William Bell: The Stax Soulman Comes Home

Photo by Ginette Callaway
Photo by Ginette Callaway
Photo by Ginette Callaway

You may not think you know music from Stax soul legend singer-songwriter William Bell, but you’re probably mistaken. If you’ve heard either Otis Redding or The Byrds’ recordings of his “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” or Linda Ronstadt sing “Everyone Loves A Winner,” or for 80’s rockers, Billy Idol’s “To Be A Lover,” you have been exposed to tunes Bell either wrote or co-composed. And who hasn’t been in a bar when the band tears into the Bell/Booker T. staple “Born Under A Bad Sign” recorded by dozens of acts?

Less appreciated is that William Bell’s own versions of those classics are as potent and timeless as the many covers by acts that know superb soul when they hear it. Since the original Stax label’s demise in the mid-’70s, Bell has kept a lower profile yet stayed in the entertainment business; recording artists for his own imprints, releasing music and steadily touring.

But now, Bell is back in a big way. His terrific new album This Is Where I Live was recorded for the revived Stax. Produced by roots veteran John Leventhal (Shawn Colvin, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash), who also played most of the instruments and co-wrote the majority of songs with Bell and others, the disc features predominantly new material, reminiscent of the golden age of Stax, yet never musty or retro.

Bell is ready to hit the road with these recently recorded gems that not only do justice to his revered catalog, but are arguably as powerful as those soul masterworks, most from almost a half-century ago. Anyone who thinks the 77-year-old Bell, born William Henry Yarborough in Memphis, Tennessee, can’t be a viable singer this late in life needs to spin “The Three Of Me.” The beautifully introspective ballad that opens his new release tells of “the man I was, the man I am and the man I want to be.” It shows an affecting lyrical resonance to his largely ballad approach, especially poignant as he winds into the final chapter of life.

The album didn’t develop quickly though. After the go-ahead from Stax, it was over a year in the making, as Bell recounts over the phone from his Atlanta base. “John and I wanted good melodic structure and lyrical content. We wanted it to be an extension of what I do yet move it forward into a modern sound with a broader appeal. It’s world music now rather than regional.” 

Despite the time it took to write, arrange and record, along with occasional overdubbed horns and strings, the texture is more open and uncluttered than Bell’s earliest recordings. “We were looking for an earthiness and honesty to the music and the sound,” Bell explains. “I’m glad we took our time and really constructed, dissected and put it under a microscope to make this the best project we could do.” 

It terms of song crafting, Bell works best with other writers, such as Booker T., with whom he created “…Bad Sign” — which he reprises in a different arrangement as incisive as the original — and many other hits from the ’60s. Although he has written alone, Bell enjoys the collaborative process of his often intimately narrative tunes. “I like bouncing ideas off another person. It makes the story stronger when you can sit and talk about it.” 

A heartbreakingly stripped down, acoustic cover of Jesse Winchester’s “All Your Stories,” introduced to him by Leventhal and one of just two selections Bell didn’t contribute to, is an album highlight. “John brought the song to me and I loved it because it’s so reflective. At this stage of my career I’m reflective on the stuff that I write too. John played guitar and I sang, so we just left it like that.”

The mid-tempo title track capsulizes Bell’s 50-plus year history. It’s a model of concise, tightly woven songwriting describing everything from an early appreciation of Sam Cooke, an artist whose smooth tones and bittersweet ballads still influence Bell, to his current love of home.   

The home concept appears regularly, specifically in the gloomy “More Rooms,” the crafty double meaning of “The House Always Wins” and the closing, sweetly sympathetic Curtis Mayfield-styled “People Want To Go Home.”  Bell explains, “I’m a homebody. After we wrote “This is Where I Live” we picked songs about the home front, whether good, bad or indifferent.”

The majority of Bell’s best compositions, beginning with 1961’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” through many from the new album, refer to the darker side of relationships. That’s no coincidence. It sells records and has kept the legendary artist relevant over the decades. “It has been my experience that people like sad songs,” Bell elaborates, “but they like to have an optimistic approach at the end. They relate to that.”

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