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Part 1 (1956 – 1969)

Click here for the Part 2 (1970-2008)

Click here for the William Bell Discography

Click here for the William Bell CD Shop

  “My grandmother’s first name was Belle.  I just dropped the ‘e’.  Everybody said that I looked so much like my grandmother until they called me ‘Little Belle’, so it just kinda stuck.  I was a weird kid.  Of course, Sam Cooke was my hero, but I also liked Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.  Even as a young kid I was listening to more love ballads and the romantic type of music.”

  William Henry Yarborough was born on July 16 in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee.  “When my mother was alive, she was a singer in church.  My sister is deceased now, and I have a brother, who’s still in Memphis.  I have a cousin that’s in music, Ernestine Dillard (, but she sings gospel.”

  Since church music was an integral part of William’s family, it was only natural that the first forum for his music was church, too.  “I started singing in a local Baptist church early, around seven or eight, and I moved to the secular side, when I was around fourteen.  My mom didn’t react too good to it, because she wanted me to sing gospel, but she finally agreed me to work with the old man Phineas Newborn and his group.  My mom was more against it than my father.  Father was a regular day labourer and he sang also.  He travelled a lot in one of those gospel groups.  They had a divorce pretty early, so he was not really at home a lot.”

  A graduate of Booker T. Washington High school in Memphis, William was supposed to become a doctor.  “I was, and my family was kinda hoping that I would become a doctor.  There wasn’t a doctor in the family, and I would have been the first to graduate college and everything, but I got into the music, of course, by having a hit record early, You Don’t Miss Your Water.  I figured I’d go back to college the next semester, so I dropped out… and I kept getting hit records.”

  Booker T. Washington was a school for a lot of upcoming talent in the Memphis area – Rufus Thomas, Booker T. Jones, David Porter, Homer Banks, J. Blackfoot… “and Al Jackson, he was there, too.  We all went to Booker T. Washington, and we’ve been friends since the early teenage days.”

  At sixteen William entered a talent contest.  “That was my first contest.  It was a Mid-South Talent Contest that they held in a Tri-state area for talent from Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.  I got the first prize, which was a trip to Chicago to work with the Red Saunders band (  It was just for the weekend at Club DeLisa.  That was my first trip to Chicago.”


  “Right after Chicago I came to the attention of Phineas Newborn in Memphis, and I started working at Clifford Miller’s Flamingo Room.  Phineas and Red Saunders were friends.  Red had called and told him of the good job I had done and he, of course, contacted me.  He had to get permission from my mom, which was not an easy task, but he got okay from her for me to work at the Flamingo Room on weekends.”

  William went on to work with Phineas on and off for about five years, until he came up with his first solo record in 1961.  “Working with Phineas was like going to a school, going to a university.  He had all of those great jazz musicians in the band from Hank Crawford, Fathead Newman, Charles Lloyd, Phineas, Jr.  He had a big orchestra, like Count Basie.  It was like a 14-piece orchestra.  I didn’t record anything with Mr. Newborn, though.”

  In 1956 there was a call for an r&b group, so William formed the Del-Rios.  “I formed the group right after I started gigging at the Flamingo Room.  When I first started, I was doing like big band type of stuff – the standards, the ballads and all of that stuff with the Phineas Newborn Orchestra.  On Sunday afternoons they had a fashion show and what they called ‘a tea dance’, and we would do jazz stuff then.  Then they wanted more of the current stuff, and most of it was like the doowop groups, so I formed a group of guys.  During night-time we did all of the latest rhythm & blues tunes with Phineas.  I worked with him during the night-time with the group, but during the tea dances and fashion shows I was a solo artist with him.  The Del-Rios rehearsed at my mom’s house, and we got it really tight.  We became very popular in and around Memphis and all of the college circuit.”

  The first line-up of the group was William, Harrison Austin, Louis Williams, David Brown and Roy Webb.  “It was a couple of years that we had the original group.  David got drafted first.  He was the oldest.  He was like twenty-three.  Melvin Jones came in to take David’s place.  They both sang bass.  Then Roy that was older got drafted, so we had to re-group and get new members.”  Besides Phineas, the group worked also with the combos of Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, Ben Branch and Willie Mitchell.


  “I came to the attention of Lester Bihari after winning the Mid-South Talent Contest.  I made my first recording for his Meteor label, and I was still in high school.  I recorded a song I had written called Alone on a Rainy Nite.  Rufus Thomas’ band, the Bear Cats, was the rhythm section on the recording.  That was just after I got back from Chicago.  Alone on a Rainy Nite is one of those – before it was fashionable – Southern soul ballads (laughing) and Lizzie on the b-side is an uptempo song, almost like There Is Love” (a later release on Stax).

  The single was credited to “the Del Rios with The Bear Cats” and it was released on Meteor 5038 in late 1956, and it made some noise but only locally.

  “I worked with Rufus Thomas quite a bit.  Rufus was like a surrogate father to us all.  I knew him and grew up with Marvell, Carla and all of his kids.  I worked with him at a place there in Memphis called the Palace Theater.  He was an older man.  He was probably in his thirties by then.  Rufus had at that time a dance & comedy routine… dance girls and everything.  They would let me sneak in the back door, so I could watch the show from backstage.”

  William’s Del-Rios cut three singles altogether, so all the other recordings (on Big H, Earth, Amazon, Neptune, Warwick etc.) under the name of the Del-Rios are by other groups.  A ballad called Heavenly Angel with an uptempo track titled Dangerous Lover formed the second single three years later on Bet…T 7001.  “Betty Berger was during that time a night club owner.  She and her husband owned the Plantation Inn in West Memphis, right across the Mississippi river in Arkansas.  We would do two gigs on the weekend.  We would play for the college kids at the Plantation Inn, which was like a high energy dance club, and then we had a later set at the Flamingo Room.  We recorded that single for her.”

  There are also rumours about one unreleased Del-Rios song called The Other Side of Town.  “I did record that, but I don’t know if that had been released or not.  I believe that was solo.”

  Alongside the Del-Rios, the Satellite recording group, the Veltones, was highly popular in the Memphis area in the late 50s and Isaac HayesTeen Tones and David Porter’s Marquettes were tough rivals, too.  “We all knew each other.  We were good friends.  I knew David from many years.  Isaac went to a different school, but I knew him.  We all sang with the Teen Tones at one time or another.”  There’s also uncertainty over the background vocals on Carla Thomas’ early ’61 hit, Gee Whiz.  “The Veltones did it originally, and there was some discordance with harmonies – they were singing flat – and that’s when we were called to correct everything.”


  Meeting with a producer, writer, engineer and musician for early Satellite/Stax, Chips Moman, led to William’s first solo single.  “I met him, when we did the back-up for Carla Thomas.  That was the first time.  Lewis Steinberg originally was the bass player for the MG’s and he played the Flamingo Room, too, with another group sometimes as an added attraction.  They had asked Lewis and he knew of our group, and I think he recommended us to do the background, and that was the first time I met Chips Moman.”

  Chips didn’t suggest the solo single the first time they met, but soon started hinting in that direction.  “I was the youngest of the Del-Rios at the time.  Chips started asking me, why don’t you do a single recording and I always resisted it, because I did that Meteor recording and it was popular with the college crowd and in the Tri-state area but not a national hit or anything.  I was just kinda disillusioned with the recording industry.  Of course, I never got paid any money for it.  So I was not too receptive of going back into cutting another record for somebody” (laughing).

  Soul enthusiasts admire Chips’ work in the 60s and early 70s, but behind the scenes he’s also known to lose his temper sometimes.  “I’ve seen that side of him, but he was never that way with me.  Sometimes you like a person and you just hit it off.  Chips and I from the very first meeting just clicked.  From then on we would talk on the phone from time to time, even when we hadn’t started working together.  He kept asking why don’t you come over and do this and do that, and I ‘nah’… So finally I met him in a grocery store out of all the places.  He said ‘you’re ready to record yet’, and I said ‘well, when I get back I’ll call you’.  I was going to New York with the old man Phineas for the summer to work up there.”

  “That summer (1961) that I was up there I guess I was homesick, so I wrote You Don’t Miss Your Water and a couple of other tunes, and, when I got back, before I could call him he called me.  I went over and cut four sides.  You Don’t Miss Your Water was one of them and Formula of Love another.  I don’t think those other two have been released, because they brought me back, once we got a hit with You Never Miss Your Water, to record other material.”

  Released in the autumn of 1961, You Don’t Miss Your Water is a beautiful, plaintive, country-slanted and also slightly bluesy ballad, which scraped the bottom of Billboard’s “Hot 100” the following year by stalling at # 95.  The single was engineered and produced by Chips Moman and William was backed by the Volt recording group called the Triumphs (Marvell Thomas, Booker T. Jones, Lewis Steinberg, Ron Capone).  Formula of Love, a poppy ditty, was meant to be the plug side, though.  “Jim Stewart didn’t like You Don’t Miss Your Water.  He thought it was too gospel-orientated.  Mrs. Axton persisted and she loved the song.  She convinced Jim to release it, and he agreed to do it as a b-side.”  It didn’t take long for the dee-jays to flip the disc and make Water a local hit.  Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, a brother and a sister, were the founders of the Stax Records in 1959, at that point still under the name of Satellite.


  In 1962 the Del-Rios released their third and final single with William in the line-up, Just across the Street/There’s a Love (Stax 125).  William wrote both songs and leads on the perky and strongly doowop-slanted There’s a Love, while Louis Williams leads on a sweet and tender ballad on the flip.  “During our performances Louis sang lead on a lot of stuff and mainly all the Sam Cooke songs, because he had this distinctive voice.  Without even trying he sounded exactly like Sam Cooke for some reason.  We shared the lead singing.”

  Besides William and Louis, the other Del-Rios boys at that time were Harrison Austin and Robert Huntley, and soon Norman West was to join the group.  “Norman had just moved up from Monroe, Louisiana.  He and I kinda hit it off again, too, and he really started while I was still there.”  After You Don’t Miss Your Water had become popular in the spring of 1962, William left the group.  “Nathan Lewis might have taken my spot on some things after I left.”  Before breaking up for good, the latter members of the Del-Rios still included James Taylor (replaced Louis Williams), Johnny Jackson (replaced Harrison Austin) and Prentiss Anderson.  Louis and Nathan went on to become the Four Canes first and then the Ovations, and Norman West went solo and in 1968 became a member of the Soul Children (see

  William’s follow-up to Water in 1962 was a tight and hooky uptown mover called Any Other Way (Stax 128), which still today creates a lot of energy both on stage, and among the audience.  It bears a lot of resemblance to the music Chuck Jackson used to record those days, and actually Chuck recorded the song himself, too.  “On my first tour Chuck and I became friends, because during that time you can only stay in the black areas and in the black hotels.  On tour, I think in Nashville, everybody had a room but me, so Chuck had one of his musicians double up and let me have his room.  So he and I became very good friends, and we still are.  We talk at least once or twice a week.”

  William himself wrote Any Other Way, and most of the songs he cut those days were either his own compositions, or co-penned with Booker T. Jones or Steve Cropper.  “I was always able to write from an early age.  I started writing poems and then after I became more professional with music I started setting melodies with it.  At fourteen I wrote Alone on a Rainy Nite, and it kinda escalated from there.  The record exes realized that he can write and sing, so we’ll let him write his own stuff.”

  In spite of its hit potential Any Other Way (b/w Please Help Me I’m Falling) reached only # 131-hot, and the next six singles in 1963 – ’65 missed the charts altogether.  They were local sellers but didn’t score nationally.  “I was known in the Tri-state area, because we as the Del-Rios worked the college circuit in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee – sometimes in Kentucky – so in those areas we were very well known as a vocal group.  When I started recording, I had all of that going for me in terms of a fan base.  Locally everybody knew me.  Memphis was a huge metropolis, but it’s also kinda like a little country town, where everybody knows everybody.”


  In 1963 Stax released as many as four singles by William – a plaintive slowie called I Told you so (132; b/w What’cha Gonna Do), the stomping Just As I Thought (135; b/w I’m Waiting On You), a pretty waltz titled Somebody Mentioned Your Name (138, b/w What Can I Do to Forget) and I’ll Show You (141, b/w Monkeying Around) – but they remained single sides only.  Not any of those eight songs appeared on William’s upcoming albums.

  Some of those songs were cut earlier, because William was drafted for about two years in 1963, and one place he was stationed was Hawaii.  “After basic training – the first three months or something – we had the first furlough, and the whole two weeks that I was home I was recording (laughing).  That was done to have something to release, while I was in the military.”

  The last of those ’63 singles, a pleading slow song named I’ll Show You, sounds like it could come from Otis Redding’s repertoire.  “Otis came along, actually, while I was in the military.  We met, when I was home on furlough from basic training.  I was in a studio recording, and Otis came up with Johnny Jenkins.  He and I became friends.  By the time I got out from the military, he was popular.”  Later the two of them would tour extensively together.

  The uptown sounding Who Will It Be Tomorrow (146, b/w Don’t Make Something out of Nothing) and Crying All By Myself/Don’t Stop Now (174) were the sole single releases in 1964 and ’65, respectively, and the latter one – a Chicago type of a ballad backed with a basic, simple dancer – already created some stir locally.

  In 1966, however, William finally returned to the charts with his both singles released that year.  Share What You Got (But Keep What You Need) (191, # 27-r&b; written by Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones) is a dynamic ballad coupled with a mid-tempo beater called Marching off to War (by Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd).  Never Like This Before (199, # 29-r&b; by Porter-Hayes-Jones) is a Sam & Dave type of an energetic dancer, whereas the flip, Soldiers Good-Bye, is almost like a blues ballad.

  Right after the mid-60s William cut many demos that were released on a ’91 CD titled A Little Something Extra (Stax/Fantasy 8566), and here he’s mainly backed by Booker T. & The MG’s.    The CD includes also a couple of shelved tracks from the early 60s.  Among these twenty sides there are not only many gentle and sweet ballads like All That I Am, You Got Me Where You Want Me, That’s My Love, Never Let Me Go, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Love Will Find a Way, but a couple of more emotional and dramatic ones, too – What Did I Do Wrong, Wait and You’re Never Too Old.  The rest of it is dancers and stompers, except two melodic mid-pacers, She Won’t Be like You and We Got Something Good.


 Similarly to Motown, also Stax packed up their artists for what was called “Stax Revues.”  “Those were great tours.  Sometimes we would go out for ninety days, one-nighters.  We’d travel all the theatre circuit, we’d work the chiltlin’ circuit – those little clubs located in the middle of cotton fields somewhere.  We didn’t know anything about marketing and those things, but we were building the fan base for soul music.”

  The year 1967 got off to a good start with a beautiful and touching ballad called Everybody Loves a Winner (212).  Written by William and Booker T. Jones, the single reached # 18-r&b and # 95-pop and it was coupled with the up-beat You’re Such a Sweet Thing.  “When I came out of the military, I had been overseas for a year and a half.  Otis was the big star then, Rufus Thomas had The Dog and everything, Carla was big, so I had to play catch-up.  Stax had my contract run retroactively from the time I got out of the service.  When I went in the service, I had two years left on my contract with Stax.  When I came out, they picked up the contract.  ‘We have to get some hits going on you’.”

  “They had David, Isaac, Homer Banks and Bettye Crutcher – all those people were writing for me, but nothing ever just clicked.  So I suggested to Jim ‘let me just take some time and listen to the radio for a minute and see what’s popular in music’, and the first song I wrote was Everybody Loves a Winner, and it became one of the first songs that was a major hit for me after I got back.”

  The follow-up, Eloise (Hang on in There), was credited to William and Booker, but chart-wise the single flopped.  Backed by Isaac’s and David’s One Plus One, the song Eloise (227; in ’67) was an exact opposite of Everybody Loves a Winner, an upbeat item, almost like “Stax meets Motown.”  “I could sing uptempo, but nobody knew that.  They figured ‘well, he’s a ballad singer’… and I was.  Being hopelessly romantic I love ballads, but I can do uptempo, because working with a live audience in clubs I know how to do it.  So David said ‘we’re gonna get you the real Stax sound’, and they wrote Never like This Before and something else.”

  A melodic and soulful ballad titled Everyday Will Be like a Holiday (237; b/w Ain’t Got No Girl) was a moderate seller in late 1967 (# 33-r&b), but thanks to the added bells in the mix it has since become a yuletide favourite.  It was cut with Booker in the same session as Everybody Loves a Winner, which introduced strings on William’s records.  “First strings were on Carla’s stuff.  I think I was the first one to use the Memphis Strings or the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.  It looked kinda weird – ‘do you want to put strings on a soul song’?  We did, and it worked.  We had a lot of ‘first’ songs on Stax.”  Booker and William produced for other Stax artists, too, such as Carla, Albert King and Ollie & the Nightingales, but they’re not always credited for their work.


  Although recording for Stax ever since 1961, William’s first album was released only in 1967.  The Soul of a Bell (Stax 719) features slow songs on the A-side and uptempo material on the B-side.  Produced by Booker, among the eleven tracks there are six earlier single sides - Everybody Loves a Winner, Eloise, Never Like this before, You’re Such a Sweet Thang, You Don’t Miss Your Water and Any Other Way.  The last two have been remixed.   As was the custom those days, there are also four covers of the current hits.  Do Right Woman – Do Right Man and I’ve Been Loving you too Long don’t quite reach the depth of the original performances, but Nothing Takes the Place of You and Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye are more suited to William’s style.  It’s Happening All Over is Isaac Hayes’ and Joe Shamwell’s stomper.

  “We were looking to put together as many songs as we could for the first album.  Back then Stax was doing all these singles, forty-fives.  I didn’t have enough material in the can reserved to complete an album, so we had to do cover songs.”  The Soul of a Bell is available on CD, too.


  William’s first release in 1968 was Every Man Ought to Have a Woman (248), a soulful beat ballad with a catchy chorus, but it stalled at # 115-pop, because the original b-side, A Tribute to a King, took off and evolved into the hit side.  The impulse for that song was the plane crash on December 10 in 1967 that took the life of Otis Redding.  “It was an emotional release for me.  I said ‘look, I want to record this song and just send it to Zelma Redding’.  She received it and said ‘you got to release this’.  Everybody at that time was recording tributes – Otis, We Love You, Goodbye Otis and all of that – and I didn’t want anybody to think that I wanted to capitalize on his untimely death, because we were too close and I was close to the whole family, and still am.  But she insisted and she called Jim up, and Jim just kinda kept after me, and I agreed ‘okay, you can put it out, but I didn’t write it to release.  Put it out as a b-side’.  And that’s what they did, and, of course, nobody played the other side of this forty-five.”  The simple and touching Tribute made a fine double-sider for William, and it climbed as high as # 16-r&b and # 86-pop.


  In 1968 Stax split with Atlantic and Jim Stewart sold the company to Gulf and Western, and also at that point the numbering system of records changed.  William’s first hit under the new system was an irresistible duet with Judy Clay called Private Number (0005), one of the show-stoppers on stage still today and a song William has re-recorded more than once later on.

  “I was one of those artists that always wanted to know the inner workings, behind the scenes – engineering, production, how to mike drums…  So if I were home and not touring, I’m in a studio.  I was in the studio a lot of times, and Judy happened to be cutting a session, and she didn’t have enough material.  I had a verse and a chorus on Private Number.  I said ‘well, I’ve got one song, but I’ve got to finish it’.  Jim said ‘she’s gonna be here through tomorrow.  If you can finish it overnight, then we will record it the next day’.” 

  “Booker and I went to his home and stayed up all night working on this song.  We came in the next day, and of course Judy didn’t know it enough to record it, so I sang the whole song down.  They took the tapes back to New York.  After she learned the song, she said ‘well, I’ll do it’, and after she started singing somebody got the bright idea ‘this could be a great duet’.  So that’s how it came about, and Private Number was written only with Judy Clay in mind.”

  Coupled with Love-Eye-Tis, the single peaked at # 17-r&b and # 75-pop and it’s been a steady seller ever since in other formats and on numerous compilations.  Their follow-up duet in late ’68, an uptempo number named My Baby Specializes (0017; b/w Left over Love; # 45-r&b and # 104-pop), was also cut separately.

  “We had a major chart action with Private Number.”  It was actually so major that it acted as a catalyst for many more duets on Stax and also for one “various artists” album, Boy Meets Girl (Stax 2-2024; 1969; # 46-r&b).  In 1969 William shared lead with Mavis Staples (Love’s Sweet Sensation/Strung Out; 0043) and Carla Thomas (I Can’t Stop/I Need You Woman; 0044; # 106-pop), and still in 1970 Stax put out one more single, All I Have to Do Is Dream with Carla and Leave the Girl Alone with Mavis (0067).

  “We were competing directly with Motown.  Marvin and Tammi had major hits, and Judy and I had Private Number, so they kinda took Stax artists and threw it all out to see what would work.”  There was also a trivial single called Soul-A-Lujah (0040; ‘69) released with William, Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, Pervis Staples, Carla Thomas, Mavis Staples and Cleotha Staples all singing in turns and then joining forces in the title chorus.  On the Boy Meets Girl double album William still duets with Mavis on three non-single songs - I Ain’t Particular, I Thank you and Hold on This Time.


  For a lot of music lovers, the most impressive recording in William’s 53-year-long career is a beautiful and touching ballad called I Forgot to Be Your Lover (0015).  Released in late ’68, it became his biggest hit up to that point by peaking at # 10-r&b and # 45-pop.  “One year we did almost three hundred one-nighters.  I was constantly on the road… never home.  When I’d get home, I would only have maybe a day and a half to stay home.  You think about this.  I’m successful, but my personal life, my home life, is nil.  So that’s how that song came about.”  Bring the Curtain Down on the flip is a poppy mid-pacer with even some Caribbean flavour to it.

  The first single in 1969 was a slow-to-mid-tempo pleading song titled My Whole World Is Falling Down (0032; # 39-r&b), a richly orchestrated goodie, which was penned by Booker and Bettye Crutcher.  The b-side, All God’s Children Got Soul, belongs to the group of more mediocre Stax stompers.  Happy (0038; # 129-pop) is another quick-tempo number, but in this case the catchy song just radiates jolly good feeling.  It certainly lives up to its title.  William’s final ’69 single was a fast and bluesy cover of Albert King’s ’67 Stax single, Born under a Bad Sign.  “Booker and I wrote and produced it on Albert, but during that time I got no production credits.”  The flip, A Smile Can’t Hide (A Broken Heart), is Booker’s rocky, mid-tempo song.


  Of the eight single sides above, as many as seven turned up on William’s second solo album, Bound to Happen (Stax 2014; 1969; # 49-r&b).  The only one missing is a pleasant mid-tempo swayer called My Kind of Girl, the b-side to Happy

  Produced and arranged by Booker T. Jones and engineered by Ron Capone, Terry Manning and Bobby Manuel, the rest five tracks on the album are again mostly covers.  There’s a quite hefty beat-ballad version of By the Time I Get to Phoenix, a rework of Sly Stewart’s Everyday People, which is okay if you like the tune, and a bit Stax-heavy arrangement of Jerry Butler’s Western Union Man.  “I co-produced that album.  Jerry and I are good friends, and we still talk occasionally.  He would always call me ‘the other Ice Man’ (laughing), because on live I would always do a couple of Jerry’s songs.”  There’s also William’s interpretation of I Got a Sure Thing, a small Stax hit a year earlier, which is one of those records that William co-wrote and uncredited co-produced with Booker for Ollie & the Nightingales.  Johnny I Love You is a bluesy slowie, which Booker T. & the MG’s also cut, and with Booker on vocals!  Bound to Happen is available on CD together with William’s next album, Wow…

  The sixties were coming to an end.  During his fifteen years in business so far, William had released two solo albums and eighteen solo singles and appeared on nine more.  He had established his own company in 1969.  Although there would be still three albums on Stax in the seventies, the family atmosphere of the 60s was changing, and the biggest musical blow for William was, when his long-time partner, Booker T., left Memphis in 1969 and Stax altogether a year later.  After Stax, William would continue making music for four other companies and among those records there would be his biggest hit, but that is something we’ll examine in the second part of the story. 

Click here for the Part 2 (1970-2008)

Click here for the William Bell Discography

Click here for the William Bell CD Shop

(Acknowledgements to Mr. William Bell, Matti Laipio, Mikko Peltola, Juhani Laikkoja, Pertti Nurmi, Aarno Alén, Pekka Talvenmäki, David Cole and Marc Taylor.

Sources: Rob Bowman’s exhaustive book, Soulsville, U.S.A., Bob McGrath’s The R&B Indies and Joel Whitburn’s Billboard chart books.

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