AN UNDERRATED SOUL SINGER RETURNS
William Bell wrote the song that would define his career when he was a teen-ager. And yet “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which became a soul standard, sounds as though it was written by a man who has seen a lifetime of heartache and then some. In 1961, when was twenty-two, he recorded it for Stax Records. Slow and stately, the recording begins with mournful horns and then the song’s opening couplet, which alludes, with a touch of irony, to “Amazing Grace”: “In the beginning, you really loved me / But I was too blind, and I couldn’t see.” Bell’s precociously smoky, tender voice drifts through the sparse instrumentation: “But now you’ve left me, oh how I cry / You don’t miss your water till the well runs dry.”
“I was on a tour in New York with Old Man Phineas’s band,” Bell told me recently, on the phone from his office in Atlanta. “Old Man Phineas” was Phineas Newborn, Sr., the Memphis jazz-and-blues bandleader, whom Bell sang for in the fifties, while still a teen. “I was lonely in the hotel room one night, and it was pouring down rain and everything, so I wrote this particular song.” he said. “I was like an old soul, even as a kid.” He was good at connecting bad weather and bruised emotion: in 1956, his doo-wop group The Del Rios recorded their début single, “Alone on a Rainy Night,” which he wrote. Five years later, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” became a surprise hit for Bell—and for Stax, which was then just a few years old, and which would, along with its rival Motown, become one of the most important purveyors of black music in the nineteen-sixties. (The song was actually released as the B-Side to another Bell song, “Formula of Love.”) In 1965, the label’s biggest star, Otis Redding, recorded “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” and it has since been covered by everyone from The Byrds to Brian Eno.
Bell wrote many more hits, both for himself and for other Stax artists, before the label collapsed, in 1975. Stax was relaunched in 2007, and now Bell has returned to the fold with a new album, “This Is Where I Live,” his first release on the label in more than forty years. It seems poised to bring Bell—whom Peter Guralnick, in his 1986 book “Sweet Soul Music,” called “perhaps the most underrated of all the major soul singers”—some long overdue recognition.
Bell was born William Yarbrough in Memphis in 1939, and borrowed his stage name from his grandmother. “As far back as I can remember,” he said, “I always was interested in music. It was a way of escaping as a kid at five or six years old. I would write little poems and things to get my feelings out.” He joined the church choir that his mother sang in; before long, he was taking the lead. Phineas Newborn snatched him up for his band, and he began playing night clubs on the weekends. He also started hanging around “all the great musicians, like Charles Lloyd and Hank Crawford and B. B. King—all those guys that hung out on Beale Street.”
“I didn’t think I would make a career out of it,” he added. “My mom wanted me to go to college and everything, become a doctor and all this stuff.” But Bell not only had a great voice, he had a knack for writing sympathetic songs for other artists. At Stax, working behind the scenes with the likes of Redding and Booker T. & the M.G.’s, he wrote a string of great songs, including, with Booker T., “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which was a smash for Albert King in 1967, and almost immediately became a concert staple for both Cream and Jimi Hendrix.
That same year, Redding, along with members of his backing band, the Bar-Kays, died in a plane crash. The label soldiered on, but financial issues forced it to close in 1975. “It was just devastating,” Bell said. “I had grasped enough business sense that I didn’t lose everything.” He had a million-selling single, “Tryin’ to Love Two,” for Mercury Records, in 1977, but in the nineteen-eighties he turned much of his attention to running his own production company, Wilbe Productions, releasing albums on its eponymous imprint. Out of the limelight, he settled into a respectable existence as a veteran artist whose greatest work, in the eyes of most of the world, was behind him.
Then, a few years ago, Bell was contacted by the producer Martin Shore about a documentary in production called “Take Me to the River,” which celebrated Memphis music. He was interviewed for the movie, and the soundtrack, which was ultimately released by Stax, featured a collaboration between Bell and Snoop Dogg on a version of Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.” Stax then asked Bell about recording a new solo album for them. “This to me just seemed like the right time,” Bell told me, adding, “It was just good to visit home.”
One of the most arresting tracks on the new album, “Poison in the Well,” returns to the aqueous imagery of “Alone on a Rainy Night” and “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” “She put poison in the well, poison in the well, poison in the well / And I drank it,” Bell sings, backed by a propulsive groove and elegant guitar licks. He asked the producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal, who worked on the album with Bell, alongside such writing partners as Marc Cohn and Roseanne Cash, to go for the classic Stax sound, the grit and groove of Memphis soul. You hear it from start to finish. He reworks “Born Under a Bad Sign” giving it a sparse, more haunting quality, and proving again how resonant the song remains. On the title track, “This Is Where I Live,” Bell provides a musical account of his own life, including the night he wrote “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” “In a hotel room I wrote me a song,” Bell sings, “and it took me all around the world.”
“We didn’t think it would last this long when we started out, as teen-agers,” Bell said, marvelling at the career he’s had. In 2013, he performed at the White House, along with many of his fellow Memphis luminaries. The First Family sat in the front row, just a few feet from him. “It was great, but kind of surreal,” he said. “O.K., here’s this little kid from the South Side of Memphis, and I’m at the White House, appearing before one of the most powerful people in the world and his family. And they’re liking what I’m doing.”