“Born Under A Bad Sign” performed by William Bell, written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, from the CD William Bell, Collector’s Edition: Greatest Hits, used courtesy of Wilbe Records.
“Born Under A Bad Sign” performed by Albert King, written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, from the CD, Born Under a Bad Sign (Stax Remastered) used courtesy of Craft Recordings.
“You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Trying to Love Two,” “I Forgot to be Your Lover” written and performed by William Bell, from the CD William Bell, Collector’s Edition: Greatest Hits, used courtesy of Wilbe Records.
“This is Where I Live” from the cd “This is Where I Live” written and performed by William Bell, used courtesy of Stax.
Jo Reed: That is singer, songwriter and 2020 National Heritage Fellow William Bell—singing one of his many hits, “Born Under A Bad Sign.” And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.
William Bell was the first male solo act signed to legendary Stax Records in the early 1960s. With his great sense of melody, rhythm, and lyrics as well as one of the best voices in the business, Bell played a pivotal role in creating a new genre of music known as Southern soul or the Memphis sound.
Bell is one of the great balladeers—sophisticated and soulful—with lyrics that caught the ear…. And as successful a songwriter as he is a singer. His songs have been covered across genres. His first big hit, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was later covered by Otis Redding and The Byrds. “Born Under A Bad Sign” was written for Albert King but covered by rockers, soul singers and bluesmen. Billy Idol scored a big hit with William Bell’s song “I Forgot to be Your Lover” and so did Jaheim.
After Stax records closed in 1975, Bell moved to Atlanta and formed his own record label. He released “Trying To Love Two” in 1977, which reached number one on the R&B charts and was the biggest hit of his career.
For several decades, Bell performed occasional world tours and special concert appearances but focused on production and songwriting. Then in 2016, he signed with the newly revived Stax Records and released the LP This is Where I Live, and won his first Grammy Award for Best Americana Album. And that’s all I’m saying—you can hear the rest from him.
I spoke with the amazing William Bell recently—Here’s our conversation
Jo Reed: William Bell, congratulations on being named a 2020 National Heritage Fellow.. so well deserved. One of your many awards but I’m thrilled you received this one.
William Bell: Well thank you so much. I feel very fortunate and humbled and blessed and I’m just elated to be in that category, so thank you.
Jo Reed: Sure. Now you were born and raised in Memphis. Was music always a part of your life? Did you grow up singing?
William Bell: I grew up singing in church at about 6 years, 7 years old I was singing with the church choir. My mom sang in the choir and of course when I was about 9, I think I graduated to singing solo with the choir behind me. So yes, I’ve been singing, I would say most of my life.
Jo Reed: And songwriting, you’ve been doing that most of your life too and as I recall, that began pretty early as well?
William Bell: It did. I was an only child until I was about 10 years old and I was kind of a loner and that.. just writing poems and stuff like that was kind of like an outlet for me and then when I started singing in church and everything, I started putting stuff to melodies and everything around, and then so I’ve been pretty much writing since I was 9 or 10 really.
Jo Reed: You know, if somebody landed here from Mars and never heard of Stax records, how would you describe it to them?
William Bell: Well, I would describe Stax as a home away from home for the neighborhood kids. Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton allowed us kids to come in and actually she had a record shop so it was just kind of like a magnet for all the neighborhood kids, and she put a speaker out there on the sidewalk so we could hear all the latest songs and records that came out and we just congregated and danced. So when they built the studio in that theater building, they allowed us to come in and learn a craft, hone a craft and just make a living at it, so I would describe Stax as a surrogate home and everybody within there, even during that time which was the segregated era, but everybody within there were mixed with black and white and we were like family.
Jo Reed: You know, there was so much.. that was unusual about Stax. As you mentioned, this was the segregated south and at the same time, its doors were open to everyone and the sound of the music being produced was clearly different but also the way music was made. So I wonder if you could describe the sound that, in fact, you helped create there, what’s known as the Memphis sound, how would you characterize it?
William Bell: Well I would say it’s part of everything we were exposed to on the radio which was gospel, blues and back then they called it rhythm and blues and of course when we started at Stax, we mixed all of those ingredients, a little bit of gospel, a little bit of blues, a little bit of country and western and we called it soul music because you was singing it from the heart.
Jo Reed: You had incredible house bands at Stax, Booker T. Jones and Booker T. and the M.G.’s and then Isaac Hayes later on was part of the house band and you know, so on and so on and from what I’ve read and I wonder if it’s true, that there really wasn’t a strict demarcation between the control room and the studio.. that musicians were basically going back and forth and the sessions would run for as long as necessary. Is that true or is that.. has that become a myth?
William Bell: No, no, that is very true. We didn’t have a time.. a clock on the sessions. What we did was a lot of times we’d come up with the ideas and if we had the song, we would work it up in the studio. So all of the musicians, Steve, Duck, Al and Booker were a part of the rhythm section and Steve Cropper. So we worked it up in the studio and.. until we were pretty much satisfied with the arrangement of the rhythm and all of that, and we put the vocals down and back then, we only had like about four tracks so you had limited possibilities. You had to.. have to put the rhythm on one track and the vocals on another and then you left the track open for the horn, then whatever backup voice is another track, so.. then you kind of blended it together. But back then it was very early on and we just did what we felt. It was not.. we didn’t know we were going to create something for longevity or anything like that but we just wanted to be creative and hear our songs on the radio. So, that was a part of it and we were like family and a mixed group. Of course Booker and Al Jackson were the black portion of Booker T and the M.G.’s and then you had Steve and Duck Dunn who were like the white counterparts and.. but the whole organization of Stax was mixed and like I said, inside the confines of Stax, we were like family.
Jo Reed: You were the first male solo artist signed by Stax and you wrote a massive hit which you recorded, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, I would love to have you to talk about that song. Do you remember what inspired it or what was it like being in front of that microphone singing your own song?
William Bell: Yeah, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” came about early. Actually it was Satellite Records when I cut it and they had to change the name because there was another entity in California or something with the name Satellite so they changed it with Jim’s last name which is Stewart, S-T, and then Mrs. Axton his sister, was Axton and so they did S-T-A-X and there you have Stax. But You Don’t Miss Your Water, I had a vocal group at the time and I was singing locally in a club on the weekends with the group called The Del-Rios and we did the backup work for Gee Whiz behind Carla Thomas, so that’s how we came to the attention of Stax Records. And when we.. a couple of the guys were older and they were drafted, they had the draft back then, and they were drafted into the military and that left me and Louis Williams and of course, he formed another group and I went solo and I was on tour with the Phineas Newborn Orchestra in New York and we had a day off, a Sunday night, and it was raining, and I was homesick, missing my girlfriend and all that stuff, and I came up with this song, You Don’t Miss Your Water. And when I came back, of course, Chips Moman approached me about singing something solo, being an artist on Stax, and I had about four songs I had written while I was touring with them.. the Phineas Newborn Orchestra, and I went in and cut “You Don’t Miss Your Water” which was a combination of kind of country, kind of gospel, kind of blues kind of song and that idea turned into southern soul music, so, it worked.
Jo Reed: It sure did. How old were you?
William Bell: I was about 17 at the time.
Jo Reed: So there you are, you career is taking off, you’re touring and then suddenly you hear from your draft board.. what happened?
William Bell: Of course. I had applied for college and then when I got the hit record I said, “Well, let me.. instead of going to school, let me make some money,” like all college kids, “And then I’ll come back to school next semester.” So what I did was went on the road with the Phineas Newborn Orchestra and got a chance to travel all over the US of A. And of course, when I didn’t start the school after graduating from high school, I didn’t start college right away, I was drafted into the military also because I had just turned 18 and then at that particular time if you were 18 and weren’t in school, you were open for draft and I got drafted. Well actually I was able to tour for about a year and a half behind You Don’t Miss Your Water and I had a big hit record and I released a second record called, Any Other Way and then I was at the Apollo and of course, that’s when the touring was you had one-nighters and mom finally caught up with me because I had a whole week at the Apollo Theater in New York, and she caught up with me at the Apollo and of course, informed me that I had a draft notice from the government. So I flew home hoping I could get a deferment and of course since I was about 2 weeks late, I went in and of course they immediately put me into the military.
Jo Reed: Two years is a very long time to be away from a young, promising career in music?
William Bell: It was and I spent a year and a half overseas. This was just at the beginning of the Vietnamese uprising and all of that, and so I spent a year and a half overseas and I didn’t hear a lot of American music and so I had to.. when I came back, thank goodness, Stax had my career and contract retroactive from the time I went in so I still had a couple of years.. two and a half years, left on the contract. And so I had to really reorient myself into what was happening musically on stage and on the radio and of course Jim Stewart was gracious enough to let me do that and I wrote a couple of songs with Steve Cropper and the things.. and David and Isaac wrote a couple of things for me because when I came back, Otis was a big star, Rufus Thomas was a star and of course, Carla Thomas was a big star. So I had to.. when I went in, I was number-one on the totem pole and then I was at the bottom of the totem pole when I came out, so I had to really play catchup. So, I wrote a song called, “Everybody Loves a Winner” and that’s the first hit record after I came out of the military.
Jo Reed: And of course the Otis you’re talking about is Otis Redding who was a great friend of yours?
William Bell: Yes. I met Otis when I came home on furlough from basic training and he came in and he and I just kind of clicked and hit it off as friends. And so when I came back and got the hit record we did some touring together, about a year of touring and everything and so we hung together when we weren’t touring and then just when we were touring, it was just a joy. It was like competition between us.. friendly competition, but we became good friends and of course you know, the rest of it after his death and everything, I wrote “Tribute to a King” as a tribute to him.
Jo Reed: Well I was going to ask you because you can sing everything but you really just love ballads and boy, can you sing a ballad, andyou love them as a singer and as a writer, and I’m wondering if your background in church music, it somehow relates to that?
William Bell: It does. Singing gospel is a great foundation for melodic structure and lyrical content and being able to deliver the emotional range of a story. So that’s where my foundation was and so when I write personally for myself or for any other artist, that’s the way I approach it. I just want to write about life and write the realistic point of view and maybe how I would relate to it if I were in a certain situation if I’ve got an idea, hypothetical idea, for a song. So it’s just a.. they say that soul singers never sing the same song the same identical way at any given performance and that’s pretty much true because you’re creating as you deliver the idea and the song and however you’re feeling at that particular given time, that’s how you relate to it.
Jo Reed: Well your voice is just extraordinary, as somebody said, “He could sing about kicking puppies and you would still love him that voice is so smooth.”
William Bell: <laughs> Well thank you and thank who said that.. I do appreciate that.
Jo Reed: I wish it had been me but it wasn’t.
William Bell: <laughs> But that is something that you learn in gospel and also when I became a vocalist with the Phineas Newborn Orchestra. I was able to sing jazz and standard stuff and he had a big band kind of like a Count Basie band. So I was surrounded by just fantastic musicians and it was like going to university and they took the time to.. they were hard on me but because they loved me and they wanted me to be the best at what I could be.
Jo Reed: I would like to talk about a couple of the many, many, many songs you wrote and recorded.. just too many hits to talk about. You and Booker T had known each other and worked pretty closely together. And one song that you wrote with Booker T was “Born Under A Bad Sign” which has been recorded by 80 million people, but I think Albert King was the first to record it. What do you remember about that one?
William Bell: Well, I was one of these artists that if I were not on tour, I was in the studio because I wanted to learn all of the aspects of recording, how to mic drums, how to.. what that button is for and sometimes when Jerry Wexler or Tom Dowd would come in, I would pick their brains and they were gracious enough to tell me the inner workings of the recording process. So I was in the studio when Albert was recording and he didn’t have enough material. So Jim asked me if I had a song that Albert could do and of course I had this one song that I was going to start for myself and I had a verse, a baseline and a chorus and that’s all I had.. so one verse, a baseline and a chorus but I told him that I had this song and so I sang it for Albert and he just loved the idea and so Booker and I went over night to his home and wrote the song, stayed up all night, wrote it, came back the next morning and cut the track and put Albert on it and that’s how Born Under A Bad Sign came about.
Jo Reed: And another early Stax song was a gorgeous song, sung beautifully by you and also covered by many, many, many, many people, “I Forgot to be Your Lover?”
William Bell: Yes, “I Forgot to be Your Lover” was a song that.. when I really started touring, some of those tours back then in the early days would last for six or seven months and I went on the road and of course, I had a girlfriend and went on the road and left her for that long and we would talk every other day or something when we would stop long enough and of course you get homesick and that’s how the idea for I Forgot to be Your Lover came about. That was one of the songs that I did but it’s been covered by a lot of people and it’s always been successful with the people that cut it so I guess a lot of different genres of music, from Billy Idol, to Jaheim, to you name it, have cut it and they all had hits on it which I’m elated over, but it was one of those songs that anybody that tour a lot or that’s in this business they can relate to and people that you leave behind can relate to it.
Jo Reed: Well things unfortunately did not go well for Stax financially and it ended up having to close and you ended up moving to Atlanta. Why leave Memphis and why go to Atlanta?
William Bell: after Stax closed, my management was in Atlanta. So I moved to Atlanta. I actually had thought seriously about.. I was so disillusioned about getting out of the music business. <laughs> So what I did was my manager and I started a company here in Atlanta. I had a production company so we started a record label to write and produce for other artists, so that’s what I did for like three years and of course, at that time, Charles Fach out of Mercury, was distributing our Peachtree label, so he was constantly at me about doing something for Mercury Records. But I was comfortable writing and producing for my own label and everything. But finally he prevailed and I agreed to do four sides for Mercury and I cut the tracks for the song "Trying to Love Two," and of course that turned out to be a million seller for Mercury on my first release with them, and which-- as you might say, it pulled me back into the music business.
Jo Reed: I bet it did. How did you find out it sold a million copies?
William Bell: I was on a flight to California, and I don't know how <laughs>-- how they did it. But I was on this flight, and the stewardess asked me to stand up, and at the time I'm wondering, "What did I do now?"
William Bell: So I stood up in the middle of the aisle, and they announced that-- somehow Charles fashioned [ph?]-- Steinberg, or Irwin, who was the president of Mercury at the time. They had that done, and they announced to the people on the plane that I had just sold a million copies of this song, "Trying to Love Two," and of course, I got all the applause. Kind of embarrassed me in a sense. But that's how I found out <laughs>.
Jo Reed: You started your own label, Wilbe Records, which you still have, and you record yourself and you record other people, and you toured for some time. I'm just curious about having your own label. And of course, that gives you a lot of freedom, but I would imagine it also gives you a lot of business headaches.
William Bell: Well, it does, but I was accustomed to that because as I said earlier, I was always wanting to know the inner workings of the music business, even before it was fashionable. So I was just really open for any of the inner workings of the business of music, even back then when it was not fashionable for artists to really delve into that. And so when I started the Wilbe label, of course, I was like an old hat at doing that <laughs>. And of course I had a good partner in this with Reginald Jones, was another Jones boy.
William Bell: And he kind of remind me of Booker because he played-- he's one of those musicians that you just hate, you know. He plays about seven or eight instruments fluidly <laughs>. I just say that lovingly. But he and I worked closely together, and we signed up three or four acts that we were successful with, and of course we've still got the label going We do everything in-house, from creating the artwork to taking the photos, doing the videos-- we do it all here at the complex here.
Jo Reed: Well, exactly. There you are. You're doing all this, and then suddenly, Stax is relaunched, and they came looking for you. What made you decide you would do another record with them?
William Bell: Well, I was always doing stuff for the Stax Academy when we put that back into operation, and I was taking the kids on the road with me to do some things. We did the Smithsonian Festival, and we did another festival in Orlando there for AARP and just a lot of things. I took them on the road with me, and those were kids from the academy that we were working with, and of course I still was in contact with people at Stax. So when they approached me about doing something, they wanted to resurrect the Stax label again. So I'm saying, "Okay." It just made sense. I was the first solo act that signed with the original Stax, and now here they came to me again and said, "Would you sign?" And so I took a hiatus from my label-- the Wilbe label-- and signed with them for a year and did a project with John Leventhal, which was a big fan of mine and I was a big fan of his and everything. So we took our time and just created. We didn't want to reinvent the wheel and try to dwell on creating a new Stax, but we wanted some of that ingredient that Stax had, which was good songs, good melodical content, and good production and everything. So we took our time for about a year working on that, both at my studio and at his studio up in New York. And we wanted to broaden it a little bit because now it's world music, so we wanted to broaden it so it's a little bit more than just Southern Soul or soul music. So we just really took our time to write the kind of songs and material that would be a little broader appeal throughout the world, and we came up with "This is Where I Live," and to make a long story short, we were fortunate enough to win the Americana Album of the Year with a Grammy.
Jo Reed: That's right. Your first Grammy, which I find impossible to believe, but yes.
William Bell: Yeah. And you know, it was funny that it was back on Stax again. So I'm saying, "Okay. Great." So it kicked that label back off and everything.
William Bell: So I was just elated over that.
Jo Reed: The sound you two arrived at was just wonderful because it certainly was a nod to Stax, but it wasn't a replication. It wasn't something embedded in nostalgia. It was so current.
William Bell: Well, that's what we were trying to do. We were trying to be current enough but still retain that essence of good song, good melodic structure, and good lyrical content.
Jo Reed: I’d like to touch briefly on the documentary "Take Me to the River," I'm curious how you got involved and what made you want to sign onto it and what you wanted to accomplish by doing it.
William Bell: Well, "Take Me to the River" was a process that they had done a couple of days of filming on, but they were just doing recording sessions. And the producer Martin Shore wanted to use me on something, and of course my thinking at the time was, "Okay. We've been approached a lot of times by stuff that just didn't have it right-- not quite right," but I was open enough to talk with Martin. And when I talked with him, he was just passionate about wanting to do it right and wanting to get it right. That's why he wanted to get me involved in all of this. And he had talked to Snoop Dogg, and Snoop Dogg was a fan, and he wanted to do it with me. So, I saw how dedicated he was in telling the story of Stax and telling of the new ideas. So my next question to him was, "Can we use the Stax Kids?" So he said, "Absolutely," and he then got the idea "Why don't we do this? Why don't we just cross genres? Since Snoop wants to work with you, then why don't we just cross genres between hip-hop, rap, and blues and soul?" And that's how we started out doing that, and it took us a little while to get all of the sessions done, but everybody had such a wonderful attitude. There were no egos, none of that among the artists and everything that came in to participate, and it was just a labor of love and we learned so much in doing that. We learned that it was actually the same story. The hip-hoppers and rappers are telling it from their generation; we told it from our generation in the '60s; and before that, in the '50s and '40s, people like B.B. King and Bobby Bland and all those people told it from their era. So it was the same story perpetuated through the years, and we learned so much from each other.
Jo Reed: Tell me who the Stax Kids are.
William Bell: The Stax Kids are the kids that attend the Stax Academy. And now, once we resurrected the Stax Museum, we also built an academy where the kids can go like we did in the studio. They can go to the academy-- just neighborhood kids and everything-- and learn the process of doing music. And you've got so many talented kids, and they learn every aspect of it, from songwriting to performing to dance to engineering and both sides of the spectrum of music. So that's who they are, and I've used the band and dancers on the road with me and even in Europe on some dates, and they're just wonderful kids that are so talented. And I look at them almost like a proud grandfather because they remind me of me when I was coming along at 12 and 14. So we use them. In "Take Me to the River," you can hear some of them in "Take Me to the River," some of the horns and some of the rhythm players and everything, the little drummer and guitarist and everything. And they learned so much from it, and we were so happy that they were included in this because-- and then we took them on the road when we started touring on some of the performances. So they just learned a lot, and a lot of the kids have gone on to be million-seller writers. And this girl Evvie that did backup for us, she won for the first episode of "The Four," and she has signed with Motown now. So it is just a wonderful thing to be able to pass that torch on to the youngsters and the kids and let them realize their dream.
Jo Reed: Finally, in closing, what are you looking forward to right now?
William Bell: More longevity.
William Bell: No. I really do. I just had a birthday, and I'm really fortunate to be around this long and being a viable entity in the business. That's number one. And I feel very fortunate to do that. I've got all my health and strength, and I'm still working with kids and teaching them, and I've got my own publishing and production company and business. So I'm having a good time in my old age doing what I love doing, and I've been doing it my whole life. Right now we're just hunkered down, trying to be creative and create different ways of being a viable entity in the music business.
Jo Reed: And aren't we lucky that that's what you're doing? William Bell, thank you. I have so much to thank you for-- your time, certainly, but the music and the happiness you have given me throughout the years. I am so grateful to you.
William Bell: Well, thank you so much. And we need people like you. There are a lot of people that grow into making an artist who they are, and they don't get to shine in the spotlight enough. But you've got a lot of the stations and the different managers and all these people that work behind the scenes-- the writers, producers... and the fans, of course, and people like you-- the media. We are elevated because of you, and we don't forget that. We don't take it lightly.
Jo Reed: Oh,thank you, and many congratulations again on the 2020 National Heritage Fellowship.
William Bell: Thank you. Thank you so much. And again, hopefully we will be able to do the celebration virtually or meet, maybe, hopefully in '21, or at least by '22.
Jo Reed: I hope so. I really do. And please take care until then. Thank you.
William Bell: All right. Be safe.
That is singer/songwriter and 2020 National Heritage fellow, William Bell.
Because of the pandemic, the annual celebration of the new class of National Heritage Fellows will take place virtually this year.
Details will be available shortly at arts.gov. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. And don’t forget to subscribe to Art Works and leave us a rating on Apple it helps people to find us. And follow us on twitter @NEAarts.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Stay safe. Stay Kind. And thanks for listening.