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Interview: William Bell, born under a bad sign

The Stax singer-songwriter performs May 5 at Jazz Fest 2017


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When William Bell needed a studio to record his 1976 hit "Tryin' to Love Two," he called his army buddy Allen Toussaint, who had recently opened a studio with Marshall Sehorn. Bell — among the founding stars of the Stax Records sound — was stationed at Louisiana's Fort Polk with Toussaint in the '60s.

  "I called Allen and Marshall up and said, 'Hey man, you guys got any openings in the studio?'" Bell remembers. "Allen said, 'Man, come on down here. You got carte blanche.' I came down, he put me a rhythm section together, and we got a million seller out of it."

  Bell recorded at Sea-Saint Studios with members of Chocolate Milk on the rhythm track and Toussaint at the helm. The single eventually hit No. 1 on Billboard's R&B chart and cracked the Hot 100, kicking off 1977's Coming Back for More. It was his first release following the end of Stax, which produced his hits "You Don't Miss Your Water" and "Born Under a Bad Sign."

  Last year, Bell returned to the recently resurrected Memphis label for his Grammy Award-winning This is Where I Live, a showcase for the legacy of soul and rhythm and blues he helped design.

  "I didn't want to reinvent the wheel," Bell says. "I write about life, and it tells a story, something people can relate to and sink their teeth into, and think about it 10 years later and think about where they were the first time they heard that song. We wanted to write some clever lyrical things and tell a complete story in song, not like a lot of modern stuff with just a beat, a groove and a chant. We wanted to make a good melody with it. We really took our time. We wanted to retain some of that essence."

  Bell stepped out as lead voice of his church choir at age 7, but at home, he studied his heroes. "I had a strong voice and I had a good sense of melody," he says. "I was a Sam Cooke fan — even at that age I'd listen to the Soul Stirrers records — and being a loner by myself, listening to music was my company those days."

  At age 14, Bell was working at Memphis' Flamingo Room, where he picked up the turns of phrase that influenced his signature writing style — honest, hopelessly romantic and studded with self-deprecating humor. "I'd keep my ears and eyes open and hear all these different sayings," he says. "I was like a sponge. I just soaked up everything back then and wanted to know all about [the] music business ... Writing to me was a cleansing experience. I'd write to get my feelings out."

  Stax producer Chips Moman discovered Bell at the Flamingo and asked him to sing backup on "Gee Whiz," the 1961 hit for early Stax star Carla Thomas. Moman then asked Bell to cut a solo record. The unlikely B-side, "You Don't Miss Your Water," which Bell assumed was a rough cut, became one of his most enduring songs, covered by dozens of artists from Otis Redding to Brian Eno.

  "There was definitely an energy about the entire place, from the clerical workers to the musicians," he says. "There was a friendly atmosphere. We knew we were having fun, we knew we were doing something we enjoyed and creating songs people loved, but we didn't know we'd have the longevity we had."

  "You Don't Miss Your Water" first went No. 1 in New Orleans, where promoter Percy Stovall booked Bell on a tour through Mississippi and Louisiana. He played gigs alongside Chris Kenner, Robert Parker and Ernie K-Doe, among others.

  "We were always up and down the highway — even before I-55 came along," Bell says. "But there's a common denominator in that Delta area for all of us, from the cotton fields, to the churches, the blues from Memphis, the jazz from New Orleans. It all blended together ... We go way back down there. That's like a second home to me ... Any time I get hungry I go to New Orleans. They always want to feed you."

  Bell returns to New Orleans for his first appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, with a 10-piece band, horn section, backup singers, and "the whole enchilada," he says, performing a repertoire of hits and songs from his acclaimed recent album.

  "With writing, I've gotten much, much older," Bell says, laughing. "I always write about love situations. I was thinking, 'Well, when you get older it's not that hot and heavy passionate thing. But it's still a solid love thing. You've got more experience.'"


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