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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Till Steve Cropper Plays A Bum Note (Stax)

From that very first time I heard the brassy blare, the rock solid rhythm and Wilson “Wicked” Pickett strutting through the Midnight Hour the sound of Memphis soul has shaken more than my tailfeathers. In 1966 I dutifully posted my vote for Wilson as the best singer in the world to a music paper (I’ve always been a sucker for a lost cause). A year later, just turned 15 years old, I waited on my bike to meet my best friend and share the shock of the morning news. Our new favourite, Otis Redding, had been killed in a plane crash. The world carried on with little regard but for Wink & I it was a big loss.

I did not know the hows and the whys, the whos and the wheres of the Stax/Atlantic legends then like I do now. I just knew that the raw, deep soul sound sure did it for me.

In 1967 Stax brought their artists to Europe for a tour which galvanised both performers and audiences. The Beatles, busy recording “Sgt Pepper”, sent a limo to meet them at Heathrow. The mainly black performers had not played to mainly white audiences before. The attention & interest alerted the label to not just a European market. Later in the year Otis Redding tore up the Monterey Pop Festival before the hippie “love crowd”. We are very lucky that one of these concerts, in Oslo, was filmed. Every second of the film is packed with quality, energy and soul.

Eddie Floyd is singing “Raise Your Hand” the follow up to his biggest record “Knock On Wood”. This simple call and response sits on a bed of pure Stax music. You could sing the telephone book and it would sound good. (Wilson Pickett started to do so on  “634-5789”). Eddie made some great records, he’s looking fine and singing strong here. He will always be remembered for the classic “Knock On Wood”.

Behind Floyd is the powerhouse band who backed all the acts on this legendary show and were the house band back in the Memphis studio. In the horn section there is Wayne Jackson and, I think, Packy Axton, son of Estelle, the AX in Stax. The other four are Booker T and the M.Gs, stars in their own right. Booker T Jones, played organ, arranged and composed songs while studying classical composition. His 2007 Grammy for lifetime achievement is deserved. Two childhood friends, Duck Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar) were young men who grew up loving R&B, they knew how it went, knew where it was going and were helping to take it there. Cropper co-wrote this song, “Knock On Wood” and many others in his years at Stax. On drums is Al Jackson Jr and he is simply the best exponent of this instrument I have ever heard or seen. Eddie Floyd is great in this clip. Watch it again, see and listen to the best band in the world…The Mar-Keys.

Stax was not only the honking, stomping shots of energy, when they tried a little tenderness they got the job done too.William Bell, like Eddie Floyd, wrote and recorded many memorable songs without great commercial success. In 1967 he released ” A Tribute to a King”, the label’s eulogy for Otis. A year later the near-perfect soul duet with Judy Clay, “Private Number” was a big UK hit. In the same year “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” set new standards in sweet soul music. From the opening restraint of Steve Cropper’s guitar, the strings, yes strings, before the horns move in and Bell’s impassioned regret. Man, producer Booker T does a fine job on this. Like the run of 1960s singles by the Impressions this song just ends too quickly.

The song has often been covered (Billy Idol…anyone ?) and sampled. In Jamaica in 1977 Lee Perry produced a version by George Faith which is a highpoint of sweet reggae and is well worth a listen.

The story goes that Otis Redding returned from Europe and said he didn’t want to tour with Sam and Dave anymore. The all-singing, all-dancing, all-energy duo were one of the great live acts of the 1960s. Sam Moore and Dave Prater enjoyed massive success with their records too. A run of hits, many written by the team of Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter, established them as the biggest soul pairing in the US. Here they just wreck “Soul Man” with the Stax B-line. The A team were back making hits in Memphis but there is no visible or aural drop in quality. I could try and encapsulate Sam and Dave’s appeal but there are what, about 150 videos on Y-Tube and there are not 3 better than this. Just watch the clip, it’s great.

With international success, the tragic and premature loss of their greatest star and the machinations of the music industry the travails of the Stax label are labyrinthine and a little sad. Led by Isaac Hayes they recovered from the loss of their magnificent catalogue but the story still ended in bankruptcy. A cottage industry out of a converted cinema set the standard for great soul music which still endures. I still listen to and love the music that Stax made. I guess that once you’re a soul boy you end up a soul man.