You may not know William Bell, but you’ll know his co-writes – “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” and “Born Under A Bad Sign,” or you might know his songs which have been performed by everyone from The Byrds to Billy Idol. Garth Cartwright meets the Stax legend, now in the seventh decade of his career.
As a teenager Bell sang on Beale Street when it was the blues Mecca, while at the same time he was part of a radio quartet alongside Isaac Hayes and Carla Thomas, both of whom would join him in achieving fame at Stax Records. B.B. King hosted his show on the same station and became a close friend. A young Al Green – long before he enjoyed a hit single worked alongside Bell on the chitlin’ circuit in the early 60s.
Bell is not only a font of Memphis music lore but one of that fabled city of kings’ greatest singers and songwriters. Aged 82, he has been in the music industry since his early teens and continues to record and perform today. While never a huge star – the likes of Redding, Hayes and Green would experience far greater success – Bell has consistently made strong original music and written several songs that have become standards: You Don’t Miss Your Water, Born Under A Bad Sign, Private Number, I Forgot To Be Your Lover and Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday, to name a few. Everyone from The Byrds and Cream through Lee Perry, Jamie Cullum, Marcia Griffiths and Billy Idol have recorded Bell songs, ensuring he enjoys a lucrative royalty stream when he’s not recording or touring.
A native Memphian, Bell was born in July 1939 as William Yarborough; he adapted his grandmother’s surname, Belle, for showbiz purposes early on. His parents were musical, his mother a gospel singer. Young William grew up singing in church. After he won a talent contest aged 14, Phineas Newborn leader of the city’s finest big band and father to two of the city’s foremost modern jazz musicians hired young William to front his outfit.
Bell formed The Del Rios with classmates at Booker T Washington High School (the quartet included Louis Williams, later of The Ovations, and Norman West, later of The Soul Children). Rufus Thomas helped the vocal group get a one-off single deal with Meteor Records, a regional offshoot of Los Angeles’ Modern label. The Del Rios’ sole 45, Alone On A Rainy Night/Lizzie, was released in November 1956; Bell wrote both tunes and sang lead vocals. Sales were modest and this prompted Bell to consider a career in medicine. While maintaining his studies he kept singing with Newborn’s group. It was when they were on tour in New York that Bell was inspired to write You Don’t Miss Your Water. And so it was that Bell found himself in the old movie theatre that Moman and Jim Stewart (Stax’s co-founder) had converted into a very primitive recording studio. Here, he sang in front of a band that included 17-year-old Booker T. Jones on organ and Howard Grimes on drums. Bell’s mournful vocal on You Don’t Miss Your Water gave the song a gospel flavour and ensured that the tune would forever be considered one of both country-soul and Southern soul’s building blocks. Bizarrely, Stax chose the other tune he cut, Formula Of Love, as the A-side, but DJs quickly flipped the disc, ensuring You Don’t Miss Your Water became a slowburning breakout hit.
Indeed, while only reaching No 95 on the Hot 100 and not registering on the R&B charts at all, You Don’t Miss Your Water sold over 100,000 copies and helped establish Stax. It’s with this 45 that Never Like This Before: The Complete ‘Blue’ Stax Singles 19611968 begins. This Ace Records album is the first of two compilations that will chronologically cover Bell’s entire 45 releases on Stax, from 1961 to a few months before the label collapsed in 1975. The first CD comprises the ‘Blue’ 45s: that was the colour of the Stax label from inception until 1968, when label founder Jim Stewart discovered, to his horror, that the contract he had signed with Atlantic Records was not merely for distribution but made Stax a subsidiary of Atlantic (and thus, in ’68 when Stax wanted out of the deal, Atlantic claimed ownership of every recording it had until then made). The second volume, The Man In The Street: The Yellow’ Stax Solo Singles A’s And B’s 1968 -1974, released in late 2022.