American Routes Shortcuts: William Bell

Jan 26, 2018

William Bell
Credit American Routes

William Bell grew up on the south side of Memphis. His mother was a gospel singer. As a child he began singing in the church, as a teenager he befriended other future Stax stars, Isaac Hayes, Al Jackson Jr. and Booker T. Jones. Bell recalls his early days at Stax Records.

William Bell: It was like going to university, it really was. Thank God for Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton because they took some little ghetto kids and kids around the neighborhood and invited us into the building there at Stax, but they were like mom and pop to us and let us come in and hone our creativity and get to work together and exchange ideas and make a career out of it, be able to put something out there that you can make a living at. We didn’t care about race, creed or nationality or gender, all we cared about was what you brought to the table in terms of creativity and musical abilities.

Nick Spitzer: Well one of the great things that you brought to the table as a songwriter and as a singer was this incredible song that I’ve listened to over and over again over the years, which is “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”

WB: Oh yeah, yeah that was my first one as a solo artist for Stax.

NS: And ultimately it gets covered in the world of country rock as a song that the Byrds sing.

WB: Oh yeah, it’s been covered by all genres of music, including country and western. 

NS: You mentioned country western, and I’ve noticed that in some of your singing, there is an undercurrent of country style. It’s on a number of your songs.

WB: Well there’s not that much difference between country and blues, and it’s the same subject matter. The instrumentation might change a little bit on it, you put a steel guitar on it, a violin part, and I was exposed to all of that. We used to do demos behind people like Charlie Rich and Bill Browder and of course Elvis came out of that same area.

NS: Yeah that crossover in Memphis is incredible, country, obviously there’s black and white gospel, R&B, the beginnings of soul, you mentioned jazz. I mean it’s a tremendous mix, but through all of its diversity it still feels like Memphis music.

WB: It does, it does, and I think one of the reasons would be that is the ingredient of all the things that we were exposed to growing up in that region, in the city, and a lot of the musicians worked and played together in club situations, you know, we used to go to jam with Ronnie Milsap and it’s just a mixture there in Memphis, I think that’s one of the secrets to the Memphis sound.

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