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2023: A Good Year for Soul Music and William Bell
1975. Not such a great year for rhythm and blues music, or soul music, as we called it in those days. Sure, Al Green was still rolling out the hits, as were the Isley Brothers and the Staple Singers. “Lady Marmalade” by Labelle hit number one on the Billboard Soul Chart in February. Produced by Allen Toussaint, “Lady Marmalade” was one of the liveliest hits to top any of the charts that year. Frenetic, but tight and reined in. Truly soulful and a relentless rocker. Still, “Lady Marmalade” was the exception that proved the rule in ‘75. Soul music was losing its edge. There weren’t so many straight-ahead sounds with oomph and attitude coming out of Memphis and Detroit anymore. Smoothed-down productions, like those created by Gamble and Huff in Philadelphia, were in the foreground — and then there was disco, that invasive brand climbing the charts like kudzu and wisteria ascending trees in the southern United States. What was happening to soul music was most troubling. I needed to discuss it with some experts.
So, on a Sunday afternoon in October ‘75, I headed to the Fairmont at Colony Square to talk with the Memphis Horns, in Atlanta that evening to provide force and sheen to the Doobie Brothers’ performance at the Omni. Wayne Jackson, Andrew Love, founding members of the Memphis Horns, were eager to talk about the show and while we were at it, commiserate over what was passing for soul music at the time. Naturally, they had high praise for Al Green, the heir to Otis Redding. Just one year earlier, the album Al Green Explores Your Mind was released, a highlight being Green’s “Take Me to the River,” on which Jackson and Love infused with a smart and driving horn arrangement.
Although they free-lanced with Green, the Doobie Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Ann Peebles, Wilson Pickett et al, Jackson, Love, and the other members of the Memphis Horns were best-known as members of the house band at Stax Records. The house band stayed busy at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis creating sounds that made recordings by Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Sam and Dave, Albert King, William Bell and others among the greatest in the history of American music. From 1959 through 1975, Stax Records was phenomenally successful as an independent record label (Stax entered a partnership with CBS Records in 1972, three years before the label’s bankruptcy), rivaling Motown in sales, airplay, and influence on artists across the musical spectrum.
Most of the artists who made Stax great are no longer with us, but a few are still going strong. Mavis Staples continues to fuse her joyful spirit with an unparalleled blend of gospel, soul, rock and other musical genres. Sam Moore has continued (Dave Prater died in a car crash in 1988) to add his dynamic vocals in live performances, though not always in the right places,* yet he helped to make Bruce Springsteen’s 2022 album, Only the Strong Survive, one of the most satisfying collections of cover songs in this century.
Moore sings with Springsteen on two selections from Only the Strong Survive, “Soul Days” and “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” which were written by Stax alums Booker T. Jones and William Bell. Another Bell composition, “Any Other Way,” also appears on the album, with Springsteen handling the vocals himself.
Of course there’s nothing new about the songs of William Bell being covered by great artists. That began in the ‘60s and has been happening since. His own “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a soul ballad he first recorded in 1961, was covered by the Byrds on their groundbreaking Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, released in August ‘68. The result was estimable: a rock band providing a solid country-western quality, transitioning from Bell’s lightly-rhythmic style. More than a half-century later, both renditions still sound vital and fresh.
Less than three months before the release of the Byrds’ cover of “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” Cream featured “Born Under A Bad Sign,” originally co-written by Jones and Bell for Stax bluesman Albert King, on their album, Wheels of Fire. Talk about great exposure. Wheels of Fire climbed to number one on the US charts, and of course, there was Eric Clapton on guitar. King’s version, first released as a single some 13 months prior, had the advantage of King on vocals and guitar with members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s and the Memphis Horns behind him. King’s superior version only peaked at #49 on the Billboard R&B Top Selling Singles chart, but the exposure Cream gave the song was a career-booster for King. He crossed over to the rock market, playing larger halls like the Fillmore without having to change his style. Soon enough, the rock crowd learned to pay closer attention to King’s albums.
Bell’s songs have also been covered by Linda Ronstadt (“Everyone Loves A Winner” in 1973), Etta James, Jimi Hendrix, Melissa Etheridge, Hall and Oates, Robert Cray, Brian Eno and many others, including Otis Redding, who offered a bluesy and despondent take of “You Don’t Miss Your Water” on his classic 1965 album, Otis Blue.
William Bell takes great pride in knowing his songs from the golden age of soul are still being covered and rediscovered nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century, but he’s hardly resting on his laurels. He’s been busy as a singer and a songwriter over the last several years, recording the album, This Is Where I Live, which won him a Grammy for Best Americana Album in 2017. Bell was all of 77 then, but he was just warming up. This year, reflecting the spirit of one of his new songs, “I Still Go to Parties,” he has released One Day Closer to Home, a collection of new songs which makes 2023 a good year for soul music already.
Nearly every song on One Day Closer To Home is superior to Bell’s 1977 “comeback” hit, “Trying To Love Two,” which made number one on the R&B charts and number ten on the Billboard Hot 100. Eventually over one million copies of the single were sold. People in the business were happy for Bell, a class act who had done far more behind the scenes in the R&B world than was generally known. Still, we would have been happier to have heard Bell take on something with more depth and intensity, like what he’s provided on One Day Closer to Home.
Warm, reflective, and happy-to-be-here, Bell comes across as one who still appreciates the lessons learned by the protagonist in “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” And some 62 years after recording that song, he proves he can still make a solid R&B album that features a potpourri of musical styles. The songs are contemplative, infectious, and always influenced by the human condition. Eleven of the twelve songs on One Day Closer To Home were written or co-written by Bell. Sharing composition duties with Bell on “When I Stop Loving You” is Larry Campbell, who played guitar and other string instruments in Bob Dylan’s band from 1997 through 2004. The Bell-Campbell song is one of the album’s strongest and certainly one of its most soulful offerings. “When I Stop Loving You” takes one back to the mid ‘60s. While looking out the window as the song plays, the listener might expect a few Plymouth Baracudas, Ford XLs, and Pontiac Catalinas to cruise on past. The sound is that genuine.
Bell has history on his side, history he’s made musically, which fuels his determination to keep adding to it. That spirit comes across on the title cut, a bluesy number that conveys remorse and perseverance. “In A Moment Of Weakness” conveys a tone and setting similar to Bob Dylan’s “Soon After Midnight” while “Brag About You” brings to mind the happier and more spirited songs from Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album, The Rising.
On “Georgia Peach,” reminiscent of Edwin Starr’s 1969 hit, “25 Miles,” Bell declares, “I’m going to make my move today.” Actually, Bell has been making his moves since his teen years, singing in the church choirs, then making his way through the years of classic soul music and beyond. Bell hasn’t always been in the spotlight, but even at the age of 83, he’s continued to make his moves. One Step Closer To Home represents one of his best moves. It’s an album that takes an eminent place alongside the albums Mavis Staples recorded with Jeff Tweedy. It’s as reassuring and energetic as Al Green’s The Belle Album and Just Like You by Keb’ Mo’. Make your move today: pick up William Bell’s One Step Closer To Home, and if you “still go to parties,” take it with you.
*Sam Moore performed at a concert during the inaugural events for the 45th president in January 2017.