“Ballads can really make a difference in people’s lives,” says William Bell, 76, of his musical tendencies. “I go uptempo some, but my forte is the soul ballad.” As one of the finest American pop balladeers of the past half-century, Bell should know. His love serenades have forged romances and broken hearts in bedrooms and dancefloors for decades, ever since the Memphis-born singer recorded his very first hit in 1961 with “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a song that has since become a country/soul standard.
“There’s a responsibility to write a great ballad that tells a story and talks about life,” Bell continues, speaking from his home in Atlanta on a recent Thursday afternoon. “You can tell a better story with a ballad, people are more tuned in to them. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I met my wife because of ‘I Forgot to be Your Lover,’’ or, ‘My first kid was born to ‘Everybody Loves a Winner.””
Approximately 45 years after his initial hit, William Bell is releasing his finest batch of ballads yet; This Is Where I Live is Bell’s first new album in ten years, and its collection of hard-won wisdoms and melancholy reflections on a life of joy and hardship are more essential than ever. Although he’s never stopped making music, regularly releasing albums every so often in recent decades on his own label, Bell’s latest effort is being released by his original label Stax Records and was produced by Rosanne Cash’s creative partner and producer John Leventhal. It is far and away his highest-profile release since the 70s, and it’s a record that should help the artist who writer Peter Guralnick once called “the most underrated of all the major soul singers” earn some much-deserved late-career attention and acclaim.
From the first notes of the wistful opening track “The Three of Me,” This Is Where I Live announces itself as a tender statement on sensuality, deception, regret and devotion, a forthright update of sorts on the very themes Bell has been singing about his whole life.
“We talk about love on the album, but it’s not the hot and heavy, passionate thing that it was when I was a twenty year old,” he says of compassionate numbers like “I Will Take Care of You” and “Walking on a Tightrope.” “We talk about it more reflectively: what I should have done, the love that’s lost, the love that’s gained, and what I’ve learned in life.” On the new record, Bell does this most effectively, unsurprisingly, by singing ballads. These songs are wrapped in Leventhal’s glossy elegance, a force that highlights the delicate beauty of Bell’s world-weary tenor.
Photo by David McClister
Bell has loved ballads ever since he was a child, when he grew up in Memphis during the 50s listening less to his hometown’s burgeoning blues and r&b but rather, idolizing crooners like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and, above all else, Sam Cooke. “I was a weird kid,” he says of his idiosyncratic musical tastes as a child.
At the age of ten, Bell wrote his first-ever composition. The song was called “Alone On A Rainy Night,” and it would eventually be recorded with the Del-Rios, the teenage vocal group whose local success in Memphis eventually helped Bell catch the attention of Stax Records, which, at the turn of the 60s, was still in its earliest stages as a label and was looking to sign initial solo acts in the wake of early successes with Rufus and Carla Thomas.
After becoming the label’s first-ever solo male act, Bell developed his signature style as a songwriter, producer, and singer over the course of his thirteen years at Stax. Songs like “Share What You Got (And Keep What You Need),” “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday,” and “Private Number” were cosmopolitan offerings fusing Bell’s eloquent songwriting with his sensitive voice that offered a softer, more introspective side to the feverish, funk-leaning Southern r&b that Stax was best known for during its heyday. Yet despite his asynchronous musical tendencies, Bell quietly became one of the label’s most consistent voices from 1966 to 1969, scoring 12 charting singles, half of which cracked the r&b’s Top 30.
Whereas many of his labelmates struggled to remain relevant as the 60s turned into the 70s, Bell flourished in the next decade, adapting to changing sounds and modern recording techniques on his career-defining 1977 album Coming Back For More. In the 80s and 90s Bell continued to produce, write and record albums, scoring a few minor r&b hits in the mid 80s.
Photo by Ginette Callaway
Part of the strength of Bell’s latest batch of songs comes from the diverse strands of American music the album draws from, whether it’s the plaintive folk on “All Your Stories,” a chilling Jesse Winchester cover, the shuffling blues of “Poison In The Well,” the country-funk of “Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge” or the celebratory gospel of the album closer “People Want To Go Home.” This Is Where I Live is an Americana record in the truest (and best) sense of the word, an album that merges traditional forms, turning them into something else altogether in the process. “We were striving to make it a little broader than the average soul record,” says Bell, who was particularly happy to be able to incorporate his country and folk influences on the album.
Through it all, Bell’s voice, which has a newfound sense of graceful depth after six decades of singing, wrings emotion out of the most unsuspecting lines. When he sings, “You can slam the door and walk from here to Georgia,” on “Walking on a Tightrope,” his voice bends upwards and opens up in a moment of vulnerability when singing that final word, as if he’s channeling into that single moment all the ups and downs of the past 40+ years he has spent living in his adopted home state.
Today, Bell is part of an increasingly small group of his contemporaries from Stax that are still musically active. Some, like Sam Moore and Eddie Floyd, still perform sporadically, often at tribute concerts like the White House’s 2013 tribute to Memphis soul. Others, like Booker T. Jones and Mavis Staples, still release new music and tour regularly.
Bell, however, is the only Stax alumni, and one of the few artists of any genre from the 60s for that matter, releasing the best music of his career in his eighth decade, 65-some odd years after he wrote his first-ever song.
“I’m thankful to be still standing and viable and in demand,” Bell says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be healthy and vibrant and I work at keeping my body in good shape, because good health is everything. It’s wonderful to still be around to see the changes in music and still be a part of it.”
On his new record, William Bell shows that not only is he still musically vital in 2016 but rather, that sometimes it can take 50 years to make the record that most perfectly sums up your artistry, the record you were always destined to make.
William Bell will be performing at the Cutting Room in Manhattan on Tuesday, June 7th and at at Metrotech Commons as part of BAM’s free, outdoors 2016 R&B Festival at noon on Thursday, June 9th. This Is Where I Live is out today via Stax Records, get it here.