Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Old Bottle, New Wine: William Bell’s This Is Where I Live

William Bell's new album, This Is Where I Live, was released by Stax Records on June 3. (Photo courtesy of Shorefire Media)

When the great soul singer Otis Redding died in 1967 one of his logical successors at the time was vocalist William Bell. Born in Memphis, Bell first arrived on the music scene in 1960 and was signed to the Stax label in 1961, the same label Redding signed to four years later. Bell released his first single “You Don't Miss Your Water” (Stax 116), but it barely charted on the Billboard Top 100. Redding recorded his inspired version of Bell’s first single in 1965, which made people look up and take notice. Ironically, even though William Bell had been around for several years, his sound was often compared to Redding, but he wasn’t as dynamic a performer in concert.

Bell sang ballads that were considered torch songs for the R&B crowd and whether they knew it or not, both he and Redding competed for the same audience. The only advantage Bell had on Redding was that he was also a pretty good songwriter. One of his biggest songs, which he co-wrote with Booker T. Jones, was “Born Under a Bad Sign,” a huge hit for Albert King.

Stax Records, established in 1957 in Memphis, was one of the best R&B labels of the soul era. In addition to Bell and Redding, they released records by such esteemed artists as Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas and Booker T. and the MGs. Most people recognize the “Motown Sound” which came out of Detroit, but the Stax sound, with its Memphis feel, was rooted in gospel. In fact, some of the best records by The Staples Singers first appeared on the prestigious label and successfully crossed over into the pop market.

Bell turned out singles for Stax that failed to reach a wider audience, unlike Redding who made the pop charts with such songs as “I've Been Loving You Too Long” and “Try A Little Tenderness.” Bell’s most successful single before 1967 was “Everybody Loves a Winner” (Stax 212), with its sentimental refrain “Everybody loves a winner, but when you lose, you lose alone.” Clearly the producers wanted Bell to sound more like Redding because the horn and string arrangement on that single immediately remind us of Redding’s sound. Bell’s song reached Number 18 on the Billboard R&B charts granting him a chance to distinguish himself from Redding and quite possibly forge a career on his own. But all of that changed when Redding died in a plane crash in December 1967. One month later Redding’s “(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay” was released and went straight to number one on the pop and R&B charts. Redding’s place in the history of music was permanently set. William Bell’s career wasn’t over, but he fell under the shadow of Redding until 1975 when Stax Records dissolved.

In 1976, Bell had a Billboard Top 10 hit called “Tryin’ To Love Two” (Mercury) which went to number one on the R&B charts. This modest success got him more concerts and made it possible for him to form his own label, Wilbe Records. His first album, Passion,  did well in the UK, but went unnoticed in the United States. Undeterred, Bell released another five albums until 2006 to mixed reviews. He still had a great voice, but the songs didn’t sizzle with the public. Which brings us to a brand new album on an old, revived label.  

This Is Where I Live on Stax Records is William Bell’s first album in nearly a decade, which is cause for some celebration. Now 77 years old, Bell still sings with the great baritone that made him famous. It’s good to know that he’s taken care of his health over the years and not squandered his talent to cigarettes and alcohol. He sounds old, not worn out. For this new album he’s teamed up with producer John Leventhal who has created a dozen tracks that supports Bell’s great voice and phrasing. Leventhal is married to Rosanne Cash and has collaborated on some of her best work in recent years. His effort with William Bell succeeds most of the time on this album, but I don’t feel it will re-launch Bell into the mainstream in the same way those veteran singers Bettye LaVette and the late Solomon Burke did, after years of relative obscurity. And it’s simply because the songs on This Is Where I Live aren’t there for the picking. The production values are strong and the arrangements are nice, but there’s no edge to the music, and little hunger in the lyrics: two of the most important ingredients I listen for in music. For the most part, it’s a safe album and an earnest chance to put Bell’s warm tones back into the mainstream, but the songs are lacking, dare I say it, soul in an effort to engage the audience in a deeply emotional way. Even the version of “Born Under A Bad Sign” with its rounded edges, fails to bring anything new to this famous R&B standard. It’s as if Bell was contractually obligated to add a familiar tune to the album to make it more palatable.

That said, a couple of the stronger tracks on the record hold great promise for a better follow up, namely “Poison in the Well,” a new song by Bell, Leventhal and Marc Cohn. It’s an up-tempo song with inspired tale of woe. Another highlight is the Jesse Winchester song called “All Your Stories” which is a tasteful rendition of the late songwriter's understated storytelling. Bell seems especially attentive to the lyrics, phrasing each line without much embellishment. He sounds confident and sincere. The title track is a charming autobiographical song written by Bell, as he recalls the past by way of appreciating the present. It’s a nice tune one would expect on a so-called “come back” album, but it doesn’t linger. I would have liked more songs like “Mississippi Arkansas Bridge” (featuring Amy Helm), which is a funky groove with an urban sensibility. It has a fine horn arrangement that taps into the old Stax sound with ease.

Bell and Leventhal were clearly going for something on this record beyond nostalgic sentimentality and for that they should be commended. They fashioned an album that covers all of the singer’s musical bases but it’s also risk-free. As a veteran of the music scene for over five decades, William Bell certainly has nothing to prove, so I’m curious to know why he decided to play it safe with this new release. This Is Where I Live revisits some familiar moods that distinguished Bell from a lot of other singers, but it doesn’t re-invent him or offer up anything fresh. Perhaps the success of this record and accompanying tour will spark some new ideas and repertoire going forward. I certainly hope so because after a long, dedicated career in music, William Bell deserves no less.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. His first book, Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) will be released in September.

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