"You don’t miss your water ’till your well runs dry,” reflected William Bell in the chorus of his Stax Records debut single. But from a career perspective, after some 60 years and 16 albums, the Memphis soul legend has never let that happen.
In recent years, he has performed at the Obama White House, played London’s Royal Albert Hall, and been inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame alongside Justin Timberlake. He was also prominently featured in the documentary Take Me to the River, which inspired his current touring show of the same name, featuring an all-star band that includes Bobby Rush and Charlie Musselwhite. Last year, the 78-year-old artist won his first Grammy and shared center stage with the 33-year-old Austin bluesman Gary Clark Jr. Together, they performed another Bell classic, “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
His 2016 release, This Is Where I Live, nominated in Traditional R&B and Americana Grammy categories (it won the latter), is an album of soulful yearning and hard-earned satisfaction capturing that indefinable Stax Records magic sound Bell helped establish.
The fact that Bell was nominated in two very different Grammy genres proves his new work is no more easily labeled than work done back in the day. Over time, Bell’s songs have been covered by a remarkably diverse range of performers, including bluesman Albert King, classic supergroup Cream, ‘cosmic American music’ legend Gram Parsons, reggae artist Peter Tosh, ’80s-pop icon Billy Idol and, perhaps most improbably, ambient musician Brian Eno.
“I think a lot of artists in every genre of music relate to my songs because I come from a viewpoint of truth, and I try to write in such a way that there’s nothing ambiguous about it,” said Bell. “I try to make it simple and plain; a lot of artists relate to that.”
Such words are typical of Bell’s affable humility. Music historian Peter Guralnick, by contrast, describes This Is Where I Live as a “deeply soulful, deeply introspective album.” The praise is confirmed by its R&B sound and lyrics—among the songwriter’s best. Here’s a sample:
One day you’ll wake up
To a world of regret
All the things you can’t remember
I’m still trying to forget
One memory Bell can’t forget is from 50 years ago, when he heard his friend and labelmate Otis Redding had died in a plane crash on a lake near Madison, Wisconsin, cutting the 26-year-old soul legend’s life short. Bell, who’d spent the week before in the studio with Redding (recording his landmark single “Dock of the Bay”), is still haunted by the loss.
“I got a call from a disc jockey friend of ours in Milwaukee and he asked me, ‘Have you heard about Otis?’ And I said, ‘No, did he have a great show?’ He said, ‘No, his plane is missing.’
“I couldn’t take all that in at once,” said Bell. “I told him ‘Don’t kid around,’ but he told me he was at the radio station and had come up on a tickertape. He said, ‘No, I’m reading it now and it says that they haven’t found him yet, it crashed in the bay or something.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, Otis is a good swimmer, he’ll be able to come out of that.’”
Bell’s wishful thinking was for naught.
Like most R&B artists of his era, Bell grew up singing gospel in church, but the sirens of secular music soon called.
“I would sneak down to Beale Street [in Memphis], and hang out and watch Rufus Thomas and all those people who came through town. And everybody knew me because I was already singing around town.”
A few years later, he recorded his first single, “Alone on a Rainy Night,” as part of local doo-wop group The Del Rios. He then signed with Stax Records, initially as a staff writer.
So how different is Memphis now from the days when Jerry Wexler had to persuade Billboard magazine to change the name of its black music chart from Race Records to R&B? “Memphis changed quite a bit after Dr. [Martin Luther] King was assassinated,” said Bell, who now lives in Atlanta. “And it changed for Stax when Otis died. For a while, the music in Memphis just kind of died. But now I can see where there’s a resurgence. I can see that energy in Memphis coming back, and that feels good.”