In April, members of our Classics subscription will receive The Soul Of A Bell, the debut LP from Stax soul singer and songwriter, William Bell. Bell was the first solo male singer signed to Stax, and was on the path to stardom before he got drafted and his career had to be put on pause. Released in 1967, The Soul Of A Bell has not been reissued on vinyl since the year of its release, and is not on Spotify. This new edition comes on 180 gram vinyl, is remastered from the original tapes, and features a Listening Notes booklet--with a new interview with Bell himself--by our own Andrew Winistorfer.
Learn more about the release below, and on Friday, we'll be featuring an interview with Bell on our site.
In 1961, Stax was not the powerhouse of soul music it would be by 1966; it was still mostly a theoretical pipe dream. That year, the label put Carla Thomas--the daughter of Memphis legend Rufus Thomas--in the studio to record her debut solo single, "Gee Whiz," a song she had written after school during high school. When they needed backing singers, they called up a local kid who had started to get a reputation for his vocal arrangements: William Bell.
Bell brought his group into Stax to cut the "oohs" and "ahs" behind Thomas, and after, Stax label boss Jim Stewart asked Bell if he wanted to be on the label as a performer, and if he had any songs of his own. Bell did, and it would be a song he still performs now, almost 60 years later: "You Don't Miss Your Water." Bell was the first male solo singer signed to Stax.
The song blew up, and Bell, who had been studying to be a doctor, took a break from school to tour behind the single's success; it eventually reached #95 on the Pop Charts at a time when Billboard didn't do a lot of dilligence tracking down the success of southern soul hits. Even with a hit, Bell didn't think his singing career would be what his life calling would be; he planned to ride the wave behind the single and go back to college. He played spot dates around the south--the song was especially hot in New Orleans-- and eventually was booked to open a national tour with Gladys Knight and the Pips--who were young upstarts then too--with Jackie Wilson as the headliner. Bell was in the middle of an east coast run of dates in New York when he got a phone call from home that changed the course of his life. He had been drafted into the military.
Bell flew home to Memphis to try to get a deferment, but instead was sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana, and eventually, to Hawaii, where he served out his two years of service. In the time Bell was away--from late 1962 till early 1965--Stax became the Stax records, signing and recording the likes of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & The M.G.'s, and more. When Bell got out, he had to spend time teaching himself what soul music sounded like now, since when he went away, ballads were the reigning songs of the day. Soul music had changed in a short period of time. It took till 1967 before he released his debut album.
That two year gap when William Bell was mostly out of the music game and in the Army picking up cigarette butts for sergeants who didn’t recognize him as the up-and-coming soul singer he was, inform The Soul Of A Bell, Bell’s 1967 debut LP. Because of this gap between debut single and debut LP—and because the musical landscape of soul and R&B had changed so drastically in between, not to mention Stax itself becoming a powerhouse while Bell was away—The Soul Of A Bell is an important, if underrated, album in the Stax story, and the story of ’60s R&B. You can trace the rapid development R&B music went through from 1961 to 1967 over the course of a single 33-minute LP.
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The album is not on Spotify, but you can hear most of it on YouTube if you look hard enough (and there are some samplings here). It's an absolute underrated classic, and we're excited to be featuring it as the Record of the Month for VMP Classics.
As a bonus, here's a William Bell playlist for your perusal, with as much of The Soul Of A Bell as we could track down on Spotify.