They don’t make soul men like William Bell anymore.
A stalwart of Stax Records known for 1960s R&B hits like “Everybody Loves a Winner,” Bell made a Grammy-winning comeback in 2016 some 50 years after cutting his first single.
Sunday night at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, Bell proved that he’s a resourceful songwriter, passionate singer, smart bandleader, gracious frontman, concise storyteller, easy humorist, dapper dresser, enthusiastic entertainer and skilled showman. In short, he was the consummate soul man.
At 79, Bell came across like he was 39. He performed two long shows, with the second one stretching 10 minutes longer than the first 90-minute effort. And that was after headlining at Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth on Saturday night. That translates to three Minnesota shows in about 24 hours.
With his dark glasses, fedora and sparkly jacket, the ageless and animated Bell looked like he'd stepped out of a video for Morris Day and the Time. He's old-school in the sense of looking sharp and performing with style.
What was most remarkable about Bell was his singing. The brandy-voiced vocalist still has impressive range and striking command, pulling the microphone away from his lips for dramatic effect. He knows how to milk it with his voice, his patter and his musical arrangements, calling for solos from his sidemen and singers, inserting little ad libs of well-known songs by others when the spirit moved him.
With two largely identical sets, Bell told the story of his career, from his first hit “Don’t Miss Your Water” (inspired by an expression his grandfather used) to his post-military music (highlight: “Private Number,” a duet with backup singer Phyllis Smiley) to his songwriting triumphs (notably “Born Under a Bad Sign,” done his way without guitar pyrotechnics) to his biggest hit (the 1977 R&B charttopper “Tryin’ to Love Two,” with a little bit of the Temptations, Ben E. King, and, in the second set, Sam Cooke tossed in) to his movie documentary triumph (“I Forgot To Be Your Lover,” featuring his spine-tingling falsetto) to his Grammy-winning material (“The Three of Me”).
And, of course, Bell saluted his late, great best friend, Otis Redding, with a taste of “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” in the first show and an encore of “Hard to Handle” in both shows. Plus, Bell tipped his cap to Stax with a knock-out cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood.”
The late performance was a little looser, with Bell answering a request for “Every Day Is a Holiday” (an abbreviated reading with just his voice and keyboards because the song is usually reserved for Christmas season) and coaxing his horn section to match his fiery spirit on “Hard to Handle.”
Both shows were unqualified triumphs. Dakota-goers knew they'd experienced a true soul man.