How hot is William Bell these days? At least as hot as he was in 1977, when his single “Tryin’ to Love Two” reached the top of the Billboard R&B chart, eventually selling more than a million copies.
The Atlanta-based soul singer has been basking in critical acclaim for This Is Where I Live, his 2016 album for the reactivated Stax Records (now an imprint of Concord Music). It won a Grammy for Best Americana Album and earned three Blues Music Awards nominations, including two in soul-blues categories. Clearly its appeal runs wide.
“We knew that we were really stretching it a little bit in crossing genres and trying to create something different,” says Bell. “We didn’t know if everybody would get it or not. But they did.”
Bell collaborated with producer John Leventhal for This Is Where I Live, a partnership that proved enriching. “Our first writing session, we knew that we had something special going, so I told him, ‘Well, I feel real comfortable, and this is the first time I’ve been this comfortable with a musician since I worked with Booker T.,'” says Bell. In the 60s, when he was a soul star with a string of Stax hits, he maintained a formidable creative partnership with organist Booker T. Jones.
Born in Memphis in 1939, Bell had honed his pipes with Phineas Newborn’s orchestra in the 50s and fronted a vocal group, the Del-Rios, who debuted in 1956 on the Meteor label. Producer and songwriter Chips Moman, then with the fledgling Stax, approached Bell in 1960. “[He] asked me if I’d do a solo project,” says Bell. While traveling with Newborn’s band in New York, the young singer was inspired. “In a hotel room one night, it was raining,” he says. “I was homesick and wrote this song. Didn’t think that much of it at the time.”
Moman was impressed by that yearning ballad, “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” Stax chose it as Bell’s 1961 debut single, and though it barely broke into the Billboard Hot 100, it became hugely popular on the southern-soul circuit. After the 1962 single “Any Other Way,” Uncle Sam whisked Bell away, though he managed to cut a few sides while on leave from the military—and Stax also had some tunes already in the can that it released in his absence. When Bell returned to Memphis in 1965, musical trends had changed. Teaming with Booker T. Jones helped get him back up to speed.
“We had known each other our whole lives,” says Bell. “He was kind of like an extension of me, and I was an extension of him. We just kind of clicked. We had some great success together.” They wrote several hits for Bell in the late 60s, including “Everybody Loves a Winner,” “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” and “A Tribute to a King,” a moving memorial to their just-departed labelmate, Otis Redding. Their best-known collaboration was the swaggering blues “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which they tailored for southpaw guitarist Albert King in 1967.
“We wrote the song overnight, came back the next day and got with the rhythm section and created the track,” says Bell. “Albert didn’t read, so I had to whisper the lines in his ear in between lines. But we got it down and he put his signature guitar on, and it came to life.” This Is Where I Live features a considerably retooled version of the often-covered tune.
Bell and Jones also wrote “Private Number,” William’s 1968 hit duet with Judy Clay. It was conceived as a solo effort for Bell, who’d already recorded his vocal track when Stax owner Jim Stewart came to him in search of material for Clay. “We didn’t do it in the studio together,” says Bell. “They got together and put Judy on it, doing the harmony on the chorus and doing the second verse. They kept my first verse on there and the choruses and everything.”
“Tryin’ to Love Two,” Bell’s only R&B chart topper, came after Stax folded and he’d signed with Mercury. Four decades later, he’s enjoying a truly spectacular career revival. “I’m busier than ever,” he says. “In my concerts, I’ve got the grandparents, the parents, and the kids now!” v