The legendary Stax Records gave the world some of the most important music of the 1960s and ’70s — by the likes of Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and William Bell.
He’s the forgotten man of Stax.
His songs have been covered by Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Albert King, Etta James, the Byrds, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King, Hall and Oates, Billy Idol and others. He scored his own hits, including “Everybody Loves a Winner,” “Tryin’ to Love Two” and “A Tribute to a King,” written when his best friend, Redding, died in a plane crash.
And in 2017, 51 years after he recorded his debut single, Bell won his first Grammy. For an album on the resurrected Stax label.
The gregarious, easygoing 79-year-old Bell — who headlines the Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth on Saturday and performs at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis on Sunday — has lots of intriguing stories to tell.
Let’s start with Redding’s fatal flight in 1967. Bell was supposed to be on that private plane for his concert in Chicago.
“It started snowing so bad in Chicago, the promoter up there canceled my show,” Bell said recently from Atlanta, where he’s been based since the mid-’60s.
Still, Redding urged Bell to join him. But, with no gig, he decided to rest in Georgia.
That weekend, Bell was home watching TV when a DJ friend from Milwaukee called to tell him Redding’s plane had crashed in Lake Monona in Madison, Wis., where Redding was scheduled to perform. Bell thought it was a joke.
“I said, ‘Otis knows how to swim.’ And hung up,” Bell remembered. “All of a sudden, the trail at the bottom of the TV started going across about the plane crash.”
Distraught, Bell got into his car and started driving. He ended up in his hometown of Memphis, where his musical family was commiserating at Stax Studios.
“I wanted to do something as therapy for me and the family,” he recalled.
So he and songwriting partner Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the MGs, his buddy from high school and church, penned “A Tribute to a King.” They cut a demo of it and sent it to Redding’s family.
Zelma Redding, Otis’ wife, insisted that Stax release it as a single, but Bell didn’t want “anybody to think I was capitalizing on my best friend’s death.”
Bell eventually OK’d the song as a B-side of a 45 record. But it became a hit, nonetheless.
How ‘Bad Sign’ was born
Bell’s best known composition is “Born Under a Bad Sign.” He wrote it with Jones.
They happened to be at Stax when a producer said he needed one more song for bluesman Albert King. Bell had a bass line, verse and chorus about zodiac signs; so he and Jones finished the song that night and returned to Stax with King the next morning.
“Albert didn’t read or write,” Bell said. “So I stood behind him and I whispered the lines to him and he sang it. And he nailed it. And put his guitar work on it. It came alive.”
Bell said he thinks that the secret of Stax’s success was its chemistry — a family vibe where blacks and whites mixed seamlessly, something unheard of in the South in the 1960s.
Stax — which was opened by banker Jim Stewart and his sister, record store proprietor Estelle Axton — was a place where musical teens congregated after finishing their school day.
“Jim and Estelle were open-minded enough and could see that we were talented enough,” Bell said. “We were totally integrated at Stax. Half the musicians were white and half of us were black — and to the chagrin of the powers that be downtown in Memphis.”
Stax blended sounds, from the gospel and R&B influences with the rockabilly and country. Plus, Axton knew what was marketable.
“It was a tight-knit unit that came together to create a new sound,” Bell said. “It was a magical time to be a kid in Memphis.”
Bell described himself as “a weird kid.” A student of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers and their lead singer Sam Cooke in the 1950s, he sang in church. After winning a talent contest at age 14, he began singing in Memphis area clubs: doo-wop on Friday and Saturday nights and standards during Sunday afternoon tea dances.
At home, he listened to Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Hank Ballard, the “5” Royales and even Mantovani. “I would daydream about string arrangements,” he said. “I was inspired from all sides.”
The first male solo act signed to Stax, he released a series of singles and then went into the military, which slowed his recording career. While he had a few modest hits in the ’60s, Bell had his biggest single, the No. 1 R&B song “Tryin’ to Love Two,” in 1977.
What sparked it?
“Let’s say this: I write sometimes from personal experience, sometimes from observation; sometimes I take a hypothetical situation and write about it.
“I’ll let you decide which one it is,” he said with a chuckle. “These kind of emotional things happen to good people.”
One of Bell’s most recorded songs is “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday,” which he wrote with Jones in 1967.
“I was trying to come up with a holiday love song but not for Christmastime,” Bell said.
However, when they recorded it, drummer Al Jackson insisted that he add some sleigh bells.
Said Bell: “And it became like a standard R&B Christmas song.”
The Stax veteran still gets regular royalties from those oft-recorded songs he wrote.
“It’s better than Social Security,” he said.
Working with Snoop on new film
Despite being absent from the national scene for a few decades, the soul man never stopped performing and recording, often releasing records on his own label.
His national profile reemerged in the 2014 documentary film “Take Me to the River,” a valentine to Memphis’ musical heyday that paired him and such veterans as Bobby “Blue” Bland and Mavis Staples with modern music makers including Yo Gotti, North Mississippi Allstars and Snoop Dogg.
In 2016, Bell collaborated with Grammy-winning producer/songwriter/guitarist John Leventhal for his comeback album on Stax.
They crafted some songs about the singer’s life, including the autobiographical title track, the sentimental travelogue “Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge” and the gospel-tinged “People Want to Go Home,” which could be about a long day at work, retirement beckoning or visions of heaven.
The album also includes a new version of “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Bell resisted the idea at first because the song had been recorded by so many people. Leventhal proposed “a stripped-down, back-porch” version “without the iconic bass line,” Bell recalled. “It’s a little bit country; it’s a little bit New Orleans swamp.”
The resulting record, “This Is Where I Live,” won rave reviews and a Grammy for best Americana album.
“That Grammy was like a validation of all the years of hard work,” Bell said. “And a total surprise to me.”
The prize also means better paychecks and “you get a chance to show what you can do outside the ‘chitlin’ circuit.’ ”
Indeed, among Bell’s recent gigs were performances at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London and at the White House.
Bell’s next project is a sequel to “Take Me to the River.” It was shot in New Orleans with such local heroes as George Porter and some of the Nevilles plus rapper G-Eazy and other newer names.
“Snoop and I are still involved,” Bell revealed. “I did one of Allen Toussaint’s songs in the movie. He and I were in [Army] basic training together.
“They’re editing it now. It’s a powerful little film.”
Featuring a veteran singer with a powerful little career.