William Bell cut his first single at the age of 14. The year was 1956 and though he wasn’t old enough to even be there, Bell was a working musician at the famed Flamingo Club in Memphis, Tenn. The single, “Alone on a Rainy Night” b/w “Lizzie,” by his group the Del Rios, didn’t reach too far outside of Memphis, but it caught the attention of Stax Records. By ‘61 Bell was signed as the label’s first male solo act. His Stax debut, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” sold over a million copies. Since then his songs have been covered by everyone from Eric Clapton to Billy Idol to Ludacris. Even Jimi Hendrix covered the Bell/Albert King-penned “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
Bell currently lives in Atlanta, and runs Wilbe Records, producing and managing soul and R&B acts, as well as releasing his own material. His latest CD, New Lease on Life, is a smooth and impassioned album that resonates with the emotions of a player who’s spent 50 years in the game and shows no signs of folding. Georgia Music recently asked the legendary recording artist and songwriter a few questions.
What are some of the “hits” you’ve written?
“I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday,” which has become a Christmas standard. “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” appears on Ludacris’ Word of Mouf. Dilated Peoples did “Private Number” recently.
Is it hard to be humble after so many superstars have recorded your songs?
No. I don’t like to toot my own horn.
You were working as a musician in Memphis throughout the Civil Rights era. Did you have to face any of that?
Stax had a totally integrated staff, including the musicians. We experienced a lot of that not only in Memphis, but everywhere. In many ways we helped bring down the Jim Crow laws. If not all of us were allowed to stay in a hotel, then nobody stayed. But we overcame all of it and always said, “if you love the music, that’s what we’re here about.”
Who were some of your influences when you started writing songs?
I grew up in the Baptist church. My mom sang in the choir and I did, too. Then I started doing solo things as a very young kid. I started working with a big band. It was the Phineas Newborn Orchestra. My mom gave me permission to go down on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and work at The Flamingo. It was a 14-piece orchestra and we were doing standards. I was only 14-years-old and that’s when I started writing. Some great musicians came out of Phineas Newborn’s Orchestra: Charles Lloyd, Fathead Newman, Hank Crawford. Both Fathead and Hank went on to write with Ray Charles. I had the benefit of working with these guys when I was a 14-year-old kid.
Do you still listen to a lot of music?
We have a studio here where we do a lot of production work on the acts that I’ve signed. I have five acts on Wilbe, not including myself. There’s a young lady by the name of Lola who lives in Atlanta, and a young man by the name Fred Bolton out of Birmingham. Jeff Floyd is another act that we’re working with, producing and managing. He’s a very big act out of Florida in the Southern soul genre.
How long have you had the label?
About 10-15 years. It’s been a labor of love, for sure.
Do you listen to much hip-hop?
I do. We’ve produced some hip-hop for other labels, but we mostly deal with R&B and soul. There are a lot of great R&B and soul acts right here in the city, but the radio stations concentrate on urban music. There are some really viable acts in Atlanta. If you go 100 miles outside of Atlanta, you’ll here all kinds of brand new music from them…that’s a hint for anyone who works in radio and is reading this. Start playing some new soul music, not just the tried and true oldies, goldies and Motown!