell] said the same thing. We’re still friends to this day. And for three years I didn’t cut with anybody. I formed Peachtree Records with Henry.”
Were you kind of envisioning that to be a Stax of Atlanta?
“Yeah, yeah. Actually we did it because Henry had signed management on some of these opening acts that he had to fill up his shows. So he says, ‘Do you wanna produce these acts and write for ’em?’ And Johnny Jones and the King Casuals were my band at the time. So I said, yeah, I’ll start with Johnny, and I cut some stuff on Johnny and the band. And [later], Mitty Collier, Jimmy Church, mostly Nashville acts. We had one group from Atlanta, here, Emory & the Dynamics. And that kept me busy, so I didn’t record for myself.”
How did you end up recording for Mercury Records in the late ‘70s?
“Charles Fach was Executive Vice President [of A&R] at Mercury. But he had his own label, and he was distributing our Peachtree label. And he would always tell me from time to time, ‘I would really love to work with you on a project.’ And I kept saying no. I had given up the music business by then. I had started enrolling in the Academy Theater, studying acting, doing some summer stock stuff. I was still touring every now and then, to make money, but I didn’t want to go back into a recording studio as an artist. He kept asking me, so I said, ‘Okay, Charlie, I’ll do four sides with you.’ ‘Great!’ he said, ‘You’ve got carte blanche, I’ll give you a budget and you do what you wanna do. You got any songs? ‘No.’ I didn’t have the songs. Not one. So I started writing, and I wrote a couple things on my own, and I said, ‘I wanna bounce some ideas off some people.’ And the only musician that I had met in [Atlanta] and I respected a lot was Paul Mitchell. ‘Cause I used to go down to Dante’s a lot, and for a long time nobody knew who I was – I was just this weird guy that’d come in and sit and listen to a couple of jazz sets, have couple glasses of wine, pay and leave. So Paul came over one night and said, ‘Do you live around here?’ I said, ‘No, I have a studio downtown.’ He said, ‘What are you, a musician?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he found who I was, he said, ‘What? You’ve been comin’ in here…?’ And he said, ‘I write songs too.’ He wrote ‘Hard Times’ [recorded by David “Fathead” Newman and Ray Charles]. He said, ‘I play jazz, but I do a little bit of everything.’ And I knew I loved his melodies. So I said, ‘Paul, I’ve got an idea for a couple songs, do you wanna write with me?’ ‘Yeah, cool, I’d love to!’ And we wrote ‘Tryin’ to Love Two,’ and ‘If Sex Was All We Had.’ The first tunes we wrote, a ballad and an uptempo.”
And then “Tryin’ to Love Two” became your biggest hit.
“My biggest hit ever. And I called Charlie, and I said, ‘I’m through, Charlie.’ He said, ‘You and Joel [Katz],’ my attorney, ‘You and Joel get on a plane to Chicago’ – that’s where the headquarters was – ‘and I’ll let everybody listen to it.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll send you some acetates’ – back then you used acetates (laughs) – ‘so you have a chance to listen.’ Charlie picked us up at the airport, and he said, ‘Guess what? I walked into the office this morning, and all through the loudspeakers, guess what was playing? ‘Tryin’ to Love Two.’ And it was from [Mercury co-founder] Irwin [Steinberg]’s office!’ And when we walked in to Irwin’s office, Charlie said, ‘I’m gonna play you a hit record,’ and [Irwin] said, ‘Charlie, I’ve already got it!’ So, anyway, they loved the record. They wanted to pair me with Mary MacGregor. She had a hit with ‘Torn Between Two Lovers,’ and they wanted to put us on tour together. ‘Trying to Love Two’ and ‘Torn Between Two Lovers’! It didn’t materialize – they put me and Natalie Cole together. But it was just unreal how that happened.”
So you recorded for Mercury for a little while there, and as these things often go, you had a couple of singles after that but nothing really hit.
“You know what happened? I was skittish enough when I made the deal at Mercury, I made it simply because of Charlie Fach. And I put a clause in there that stated – ‘cause they wanted me for a five-year deal, three with two one-year options – I said ‘I’ll sign a five-year deal as long as Charlie Fach is at the helm here.’ Cause he was grassroots record people. And at Mercury, a lot of the people there were big in country, they were big in pop, but I had some R&B [artists], like Jerry Butler said, ‘You went to Mercury? Man, they don’t know what to do with a William Bell song!’ But I had kind of a poppish blend to that song, that’s why it crossed over, and it was such a universal theme. But I had put a clause in there where as long as Charlie’s at the helm of it there, I’m there for the five years, but if Charlie leaves I’m free to walk. They had a shake up at Mercury about a year and a half after I was there. I don’t know what happened, but Charles called me and alerted me, and said, ‘Uh, starting next month, I won’t be here at Mercury, I just thought I’d let you know. But I’ve got people there that’ll take good care of you. They want you to come to Chicago and meet the staff and everything.’ So I’m calling Joel after I hang up with Charlie. ‘Joel, here we go again…’ He said, ‘Well, keep an open mind – let’s go to Chicago and see what they propose.’ Of course, it was all some big conglomerate, and they had shifted most of the executives. I think the only one that was still there was Irwin, and he was high up on the totem pole, not over Mercury. So I was really not happy, and what really clicked it, they took me down the hall to meet the guy who’s taking Charlie Fach’s place. He’s the Executive Vice President of this new mix. And we met him in the hallway. We didn’t get to his office – he was coming out, and I was introduced, and he said, ‘William Bell, William Bell, William Bell… Oh! You are Mercury number so and so…’ He was calling numbers off! I was numbers in a computer to him. He will never know what that did for me. I didn’t tell him.”
You started your own label, Wilbe, in 1985. And for part of that time, it was distributed by Ichiban here in Atlanta. What was your experience with them? I remember that company would drive me crazy, because I was writing about music already by that point, and I was trying to write about all the local labels and the things they were releasing, and it seemed like that company would put out 10 to 15 things a month. They had so many different artists and little subsidiary labels.
“To see the Wilbe logo [on their CD’s] you had to have a magnifying glass! And Ichiban’s logo was [clearly visible]. A lot of people thought, ‘You’re on Ichiban.’ Nope. They’re just distributing for me. I’m on Wilbe Records. And we went ’round and ’round one day about that, But the thing of it is, they had too many artists for an independent label.”
Way too many.
“And they couldn’t get the airplay. I had more contacts with jocks and everything than really they had. But we had success with Wilbe, because we had success in Europe with some records over there. Turned out to be really great records over in Europe with some of the artists like Jeff Floyd and myself. We’re still releasing stuff on [Floyd] and Lola.”
Lola is a local Atlanta artist. She plays at Northside Tavern pretty frequently.
“Yeah, yeah. We’ve got her going back to Europe – she’s over there for another 30-day tour. We’re more popular, because we do total R&B type stuff, in Europe than we are here, for mainstream radio. We’re not doing poppy type stuff, we’re doing R&B. Jeff is kind of like the Wilson Pickett type, with that heavy gospel influence, and of course Lola is just fantastic – she is the ultimate artist, to me. So we’ve had success with two or three records like that. In the Southern soul arena.”
You were obviously a big part in the documentary, Take Me to the River. Did you have any kind of role in making it?
“No, when I came in, they had done a couple of sessions. And Boo Mitchell, Willie Mitchell’s son, called me and said the director, Martin Shore, wanted to talk to me about being a part of this movie he’s doing. And [Shore] told me, ‘I want to do something on the history of Memphis music. I know you worked with the Stax [Music Academy] kids, all this stuff. I wanna do it from the standpoint of crossing genres.’ I said, ‘Great! Are we gonna do this right, or are we just gonna play at it?’ Because I’ve had other people come to me with, ‘We’re gonna do this movie on Otis,’ or ‘Let’s do this movie on you,’ and I say no, because they don’t have the right concept. And he said, ‘William, I want authenticity, I want realism, and if we’re gonna do it at all, we’ve got to do it right. Or we’re not going to do it. I’ve got the budget, I’ve got everything, I’m contacting people now to do it.’ I said, ‘In that case, what are the financial things?’ And that’s what really solidified it for me. He said, ‘75% of this is going to charity.’ Cool, what charity? ‘The Stax Museum, Academy, and charter school is part of it.’ Cool. Old down and out musicians that can’t care for themselves, all of that. So I said as long as the proceeds from my input go to the Stax kids and the musician’s fund, and I think they’re working with NARAS on that thing, then fine. It’s for a good cause, I’m in. And when we started shooting, he had done something with Snoop a long time ago. And he was telling Snoop about it. Snoop works with kids, too – he’s got a baseball team or something for kids in Oakland, I think it is. And he was telling Snoop, and Snoop asked him who’s in it. And he said, William Bell, and Snoop said, ‘I wanna do something with William Bell!’”
So Snoop’s a big fan.
“Yeah. I like Snoop, he’s one of the few rappers that I can get into, you know. So I went to California, filmed some stuff with Snoop, and we hit it off from the minute he walked through the door. They were filming it all. I didn’t know it at the time, but they filmed every little thing. And I don’t smoke. I have smoked, but I don’t smoke now! I’m clean as a whistle. But he was like, ‘You mind if I step outside?’ ‘No, hey, I don’t condemn anything. As long as you can handle it, I’m cool with it.’ But he had that respect. And also at the [tie-in promotional] concerts. We were backstage in the same dressing room – we were outdoors, in one of these trailers where you have the back room – but when you smokin’ that stuff – and Snoop had some good stuff! – when you’re smokin’ it, it’s not gonna stay in the back room! You might as well open the door and get some air (laughs)! I’m an old man, but my nose [works]. I said, ‘You might wanna open the door and get some air, man! It’s no problem, this is the dressing room! So that kinda solidified everything. Everybody just started laughing. ‘You knew what we were doing?’ I said, ‘When you walked back there and closed the door I knew what was gonna happen. (laughs) Come on, guys!’ So, anyway, once they found out I didn’t just get off the turnip truck, they were okay.”
And I assume you had worked with some of the older musicians in the film before.
“Oh yeah. The Stax guys, all those guys. And we mixed it all up with the Stax Academy kids to make that statement that here are these three generations of people working together harmoniously, and making it happen. And then Boo comes right back with [Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars’] ‘Uptown Funk’ – he [engineered] that, and that was the number one record in the country. And that was just like, to me… the minute I heard it, we were traveling back to the hotel in Dallas, and we turned on [the radio] and they were playing it, and I’m going, ‘That’s a Memphis record! Boo, who is that? ‘We cut that!’ It’s like James Brown and early Prince, that’s who it is. But they captured it. When I heard that drum sound, I was going, ‘They haven’t changed that drum sound since Willie Mitchell and Al Green.’ Ha ha ha!”
Photo by Shannon Byrne.