WILLIAM BELL is an American music institution, even if you don’t know him by name. The legendary singer, songwriter, and Stax Records artist is perhaps best known for "Born Under A Bad Sign," a blues staple made famous by Albert King, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and many others. He’s also known as an artist in his own right, having hits with songs like 1961’s "You Don’t Miss Your Water."
To this day, Bell continues to make incredible soul music — releasing his latest album, the John Leventhal-produced This Is Where I Live, in 2016. The album garnered immense acclaim and won Bell a Grammy award, and also marked Bell’s return to a revitalized Stax Records under the Concord Music banner.
He’ll be coming through Savannah, with special guest Jontavious Willis, for the Savannah Music Festival 2019 Season Kickoff Concert on November 9 at the Lucas Theater.
- Photo by David McClister
“We’re excited to celebrate the rollout of the 30th festival season with the joyful music of both William Bell and Jontavious Willis,” says Ryan McMaken, SMF Artistic Director.
“This co-bill highlights the rich heritage of blues and soul music in Georgia, and is designed to make listeners feel good. It also serves to get the SMF community together — including patrons, supporters, volunteers, staff, crew, and others — to unveil programming that will fill Savannah venues from March 28 through April 13, 2019.”
We spoke to William Bell ahead of his performance about his iconic career.
Tell me about working with John [Leventhal]. It’s an unusual pairing on paper, but it’s such a beautiful album and it worked so well.
WB: We were put together by my management. We got together with John and talked it over, and he was a fan [laughs]. We had talks about the kind of project that we were going to do, and we wanted to kind of retain the music of the Stax era but not just dwell on it. We wanted to broaden it to make it fit in a lot of different genres.
We got together at my studio in Atlanta first and had a couple of meetings, and then I went to New York and had a couple of meetings to pick each other’s brain. But he’s such an iconic musician, producer, and arranger that we just clicked. When we got together and started working on songs, things just sort of fell into place. We wanted to ensure that we had good melodic structure and lyrical content. We didn’t rush it. We took our time. It just started coming together - the more we would write, the easier it got.
I remember being a kid when I first watched the Wattstax documentary. It was evident that everyone’s art was heavily impacted by political and social issues of the time.
- Photo by David McClister
WB: Like the Civil Rights movement.
After so many experiences in life and writing so many songs, when you go to write a song in 2016 - what are you writing about? Do you see any parallels between what was happening back in the '60s and '70s and what's happening now in terms of what you can tackle as a lyricist?
WB: It's ironic that we've come so far, and yet we haven't gained that much. The country is still going through the same struggles that it was going through when we created the Stax music. That's why these songs are so viable now. In doing this project, we wanted to look back, assess life and look at the mistakes you made and the things you accomplished. That's how we approached it. We wrote songs that were still about love, still about hope, and then songs that look back on what you wish you'd done a little differently.
We just wanted to ensure that we did it on a more mature level. You’re in love at my age, but it’s not that hot and passionate thing you had at 18 and 20 years old [laughs]. We had fun doing it, and didn’t know how it would be accepted. But we knew when we finished that we had a good product.
You’ve had so many people cover your songs. You were signed to Stax as a songwriter - was that always your intention, or did you start out wanting to do your own thing as an artist?
WB: Well, I was always writing - even as a kid. I was an only child, and it was like escapism for me to write my feelings on paper. It's like therapy [laughs]. So I did a lot of poems. I started in church at 7 years old singing with the choir, and then started doing secular music when I was about 14. I got a job on the weekend at a nightclub called The Flamingo Room and formed a vocal group called the Del Rios. We were asked by Stax to do some background work for Carla Thomas' "Gee Whiz," and that's how we came to the attention of Stax.
Three of the guys in the group were older than I was, so they got drafted into the military and I was asked to do a solo project. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was my first solo project and we had a national hit record with that. I was the third act they signed, and the first single male act that they signed.
Do you think the traditional business model still viable? Will music always sell and resonate if it’s genuine and really speaks to audiences?
WB: Technology has changed the way we record, the way we distribute, and the way we listen to music. I think, though, that there are a lot of things that are lost within the industry. There's too much technology. I still listen to vinyl, and sometimes the imperfections in creation are what make it work.
We mix in Pro Tools and Logic and things like that, but I like bodies in the studio. I like feeding off of people and exchanging ideas. A lot of that is lost because everybody is a one-man operation. You don’t have the camaraderie of listening to another individual and saying, “Okay, I see what you’re doing but I hear this on the song.” I think that makes for a better product when you have different people’s input.
As far as the industry, it’s still built on the basic foundation. But the way we approach the distribution is so much different now. A lot of the artwork on the old albums was just iconic - even on CDs. We’ve kind of gotten away from that, and I wish we’d find a way to be more inclusive of all of that. Rather than just listening to the music and seeing a thumbnail.