Musician William Bell

The legendary soul singer and songwriter joins us to discuss his first major release in almost four decades, “This Is Where I Live.”

Soul singer and musician, William Bell has been writing and performing hits since the early 1960's when he released his solo debut for Stax Records, “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well Runs Dry),” which became one of the fledgling label’s first major hits. The song is now considered one of the finest early examples of soul music, and was covered by many artists, including Otis Redding and The Byrds. In 1967, Bell co-wrote the iconic song "Born Under A Bad Sign" with Booker T. Jones, which became a signature song for blues musician Albert King. It was later popularized by the power trio Cream and was later covered by Jimi Hendrix. In more recent years he has been covered by Carole King, sampled by Kanye West, and feted by Snoop Dogg. He has performed everywhere from Bonnaroo to The White House. He is the recipient of the R&B Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, the W.C. Handy Heritage Award from the Memphis Music Foundation, and the BMI Songwriter’s Award. His latest album, "This Is Where I Live" marks his return to Stax Records and his first major release in almost four decades.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with legendary soul singer, William Bell. His latest album, “This Is Where I Live”, marks his return to Stax Records where he started his career. This is his first major release in almost 40 years.

We are glad that you’ve us tonight for a rare conversation with William Bell coming up right now.

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Tavis: William Bell has been in the public eye since first joining the Phineas Newborn Senior Band in his mid-teens. He signed at Stax Records before the arrival of Otis Redding and his first solo record, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was the label’s first solo artist hit.

He has written and sung any number of soul classics, “Born Under a Bad Sign”, “Everybody Loves a Winner”, “Share What You Got”, which have been covered and sampled time and time again by artists ranging from Carole King to Kanye West.

His latest CD–there’s the album–“This Is Where I Live”, marks his first major release in almost 40 years and returns him once again to Stax Records where it all began. And I am honored–and I do mean honored, William Bell–to have you on this program.

William Bell: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: You been all right, man?

Bell: I’m doing great, doing great.

Tavis: It’s a blessing to have you on this show.

Bell: Yeah, thank you. Good to be here.

Tavis: No, man, thank you, thank you, thank you. Does it seem like four decades [laugh]?

Bell: Well, not really. That’s a blessing. But it doesn’t seem that long.

Tavis: Yeah. Why such a long pause?

Bell: I’ve been doing other things and got off into starting my own label and working with some youthful talent and stuff like that. But it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. Time flies when you’re having fun.

Tavis: Yeah, I hear you, I hear you. What then happens when it has been that long? The fun you’ve been having since then notwithstanding, what happens in your life? What happens in the world? What happens that says to you that the time is right to get back into the studio?

Bell: Number one, I love the business. I always have been doing it since I was growing up in church singing in the church choir. So this was the right time. I did a movie called “Take Me To The River” and then the Stax Concord picked up the soundtrack to that. And I was asked if I’d do a solo project for them and, of course, that was the clincher.

Tavis: Your mother stayed on you before she died expressing her interest in your recording a gospel album. You mentioned singing in the church choir. Your mama wanted you to do a gospel album and the music critics are already saying so many wonderful things about this project.

But one of the things that they’re saying is that the closest thing that we have ever heard from William Bell to a gospel track is “People Want To Go Home”. Tell me about that song and how your mama might have processed that one.

Bell: Well, you know, she passed away and I never completed a gospel album, a CD, for her. So this particular song was about people when they’re either depressed, tired or whatever, you want to go home and get some relief.

So that’s what the origin of that song is and I figured, well, this is a good time to honor my mom, honor the song and come with this particular cut. So John Leventhal and I sat down in the studio and wrote that and recorded it.

Tavis: It’s a beautiful track, man. I tell people all the time how much you can learn by reading the liner notes. You pull the liner notes out, man, there’s so much good stuff that you will learn in addition to hearing the great music.

This is a line that appears in the liner notes: “Clarity in both message and diction, a melody that can be easily grasped, and a story line that may very well include personal details but will always suggest universal themes. These are lesson learned from Sam.” And Sam, of course, would be…

Bell: Sam Cooke.

Tavis: Sam Cooke.

Bell: Yes.

Tavis: Tell me about Sam Cooke and how you learned all that from Sam.

Bell: Well, when you’re recording, when you’re writing a song, you want people to be able to relate to it. So diction, of course, is important. Melodic content, if you got a good melody, they can easily remember it.

And you want a person that’s listening to feel like they could have written that song or this is about my life. So for them to resonate with that particular song, you want them to do that, so that’s what that’s about.

And Sam was a stickler for getting all of the diction and all that, and it stems from gospel, you know. In church, you come up with the choirs and everything and, since there are so many voices there, you want all the diction to be perfect and the timing and everything, the elocution of it to be there so that it won’t come off from a standpoint all muffled and everything. So it didn’t steal that discipline and that urge to have that going on.

Tavis: I’m curious as to your take on this. Sam is clearly on your list, but when I think of my list of the best diction I’ve ever heard, elocution where you don’t miss a single syllable, on that list, Sam Cooke. On that list, Nat King Cole…

Bell: Absolutely.

Tavis: On that list, Karen Carpenter even…

Bell: Absolutely.

Tavis: What is it about singing with that kind of clarity that resonates with the audience, that means so much to our ears?

Bell: You don’t have to worry about what they’re singing about because it’s clear. You don’t have to think about what did they mean by that song because it’s clear.

Tavis: It’s clear, yeah.

Bell: The clarity of it is what we get into and the emotional value of a song. That’s what we get into firstly, yeah.

Tavis: Take me back to those early at Stax. I mentioned you were the first big solo hit artist in the early days of Stax. What were those days like back then?

Bell: It was like going to university [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, going to university.

Bell: Yeah. You know, I was a kid, teenager, coming into this and wanting to learn the business, get off the streets and stay out of trouble. We had that opportunity to come in, create something that we could make a living with, and that would make an impact on our lives and other peoples’ lives.

We didn’t know at the time we would have that much longevity, but we knew that we were creating some good music and we were telling a story.

Just to work with some of the iconic people that came out of there at that young age and to learn at the same time about how to record a song correctly, how to mic up a drum track, all of that stuff was very important to us and I was like a sponge.

I was just like a young kid just soaking everything up. And that was important, but Stax was just like a wonderful place to be at that given time for all of the young kids and things coming along from the neighborhood.

Tavis: You also learned about being a businessman, how to control and retain the rights to your publishing.

Bell: Well, I learned that too, yeah. But that came about a little bit later on. The first five years, of course, the first initial contract was for five years and all of that was all-inclusive in a contract. You know, you gave up your publishing, but I retained my writers even at that early age.

Then when I had a conversation with Sam about publishing, “Oh, you’re gonna make money with publishing”, bing [laugh]. Then production and all of that, so you wanted to learn more and more about the inner workings of the business side of it.

Tavis: It’s a great story. I was working on a book a few years ago called “Death of a King”. It’s a book about the last year of Dr. King’s life. It’s now being made into a movie with J.J. Abrams from Star Wars fame, so I’m very happy about that.

It’s about the last year in King’s life and there was a track from Otis Redding–King, of course, assassinated in Memphis,  Stax in Memphis, Otis recording. There was some lyrics that I wanted to put in the book from this Otis Redding song. I got into the research and realized that, oops, William wrote the song.

So I get on the phone and start trying to track down–I called my good friend, David Porter, our beautiful friend, David Porter, who wrote all those hits for and with Isaac Hays and everybody and Sam & Dave. David got all kind of great hits.

I get David on the phone and said, “David, I need to track down William Bell. Can you get him on the phone for me?” He said, “Hold on a second.” I love three-way. “Tavis, you there? William, you there? Y’all talk.” [laugh]. So you were kind enough to let me use those lyrics in the book and I appreciate it…

Bell: Oh, I was happy to do it.

Tavis: Because it was so important. I raise that only because, again, it underscored even at a young age, you understood, where so many artists had been ripped off, the value–you learned that from Sam, as you said, the value of retaining your ownership rights and your publishing rights.

But I hadn’t realized until the research how close the death of Otis Redding was to the assassination of Dr. King. And what I realized in the writing of the book is that the City of Memphis was still reeling from the death of Otis which had happened literally almost like days before King had been assassinated.

They hadn’t got past Otis’s death and King gets assassinated in Memphis. That’s my long way of asking you to tell me something about Otis Redding.

Bell: Otis and I were label mates, plus we were friends. We became great friends. We toured together and hung out together after touring and everything. I’d go to Macon and we’d hang out with the local people and have a good time. And he would come to Atlanta sometimes when I moved to Atlanta. But we became friends.

Because I was with him when he cut “Dock of the Day” and when I heard about it, a deejay friend of ours called me from Milwaukee and said, “Have you heard about Otis?” Of course, when he told me, I thought it was a joke. I said, “No, no. Otis just left.” He said, “No, his plane just crashed.” So I turned the TV on. There was a trailer underneath there and they hadn’t found his body.

But it was just devastating, of course, for Stax, for the City of Memphis and for his family, me personally as a friend. It’s still a thing where you really don’t get over that kind of death because he was such a good guy, a great guy, just a normal person offstage that loved to hang out and, you know…

Tavis: Enjoy life.

Bell: Yeah, enjoy life. So it was just devastating for us at that time and Memphis and Stax never got over that.

Tavis: Motown clearly was having its success when Stax comes on the scene blowing up the way you all did. What was it that you all–I say you all. You and your label mates at Staxwhat was it that you all thought you were going to infuse into the music of our lives? What were you going to put on the soundtrack to our lives differently than what Motown was doing?

Bell: Motown was kind of polished and geared towards mid-America and everything. We were a grassroots. At Stax, we were right out of church, right into studio, but we were singing about life, telling the story about our lives and stuff, and people could relate to that.

And we didn’t polish it up. We got a feel for it. If it struck a chord emotionally, we kept it there. If the words were not pronounced correctly, I mean, you listen to some of the Otis Redding songs, some of the lyrics and things weren’t, but the emotional range and the value and the expressiveness of him, you know it was coming from the heart.

That’s what we left in there, all of that, so that’s what made us different from Motown mostly because of the Motown guys were from the south anyway [laugh], migrated to Chicago and New York.

But we were from the south, so we were writing about our lives, things that were happening in the neighborhoods and across the country at the time. That’s what resonated with the people.

Tavis: You are one of the best when it comes to writing about love, that inexhaustible subject that writers, time and time again, have come back. And to no surprise at all, you got some love stuff on this project. Just tell me about the process of writing about love for all the years you’ve been doing it.

Bell: You know, it’s finding a way to say I love you that’s a little bit different. It’s not an easy task, but you find ways of expressing that and, as you grow older and life takes you a certain direction and everything, you learn how to express it more and more.

Just like on this particular CD, “This Is Where I Live”, we talk about love situation, but it’s not the hot passionate love of a 19 or 20-year-old. It’s more of a reflective thing on my life and my loves and what I could have done differently, of what I did right, you know [laugh].

But, you know, it’s just a form I write honestly. I want the truth to be there, and I write honestly about life. But it’s just a way of expressing it a little bit different from the ordinary way. You have to work at finding out how to do that.

Tavis: You mentioned melody a couple of times earlier in this conversation. You mentioned that you, for these last four decades, have been doing a lot of work with some of the younger artists, developing some talent. What are you saying to them about melody?

My audience knows I’m always chagrined about the fact that melody seems to be a lost art these days. But what are you saying to these young folk you work with about the value of melody in music?

Bell: Well, I tell them that the first that they’re gonna hear and learn in your song is that melody. Because before you know all of the lyrics to a song, the melody will grab you. So a good melody, especially on your hooks, on the titles and everything, if people can sing along to it or hum it or whistle it, it sticks with them.

So the melody is great and I always recap that, if a lyric say hallelujah, the melody should say amen. That should be a merging of those two and sometimes you have to work at that.

Sometimes in songwriting, you come up with a lyric first, so then you sit down and construct the melody to where you can express that lyric to where people can understand it and get into it. And sometimes you get a melody with no lyrics, so that you do the reverse on that. You come up with the lyrics that fit that particular melody.

Tavis: I feel like I’m sitting in a master class tonight [laugh]. And it is, one of the great songwriters of all time. Not that you ever put your pen down, but when you haven’t been in a recording studio to do new stuff for almost 40 years, right at 40 years, and you pick your pen back up to start writing, what happened?

Bell: Well, I didn’t stop writing within that thing because I’ve got a label and everything and artists that I’ve been writing and producing for. But to write for yourself, yeah, that was a thing because I had to really sit down and process my life and say, okay, I’ve come from this particular point to here and what are the things that transpired within that time and how can I write honestly about that?

So I really wanted to scrutinize all of the lyrics and things of the songs because that is about my life, you know. So in doing so, it’s like a timeline that you follow up to a point, so it’s just a matter of just sitting there and being able to think of how do you structure a lyric that says what you want to say at this point in your life? And that’s what I did.

Tavis: I want to ask you to tell me about your life. You, you know, have had such success over the years, but as you mentioned earlier, you started with nothing, started at the bottom. What do you make of the life that you have been blessed to craft?

Bell: I’ve been blessed. That’s the one thing. I started like every other kid. You know, we were in this neighborhood that was not affluent, but we had great parents that taught us the right and wrongs of the thing. And it took a whole block to raise you then. You go down the street and Miss Maybelle would send you home for something. You know how that goes.

But that instilled the desire to do the best that I could in life at an early age. I’ve been singing since seven in church and then, from church, to secular music starting at 14. So that instilled a value system within me and I try to, as I grow and grow, I try to increase the value of that value system.

So my writings and my performances and all of that is an extension of me growing up because it was not easy when we were growing up during those times. We could have easily sound up incarcerated or something like that, but I’ve been blessed enough that I found an outlet that made me want to take another avenue, take another approach. It’s been good for me.

Tavis: That’s an understatement [laugh]. You’ve done quite well. The last time I saw you in person, we were in my birth state of Mississippi and we were hanging out with our friend, B. B. King, the King of the Blues. And as I recall, we were commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers.

Bell: Medgar Evers, right.

Tavis: In Mississippi, and I’ll remember that night as long as I live because to be onstage with you and B. B. King was just something I’ll just treasure forever. You worked with so many greats, but this is my first time seeing you since B. B. King passed. Say a word to me about your friend B. B. King.

Bell: I first met B. B. when he was doing a Pepticon commercial on WDIA on Saturdays. I was in a group called The Teentown Singers, like a choral group in Memphis, WDIA. But B. B. was always the perfect gentleman. He would talk to us kids and everything after we came on and did our little 15 minutes and then he came on and did his show.

But after the shows, he would always sit down and talk to us, so we became good friends and he and Bobby Bland were kind of like surrogate fathers [laugh] and kind of mentored us in the business of music. Growing up, he was just an inspiration to me and we started doing the Evers thing–I’d been doing it about 35 years along with B. B…

Tavis: Charles Evers.

Bell: Yeah, Charles Evers there. And we’ve been doing it a long time. We just became closer as we did that. And then we started doing concerts together and everything. He was gracious enough and I remember once in Chicago, I got there at the thing and all of the dressing rooms were taken.

He said, “No, no, no. You can come on in here and share the dressing room with me.” That’s the kind of person he was, and he was like headlining. He was like, “No, no, come on in here.”

Tavis: Let me close by asking what it is that you hope people will take away when they hear “This Is Where I Live”? What do you want them to get from this?

Bell: I want them to get a life’s value from this particularly because it’s kind of reflective of my life and my association with Stax Records. Stax started my career and I had the first solo hit for them, so I kind of started Stax’s career. And we’ve come full circle, but I want them just to reflect on the songs and the lyrical content and melodies.

But more lyrically, about where I’m coming from especially on “This Is Where I Live” because I kind of mention the old man Phineas’s Band and some of the other things growing up in Memphis, and just reflect on it. And it will be like a legacy of my association to the music business.

Tavis: In life, we all need a little reflection from time to time, and this is a beautiful project. It’s called “This Is Where I Live” by the inimitable William Bell 40 years in the making, but I’m glad he finally got around to it. It’s on vinyl, it’s on CD, whatever you like. You got your options. William Bell, an honor, again, sir, to have you on this program. Thank you for your legacy.

Bell: Oh, thanks for inviting me, man. It’s been a pleasure.

Tavis: Oh, you’re welcome. The pleasure’s mine. Appreciate it, man.

Bell: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: June 27, 2016 at 2:07 pm