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.

 

 

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A Band Powerful Enough To Turn Goat Piss Into Gasoline! (Booker T and the MGs)

I really should find the time to watch the film of the Stax-Volt  1967 tour of Europe every week.  This recording of the Oslo concert is only an hour long & never fails to delight. Otis Redding defines charisma, the dynamism of Sam & Dave is still startling, Eddie Floyd & Arthur Conley do their thing too. On stage for the whole of the gig is the heartbeat of Stax, 4 musicians who usually stayed in the East McLemore Ave studio in Memphis, creating & playing great music & generally being the best band in the world.

Booker T & the M.G.’s were the opening act & part of the backing band on the tour. They, of course, had to play their 1962 surefire smash “Green Onions”,the tough, irresistible blues instrumental which just everyone knows & which still sounds great 50 years later. The song, written when Booker T was still in high school, is part of the culture. Only this weekend I saw a documentary on Mott the Hoople in which guitarist Mick Ralphs said that he did not play until he heard “Green Onions” &  thought that he wanted to have some of that.

The Y-tube says that this clip is “Red Beans & Rice”, a 1965 B-side. It is in fact “Tic-Tac-Toe” a 45 from 1964. It’s not included in the concert film that I know so watching these young, sharp dressed men walk out on to the stage & play this really is, to me, a thing of wonder. It is a cliche that the best groups are greater than the sum of their parts but have those constituents ever been as accomplished & inspired as these 4 musicians ? Man, a tune like this gets played first up & you know you are in for a good night.

This tour was a coming out for the group. It’s disingenuous to claim that fans did not know that the M.G.’s were an integrated combo. While there are very few early photographs, the billing for the tour says “featuring the fantastic guitar of Steve Cropper”. In Europe there was less reason to obscure the group’s racial mix. Damn, it made them cooler still. On the whole the fans were white boys with a love of the very same music that had gotten Cropper & Duck Dunn into this. It was though, the first time that all the musicians on tour had experienced adulation & appreciation on such a scale. It was also, I guess, the first time they could all go to eat or drink together just any place they wanted without checking that the vibe was right & the coast was clear. There was no going back from this, that’s for sure.

So just the next year, 1968, & the group are back in Europe, in, I think, France. One year on & the dress code is a little more relaxed. Duck could use a hair cut & a shave but the looseness of “Booker Loo”, a 6 minute Memphis blues & soul & rhythm stew, is just perfect. Cool cat Booker T, an Indiana U music student during the week while writing “Born A Bad Sign” at the weekend, takes it to church just for a while before Al Jackson Jr brings it back to the dirty boulevard with just a couple of firm strikes. I could listen to Mr Jackson play the drums on every day of my life. Whether it’s the drive of his work with this group or his silkier sessions at the Hi Studios of Willie Mitchell he is always absolutely doing it right. When I get to see him do what he does it gets a little too much & I need a sit down.

This clip, to these ears & eyes is so, so good. Whatever way up you want to look at the music of Booker T & the M.G.’s it is a groove to dance to. The beau monde here are giving it their best moves. I hope they now remember it & know how lucky they were to be there

1970 & the M.G.’s are the support act for the most popular group of the day, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hmm…ever get the feeling you were  in the wrong place at the wrong time. What a gig ! The headline act look on from the side of the stage, they do not want to miss “Time Is Tight”. This worldwide hit is from the movie “Uptight”, a crime drama made a year before “blaxploitation” & soul soundtracks became the current thing. There’s a tense logic to the progression of the song, an effortless restraint which gives it a clarity which the more ornate instrumentalists of the day kind of ignored. “Time Is Tight”…I think that the word is “cohesion”. Creedence liked to keep it simple too. In 1970, looking to enhance their bayou blues-rock their LP “Pendulum” made extensive use of a Hammond organ. That’s why John Fogarty has a close eye on Booker T in this clip.

By this time there was, just as there had been at Motown, the realization that while making music was fun maybe it was time to get paid. Despite being under contract Booker T upped & moved to California. Steve followed suit, starting his own studio in Memphis before, eventually leaving for the West Coast. Duck & Jackson stayed on, in 1975 the 3 of them were playing together & making plans. The unfortunate murder of “the greatest drummer to ever walk the earth,” (Steve Cropper) closed this particular chapter of our music’s story. Now Booker T, a man with little to prove to anyone, gets to play with whoever he chooses  while Cropper & Dunn are beloved Blues Brothers. We have those wonderful instrumental records made by ambitious, confident & talented young men. I look around for the best available clips for these things I do. These 3 are all music of the highest quality. Right I’m away to throw some shapes to “Booker Loo”.