Sweet Soul Music (William Bell)

William Bell never achieved the success of some of his Memphis contemporaries but his contribution as a singer & a songwriter places him at the heart of the enduring soul music created in that city throughout the 1960s. In 1961 Bell, just 21 years old, stepped away from his vocal group, the Del Rios, to record a self-written solo debut for his hometown label Stax Records. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is a smooth sliver of country soul before that was even a thing. In 1967 the song was  recorded by Stax’ shining star, Otis Redding & included on his “Otis Blue” LP. The following year The Byrds released their version on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” & Taj Mahal his for “The Natch’l Blues”. 3 distinctive records linked by this immaculate song.

“You Don’t…” made a small dent on the US charts, the following 45, “Any Other Way”, was picked up by established R&B singer Chuck Jackson. For a small label this was a big enough deal for Stax to release a number of  William’s singles. He was away for 2 years in the armed forces which didn’t help with promotion & publicity. On his return to Memphis he began a string of recordings which were R&B hits but which never really matched the crossover success of other studio colleagues. In this golden time the Memphis Soul stew was cooking on gas. Now, over 45 years later, William Bell’s best records take a place alongside all those other Stax solid senders.

Bell’s stock in trade ballads had a sweet gospel tinge. Booker T’s sympathetic productions allowed a lightness not always associated with the trademark attack in the sound of Stax. “The Soul of a Bell” (1967) marked the beginning of a songwriting partnership between the pair. The opening track “Everybody Loves A Winner” is a tragic song of life, a lovely example of the thing that William Bell did so well…”but when you lose, you lose alone”. Ah, Gram Parsons should have gotten hold of this song with the Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers. “Eloise (Hang On In There)”, a soul stomp, Motown urgency filtered through the layers of Memphis grit, had to be the one to break on through. Like another muscular Stax release, “Big Bird” by Eddie Floyd, “Eloise” made no impression on the charts but it shook my radio whenever it came around. A hit 45 that just never was one.

It was around this time that guitarist Albert King was signed by Stax. Bell & Jones provided a song that captured all the bad luck & trouble of the Blues while putting this folk music on Soul Time. “Born Under A Bad Sign” was an instant classic. Eric Clapton had always checked for Albert & a year later Cream, with encouragement from Atlantic Records, covered the song on their #1 LP “Wheels Of Fire”. King found a new audience for the Blues in America’s concert halls. Up in Chicago the Chess label encouraged Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf to update their sound. “Born Under A Bad Sign” is a landmark song.

When Stax tragically lost it’s greatest star in December 1967 William Bell marked Otis Redding’s death with “A Tribute To A King”. Only a B-side in the US, we Brits were more receptive to this heartfelt elegy from his musical family & it dented the charts. Another Bell- Jones composition, “Private Number”, a sweet, smooth dialogue with Judy Clay, less raucous than the Otis & Carla Thomas duets, made the UK Top 10 with no transatlantic promotion trip (so unfortunately no black & white Top of the Pops clip) & is still a sure fire winner to my ears. The follow up, “My Baby Specializes” (mostly Judy) was an Isaac Hayes-David Porter song. There was an LP of “Duets” with Clay, Carla Thomas & Mavis Staples. William Bell was a busy man in 1968.

He began to produce records for Peachtree Productions. I have a version of “Purple Haze” by Johnny Jones & the King Casuals, a crazy collision of soul & psychedelia. I did not know that it was Bell’s debut production for the company. It’s on the Y-tube, treat yourself. It was in 1968 that he had his biggest hit so far. “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” is a gorgeous tender gem. Steve Cropper’s guitar, a cascade of strings, the Memphis Horns…oh yeah ! Down in Jamaica Lee “Scratch” Perry was creating all manner of wonderful dub reggae strangeness at his Black Ark studio. Scratch always had an ear for a well-written song. Through 1976/77 he recorded a number of soul classics with singer George Faith & that’s how William Bell & Booker T Jones’ “To Be A Lover” stands as a reggae classic. The almost 20 minute long version, including Augustus Pablo’s mellifluous melodica, is a desert island disc of mine but, hey, you are busy people.

William Bell moved to Atlanta but stayed with Stax to the end in 1974. Public taste had changed but there are some classy songs from this time. A move to Mercury finally brought him a gold record in 1977 with “Trying To Love Two”, a disco-fication of his trademark ballad sound. Despite the song reaching the top of the R&B charts there seems to be contemporary clip of him performing the song on “Soul Train…if only.

With the formation of Wilbe Records he has continued to record himself & others.There was never the one big breakthrough song for Bell. No “Knock On Wood”, “Sweet Soul Music” Or “When A Man Loves A Woman” that put faces to the names of other singers. He was not on the bill for the momentous Stax/Volt tours of Europe & there is no film of the young William Bell. So this clip, from 2013, gets me buzzing. It’s from a Memphis Soul special, after dinner entertainment at the White House for the Obama’s & a few close friends.  There was a stellar line-up, Sam Moore, Mavis Staples, Cyndi Lauper (Huh !) for the audience to rattle their jewellery to. Seeing 70-odd year old William Bell singing “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, knocking the song that started it all for him out of the park & sharing the stage with Booker T Jones, his songwriting partner who shared in the inception of so much fine music, just makes me smile.

 

 

You Won’t Fool The Children Of The Revolution

So…the National Women’s Liberation Conference were given a Birmingham secondary school for their gynecomorphous gathering in April 1978. An adjacent primary school was earmarked as a creche & the sisters asked the Communist Party to recruit an all-male crew to administer & amuse their ankle biters while, across the road, a long overdue comeuppance for patriarchy was planned. Martin, a workmate, was a cultured, book reading Euro-Communist. Fresh out of academia & new to inner city living, he was discovering that Antonio Gramsci had not really prepared him for that earthy crucible of the revolution, the Brummie working class. On the basis that I knew a hammer from a sickle he asked me if I would come along & help baby-sit. It seemed that it could be fun or it could be weird. With a little luck it just might be both so I was in.

We, my wife & I, had lurked on the fringes of International Socialism. Shared picket lines, sold their papers. In 1977 I.S. became the Socialist Workers Party  & robust anti-racist/nazi policies were right up our street fight. We were Groucho Marxists who believed that the essence of capitalism was not only exploitative but ridiculous. Those S.W.P. types often lacked a sense of humour, never a good thing in anyone ever. Anyway, we refuse to join any club that would have us as a member…of course ! My wife had wanted to attend the conference but she was unemployed at the time & her budget was tight. No radical feminist worth her sodium chloride was going to let a man pay for the weekend, even if whatever that man had was her’s (& what she had was her’s too !). That same male…that’ll be me then…found a way she could make her contribution to the event.

As New Men we were down with the kid watching but there would be babies too, “mewling & puking in the nurse’s arms”. We would probably need some assistance here, some female assistance.

We both showed out for the Friday night meeting to discuss the weekend’s strategy. It was held in the school assembly hall, a school for the under-11s. Things, especially the chairs, were out of scale. The gathering found this funny & an informal tone, which we liked, was set. Yeah, stuff had been arranged, a division of labour was quickly & loosely agreed upon but the agenda was driven by the fact that the pubs closed at 11 p.m. That’s some right thinking. Come the revolution there will be 24 hour opening…oh, hang on.

The worst place to make a schoolboy error is too near to schoolboys. I walked into the school/creche the following day & a couple of lads ran up to me & asked if I would play football with them. I replied that I needed to at least take my coat off first. Now where is the “Yes” in that sentence ? An increasing number of small persons trailed me to the cloakroom…these pegs are a little low !…It appeared that they had hooked a sucker…that would be me then. The Pied Piper of Ladywood led his new posse outdoors. How had this happened ? No worries. We had a playing field, a big pitch, proper goalposts. A kickabout where I was 3 feet taller than most of the others. I was sure to get a hatful of goals today !

Things started poorly. The bigger kids wanted to use the full pitch & both goals. I was refereeing a rubbish overstretched game where the younger, smaller ones were not getting a kick. Something had to be done. These children all had strong, opinionated guardians many of whom encouraged their offspring to be similarly assertive. It was only after elaborate centre circle diplomacy that they allowed me 5 minutes to back up my claim to know a whole lot about football & just as much about having fun.

This was more like it. We were kicking into one goal while I reffed, played goalie, threw the ball to the older ones, palmed it out so that the little ones got a kick, kept up a commentary on the game & used the eyes in the back of my head to keep the even smaller ones behind the goal safe. I kept these plates spinning & everyone seemed to be having a good time, especially me. The beautiful game wins again. After another fearless plunge at the feet of a startled 5 year old, preventing a certain goal, I was at eye level with a familiar pair of ox-blood Doc Martens who’s owner enquired just what did I think I was up to ? She…that would be my wife then…knew exactly what was happening. Her bemusement was fake, her amusement wasn’t. She was impressed that I could supervise & entertain 25 children with no serious injury to them or myself. She was also loving looking after the babies & suggested that we should have 1 of our own so we could do this every day. Holy Shit ! For the next few minutes the kids were scoring for fun past a slightly dazed goalkeeper.

When tea-time came around I herded my grass-stained troupe back indoors. The familiar sweet smell from the kitchen confirmed that the catering crew had been getting high while they were getting busy with the burgers, chips & beans. Good seventies nourishment in a pre-McDonald’s world. The 150 kids, probably raised on a diet of right-on macrobiotic mush, loved this stuff. We had the full range of sauces, red AND brown, I holstered up a bottle of each, grabbed a quick toke then aimed my condiments in the general direction of some plates. There was a pile of noise, much of it laughter, it was a party. My new friends wanted more football stories & I had a million of them. We handed some grubby, happy kids back to their owners. The men had got the job done. I checked my wife’s bag in case she had decided to keep one of the infants & we headed off to grimy Victorian Aston Cross for a couple of of deserved & needed pints in a grimy Victorian pub.


The Cross & its pubs have gone to gentrification now. This memoir comes from a different time too. The next day there was more fun stuff, more weird stuff only less frantic, at our creche but the National Women’s Liberation Conference ended in acrimonious division between lesbian separatists & socialist feminists (Hey, I don’t want to label anyone & I’m certainly not choosing sides). There were to be no more conferences. Within a twelvemonth the shopkeeper’s daughter was running the shop & we were living in Thatcher’s Britain. The attack on “the enemy within” (her words) began. The idea that council premises could be provided for the frank & open discussion of revolutionary strategy found itself on the losing side of an argument. A random group of men, regardless of political inclination, loosely supervising a throng of other people’s children…well that don’t fly too high nowadays.

The world has changed in so many other ways & I’m not about to take sides about this. A couple of things…in April 1978 the splendorous anthems of Patti Smith’s “Easter” were only displaced from our turntable by newly released debut LPs from the likes of Magazine & The Only Ones. The N.W.L.C. passed a new demand that weekend demanding “Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women.” So much has changed but some things remain the same.

I do hope that those lovely, open, energetic children with whom I shared my weekend have passed these qualities on to their children & their grandchildren who, like the comrades before them , have some ideas of their own about affecting the world for the better. That’s it.