BLUES & BEYOND: Born under a good sign
Recent National Heritage Fellow William Bell’s well never runs dry
Even if William Bell hadn’t just been named as a National Heritage Fellow, the prestigious award given by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), his late-in-life rebound — which includes a Grammy for 2016’s This Is Where I Live — is inspiring. But you can’t truly call renewed interest in the octogenarian’s career a comeback. He was never really gone.
The Memphis-born-and-bred singer/songwriter has had an historic career if only for his being the first male solo performer signed to Memphis’s legendary Stax Records, home of Otis Redding, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, and others who defined the spirited Memphis soul sound. Bell’s 1961 solo debut, the iconic “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” was the label’s first major hit. Others followed, with his songwriting reputation cemented in the blues world as the co-composer/lyricist of the resilient blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign” — first a hit for Albert King in 1967 and for Cream shortly thereafter. When Stax closed its doors in the mid ’70s, Bell moved to Atlanta in 1974 where he has been based ever since, and from where he has continued to tour and intermittently record for a variety of labels, including Atlanta’s Ichiban and his own Wilbe imprint.
Though Bell never stopped performing live, his commercial appeal had waned over the decades. That changed in the 2000s, first when he was invited to perform at the White House by President Barack Obama in 2013, then when he was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and received a lifetime achievement award for songwriting at the 2016 Americana Music Awards. With refocused attention on the then 77-year-old Bell, he showed his impressive talents hadn’t diminished over the years. The burst of activity continued with his being awarded a Grammy in 2017 for Best Americana Album for This Is Where I Live (he was also nominated in a second category for Best Traditional R&B Performance the same year). Having returned to the spotlight, at 81, his National Heritage Fellow accolade adds a much-deserved exclamation point to an already exemplary life, not just as a musician keeping the pure Memphis soul sound alive with his 12-piece band, but for his involvement in a variety of initiatives to mentor younger musicians, including work with the Stax Music Academy.
Bell was instrumental in buying the land in Memphis that had deteriorated into an abandoned lot where the original Stax Studio stood, then raising money to rebuild it from the original blueprints in 2003 into a nearly perfect reproduction of its ’60s prime. That project has now expanded into a Stax museum and most importantly a charter school. The latter provides training for young musicians to get a foothold in the recording industry. Bell feels he’s giving back in a tradition where he was once taught the ropes by elders. “I’ve been mentoring kids for a long time because B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Bobby Bland, and others from that generation took me under their wings, so I like to give back to kids and help them realize their dreams,” he explains. Bell has been associated with the Berklee College of Music and the Take Me to the River Education Initiative, “telling kids the ropes and ins and outs of the music industry, and training them to be successful entrepreneurs in the business.” He saw firsthand how some of his talented peers didn’t navigate the choppy waters of the music industry, resulting with little to show for their work. “As time progresses, you have to … try to protect the value of your creations. That’s what we teach … so that the kids don’t think the performance end of it is the last word.”
Along with Bell’s storied career in music, that sense of passing his knowledge along to the next generation was key to his NEA honor. Others who were recognized this year include a bead artisan, a native American who crafts canoes out of birch bark, and an old-time fiddle and banjo player, all keenly cognizant that unless they share their lifelong knowledge of their craft, it might be lost forever. Although he was previously unaware that he was even considered for the honor, Bell sees himself as a proud member of this eclectic and culturally significant group. It’s one of the reasons he insists on having his full 12-piece band back him at most concerts, to accurately reproduce the Memphis soul sound of which he was an integral architect. Most of his current group have been with him over 20 years. “I insist on having that authenticity. With two or three pieces you cannot reproduce that excitement of the full sound. You’ve gotta have the horns, guitar, couple of keyboards, all going.”
As with most touring musicians, Bell hasn’t played a show in over a year. But he is looking beyond the COVID-19 nightmare to what’s on the other side as he adapts to a new normal. “The old way of traveling and performing is going to be almost nonexistent. I think it’s all going to be online and virtual, so we’re preparing for that now.” He’s staying busy by revamping his studio “to not only record audible stuff but to do video,” having just recorded with the North Mississippi Allstars, and by working on a new set of songs for his long-awaited follow-up to 2016’s album. “I’ve got one more in me, I know,” he laughs.
While the material is still being written, it will surely reflect the same universal truths expressed in the words to his signature tune, “you don’t miss your water, till your well runs dry.” As he says in this video commemorating his NEA Fellow award, “From generation to generation, it’s the same story. Times change, but the outlook on life stays the same.”
April Pandemic Live Shows
Even with vaccinated blues fans on the rise, there are no major blues/roots tours so far this year. But there are plenty of local up-and-coming artists playing smaller neighborhood venues, and this is the time to support them.
Please send upcoming blues events to consider for CL’s Blues & Beyond concert calendar to hal.horowitz at creativeloafing.com.