It’s always a pleasure to talk to Mr. William
Bell. He’s an easy-going gentleman and – considering his over 60-year
career – he has great stories to tell. Furthermore, when watching his
energetic show on the stage, it’s hard to believe that’s the same calm and laid-back
artist you just conversed with. I conducted an update interview with him three
weeks ago. In the latter part of the column three CDs are reviewed, including
two fine compilations.
Picture a huge tent, which houses over
1,500 seated people, by a beautiful bay in the centre of the city. Soon out of
that tent thrilling soul sounds start sweeping across the bay. William Bell has
hit the stage with his 8-member entourage. As part of the Helsinki Festival (http://www.helsinginjuhlaviikot.fi/en/),
William’s concert took place on August the 23rd in 2017.
His 15-song set consisted both of his big
yesteryear hits – You Don’t Miss Your Water, Any Other Way, Everybody Loves
a Winner, Eloise (Hang on in There), Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday, Private
Number (with Suzie Furlonger) , I Forgot to Be Your Lover, Tryin’
to Love Two, Easy Comin’ Out (Hard Goin’ in) – and numbers from his latest award-winning
CD, This Is Where I Live, including the title track, The Three of Me,
Born Under a Bad Sign, Poison in the Well, Mississippi Arkansas Bridge and I
Will Take Care of You. It was an impressive show, truly dynamic hour and a
half. William was in a strong voice and he especially masters the moments,
when he brings the band down. In an almost total silence and with the audience
practically holding its breath, William manages to keep the atmosphere highly
charged and never lets the emotional intensity drop.
Introduced by the MC as “the legendary
Strax label recording artist”, this wasn’t the first time William had hit our
shores. Actually the last time he was here at the Pori Jazz Festival in 2008,
we went through his whole career, and you can read the complete story at http://www.soulexpress.net/williambell.htm.
A RECENT GRAMMY WINNER
William’s critically acclaimed CD from
last year, This Is Where I Live, delightfully turned also into a commercial
success. William: “It was like a shining armour as far as the career – very
helpful and rewarding – and, of course, a Grammy for it helped an awful lot,
tremendously (“Best Americana Album”). We hadn’t done a CD in a while, so it
was good having it back on Stax. Actually last year was an award-winning year
for me, because I got quite a few prestigious awards: Memphis music award, the
Grammy award and the Americana award.” William was inducted into the Memphis
Music Hall of Fame on November the 3rd in 2016 and he received the
Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at Americana Music Awards on
September the 21st in Nashville.
His August visit to Europe was a short
one this time. “The movie Take Me to the River (http://www.soulexpress.net/deep2_2016.htm#river)
had been very successful and that triggered awful lot of other events along
with the touring. We have a tour coming up, starting in September and going
all the way through November. It’s got Bobby Rush, Charlie Musselwhite and
Stax Kids on it.”
The 7-week “Take Me to the River” tour in
the U.S.A. this fall consists of over thirty concerts. “I try to keep my body
in good condition. At my age I have to. It’s going to be gruelling to a
degree, but we’re used to years of travelling and touring. We’ve been actually
very busy the beginning of this year. I think we’ve been to Spain three times,
to the U.K. a couple of times, to Amsterdam and quite a few other places.”
You might associate the Take Me to the
River DVD with William’s short acting career in the 1970s. He had a role
in Michael Schultz’s 1972 movie Together for Days. “We had some
other things that I don’t think were released, but Together for Days was.
It didn’t make a big success out of it, but that was the first one we did and
that was the first for Samuel L. Jackson also (laughing). Actually Take
Me to the River was supposed to be just a documentary, but then we added
some other stuff like working with the kids and broadened it a little bit.”
William studied acting at the Academy
Theater in Atlanta in the mid-70s. “I was there for two and a half years. We
went to a lot of classes. I studied filmmaking under a lady by the name of Mary
Nell Santacroce, who acted in a lot of movies.” William, however, didn’t
embark on an acting career, but returned to recording in 1976. “This was the
time of blaxploitation movies, and the only scripts that I got were to play
pimps and hustlers (laughing). I just wanted something with more substance.
So when Charles Fach at Mercury asked me about recording again, I was a
little reluctant because of the Stax situation. Finally he convinced me and I
agreed to do four songs and I got a million plus seller record from those
songs, Tryin’ to Love Two. I did a cameo part in a little movie out of
the U.S. last year. It was on one channel for a couple of nights, so I’ve been
dabbling in it for awhile.”
On William’s own Wilbe label there have
been 23 album releases altogether since 1985, but the last one by Total
Package came out already five years ago. “Total Package is actually my
touring band, and we got so busy touring that we couldn’t get into the studio
to do creative thing. Here I have actually a European band with me that I’ve
been using for about two or three years. Total Package is 14 members, so it’s
a lot of money flying and everything.”
In Helsinki William had Michael
Summerland on guitar, Dave Lennox on keys, Dave Jenkins on
bass and Peter Stroud on drums. The horn section consisted of Greg
Heath and Peter Lukas on saxophones and Kevin Robinson on
trumpet. Suzie was the background singer and co-vocalist.
“We just completed another recording on Jeff
Floyd and we’re working on Lola. Jeff’s CD will come out very soon
and Lola probably the top of the year. We might have a single on her prior to
the year ending.” Jeff has released four albums on Wilbe so far (Powerhouse,
The Power Is Still on, Keepin’ It Real and Watch Me Work), whereas
Lola has only one, Give Her What She Wants (http://www.soulexpress.net/deep108.htm#lola).
One of the Wilbe artists, Fred Bolton, passed away in late 2009 at the
age of only forty-one. “His kidneys failed on him and it was a shock to all of
us, because it was so sudden and he had been in sessions the whole week. Then
he went home and over the weekend he passed” (http://www.soulexpress.net/deep207.htm#fredbolton).
Wilbe Studios in the Atlanta region are used only for William’s artists and
his own purposes. “We also do a lot of songs for movies and stuff like that.
It’s not for outside activity.”
GOOD MUSIC ON THE RISE
William Bell together with Heikki Suosalo
“I think that there’s a resurgence right
now and interest in black music. My success with this Take Me to the River project
and the new CD on Stax, This Is Where I Live, has kind of triggered off
that 60s and 70s sound, because a lot of the artists are getting back out
there, like Charles Bradley. I see a lot of younger artists gravitating
towards that, so hopefully we have triggered off again a new era in southern
soul and black music. The music is so heartfelt. It just needs to be
perpetuated and kept out there.”
“My follow-up will come out next year.
I’m doing some writing on it. I have been in discussion with John Leventhal
(the producer of This Is Where I Live), who has expressed an
interest in working with me again on another project. He and his wife Roseanne
are doing some music for a Broadway show. He’s been busy this summer and
I’ve been going for shows, but we hopefully get together in September in New
York and hopefully in the wintertime we’ll get into the studio and get another
ready for next year.”
“I’ve got such a great fan base. They’re
like my rock. They’ve been with me all these years, as well as the
disc-jockeys and the media people. It’s just wonderful to know after sixty
years in the business that you do have a following, because our business is such
a roller coaster thing. I would just like to thank everybody for being there
for me and supporting my career, even the down times. I’ve been able to ride
the crest of the waves and then in the valleys too. That’s why I strive so
hard to put my best efforts out there for product, material, songs and
everything, because I do know that as an artist we influence a lot of people
and we have a lot of people supporting us. So I’d like to take the time and
thank them for that” (www.williambell.com).
(Interview conducted on August the 22nd
in 2017; acknowledgements to William Bell, Charles Driebe and Laura
When I purchased (I Got That)
Thunder under Yonder; ECD 1173; www.eckorecords.com)
and started listening to it, I was really delighted to hear the first track, an
irresistible dancer and a guaranteed floor-filler called I’m So Confused.
I also liked the track # 2, a quick-tempo and brisk mover named Power Stroke.
But then came track # 3, Ms. Jody’s Energizer Slide, which possibly is
inspired by her two earlier tracks – Energizer Bunny and Ms. Jody’s
Boogie Slide – but which just repeats many age-old dance music clichés and
introduces that unfortunate voice-distortion “filter”, which immediately puts
me off. This Slide simply is a non-innovative chant, in spite of the
fact that Vertie aka Ms. Jody is again remotely flirting with zydeco sound.
This track may attract certain marginal groups, but a long-time Ms. Jody fan
like me is not thrilled at all. Unfortunately there are still two more
similarly constructed tracks ahead, albeit more listenable and decent.
But she gets back on the right track on
the mid-tempo and smooth Another Other Woman, on the gentle Let It
Flow and on the mellow and melancholic You’re Letting a Good Man’s Lovin’
Go to Waste. For variety, Stir it up is a Caribbean fiesta song and
Where I Come From is actually straight country-rock. I only wish she
wouldn’t Slide anymore.
Sometimes everything falls into place.
The 2 ½-year collaboration between the singer Wilson Pickett and the
songwriter Bobby Womack is one the highlights in the history of soul
music, and it resulted in 17 outstanding tracks, which are all gathered on Wilson
Pickett Sings Bobby Womack (CDTOP 467; www.acerecords.com; 20 tracks, 54 min.).
In the liners Cliff White, Bob Fisher and Tony Rounce reveal the
peculiar and long-lasting history of the making of this compilation, and all I
can say is that we’re lucky someone had persistence.
These tracks were spread on six Wilson
Pickett albums between 1966 and ‘69, but I’m in Love (1967) and The
Midnight Mover (1968) are the core LPs in terms of both quantity and
quality. Among the eight funky and infectious dancers there are I Found a
True Love, I’m a Midnight Mover and the more mid-tempo Remember, I been
good to you.
All nine ballads are first-rate. If
you’re not touched by I’m Sorry about That, Jealous Love, It’s a Groove or
I’ve Come a Long Way, then perhaps real soul music is not your genre.
According to what Wilson said in our interview in the early 80s, I’m in Love
is his own favourite out of all the songs he had recorded. As a bonus
there are both sides of Bobby Womack’s Atlantic single (Find Me somebody/How
Does It Feel), recorded in December 1966, and Wilson singing Sam Cooke’s
Bring It on Home to Me. This, if any, is an essential compilation!
Mainstream Modern Soul 2 –
1969-1976 (CDKEND 468; 23 tracks, 75 min.; notes by Ady Croasdell)
consists of releases from Bob Shad’s Mainstream imprint and its four
subsidiaries. Luckily Bob favoured full background sound and rich
orchestration, which make these tracks all the more attractive. Also Bob’s
jazz background comes through in the middle of this compilation, where a parade
of ballads is interrupted by three jazzy movers: Alice Clark’s Never
Did I Stop Loving You, Bobby Earl Williams’ Let Her Know and Ellerine
Harding’s I Know Something You Don’t Know.
Some tracks were leased from cities like
Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans. For instance, that aforementioned ballad
parade starts with the intense I’ll Never Trust Love Again by McArthur
out of Detroit. Lenny Welch’s When There’s No Such Thing as Love
(It’s over) and Lenny McDaniel & the Last Nikle’s I’ve
Been Trying to Love You are both big ballads, while I’ve Got to Tell You
by Count Willie with LRL & the Dukes is the deepest one. Nia
Johnson’s You Are the Spice of My Life and Steptones’ Your
Love Is like the Rising Sun – again Detroit! – are smoother and more
Add to this parade still Lee Bates’
very slow Your Love Is Slipping Away (out of New Orleans) and Jeany
Reynolds’ Please Don’t Set Me Free from her debut single. Her
brother Larry, aka L.J. Reynolds, sings on the background. Special
Delivery without Terry Huff “delivers” a sweet ballad titled Come
Back with Your Love, and Terry himself without original Special Delivery
members offers a pleasant and light disco dancer named Where There’s a Will (There’s
a Way). Other dancers include Randolph Brown’s – actually Randy
Brown – You Can Be Cured and Chapter Three’s I’ll Never Be
the Same, which bears a resemblance to some of those smooth disco hits that
the Three Degrees used to excel on. With Almeta Lattimore’s Oh
My Love we travel to Detroit again, but You’ve Got a Lot to Give by Chocolate
Syrup is not L.J. Reynolds’ group this time. The compilation closes with Linda
Perry’s fascinating neo-doowop ballad called Everyone Has Someone.
I listed almost every track simply because I enjoyed this CD and the
well-produced music on it a lot.