William Bell remembers the moment Otis Redding was discovered. He was like a roadie and he drove Johnny Jenkins to the recording session at STAX. After the session Jim Stewart, Stax CEO asked, “Well, what else you got that we can cut, cause we need a full session!” “Does anybody have anything that would be good for Johnny Jenkins?”
Otis spoke up. “I’ve got a little song here!” He had all of the lines of the song in his head, that’s how he wrote. He’d have one line in the first verse, the second verse, the bridge, and the third verse. Just one line would trigger off the idea he had for the song.
It was like vamping.
Otis “the roadie” laid down his vocal to the song and left everyone in the studio in awe. The play back speakers were out there in the studio, and his song was coming through those speakers. It was summertime, and it was hot in the studio, because the air conditioning wasn’t working. So, we opened the front door to Studio A, and the sound traveled out into the hallway, where the record shop and business offices were. As the music traveled out, all of the secretaries and everybody started coming in. They kept asking, who and what is that?
“Stax had another artist! Jim Stewart signed him right away.”
Otis would die in a plane crash early in his career, but William Bell went on to create his own legacy, now in its seventh decade, enriched by relationships with other artists who fill the American songbook, with classics that are appreciated around the world.
Bell would lose other friends while serving in the Army. Interestingly New Orleans great Allen Toussaint served in the military with William. Bell worked at STAX with Rufus “Walking The Dog” Thomas. Most significantly, he went to church with Booker T of the MGs. Actually, it was Jim Stewart who put the writing team of William and Booker together. “He just recognized that we were kindred spirits I guess!”
Most of the artists at Stax were still teenagers when they invented southern soul. Booker T. and The MGs’ guitarist Steve Cropper wasn’t even 17 when he started out at the label. “We were all teenagers!”. Steve Cropper and bass player Duck Dunn were had a group that only did all black music (they being white). When Jim put them together with Booker T. and Al Jackson as a the rhythm section, it was just wonderful, because he had players from both sides, (white and black) and that input was what made the Stax sound.”
At 83, Bell who wrote “Born Under A Bad Sign” with Booker T. has just released his 15th album One Day Closer to Home, a record that has the passion of youth tempered by the wisdom of a sage who has rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest musicians of three generations.
Bell still has the passion of the Stax soul man, but this album is more than just Stax 60 years later. The violins by Rurik Nunan & Wen Yih Yuh is a sophistication of the best Soul releases, the mass appeal of any major label, and the sage advice of Americana. The new album is on Wilbe Records, his own label.
William Bell is a prime example of a writer that writes skillfully and truthfully about life and I think people can readily identify with it.
Read part one of our feature, Soul Man William Bell at 83 Still Kicks it Out.