To help people who bought VMP Anthology: The Story Of Stax Records dive deep into the catalogs of the artists featured in our box set, we’ve created primers for every artist featured.
William Bell was a member of the Stax family before there was even a Stax Records: Back when the label was still called Satellite, it released its first big hit, “Gee Whiz,” by Carla Thomas. The backing vocalists on the hit were arranged by Bell, a local teenager with a doo-wop group, who was encouraged by producer Chips Moman to leave the group he was performing with and go solo. His debut single “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was the sixth single on the recently rechristened Stax, and it was a regional hit that put Bell — who was in school to be a doctor — on tour around the U.S.
On the cusp of what felt like stardom, one night while on break from touring, Bell was called back to Memphis from New York City by the Tennessee draft board. He went back, thinking he’d be able to convince the officers that he was a popular singer with tour dates, and could maybe get out of service, but instead, he was sworn into service, put on a bus and shipped off to basic training. He had to have a relative come pick up his car from the draft board office. “It felt like I almost got kidnapped into going. I didn’t have a choice,” Bell told me when I interviewed him a few years ago for the liner notes to Vinyl Me, Please’s reissue of Bell’s debut LP, The Soul of a Bell. “They snatched me up, said, ‘You’re in the military now. You belong to Uncle Sam,’ and I woke up the next morning in Fort Polk, and was like, ‘What is this? What just happened?’” You can read more of Bell’s story here.
Bell would be in the military in Hawaiʻi from 1962-1965; missing out on the formative early years of Stax, and missing the developments in soul music while in service. He’d eventually release six albums on the label — including 1972’s Phases of Reality, included in our box set — and have his biggest commercial smash in the years right after Stax closed. Here are 6 albums by Bell you need to check out after Phases.
Bell’s debut after getting out of the military, it’s an album in two parts: in some ways, you get the pre-1967 Stax represented on half of the tracks — the stuff Bell recorded before and during his military service — and then what soul music sounded like in 1967. You get “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (pre-1967) and you get “Any Other Way” (1967). An absolutely essential slice of Stax history, no self-respecting Stax fan doesn’t own this.
Bell’s sophomore album is the showcase for the best soul ballad ever written: “I Forgot To Be Your Lover,” which starts off the album. The whole album is classic, though, especially the final two Bell-written tracks, which would be hits by other artists, but are sung more delicately by Bell here: “Born Under A Bad Sign” (a hit for Albert King) and “I Got A Sure Thing” (a hit for Ollie & The Nightingales).
Now that we’ve reissued Phases of Reality, this is probably the rarest Bell album, but it’s worth seeking out for the first track — “I Can’t Make It” — alone. For unclear reasons, this album also has “I Forgot To Be Your Lover,” but it also has some great songs written by Stax writer Bettye Crutcher here (“Penny For Your Thoughts” is a keeper).
Bell should probably get credit for helping invent adult contemporary R&B on this album, a record largely about how men and women interact with each other in relationships. “Nobody Walks Away From Love Unhurt” is the album’s emotional centerpiece.
Bell was mostly retired from performing, writing for other artists and living it up in Atlanta when the president of Mercury more or less begged him to record for the album. Bell wrote “Trying to Love Two” for his first single on Mercury, and became a semi-superstar; the song’s love triangle made it a hit in many radio formats. It’s still his biggest commercial smash, and the album around it is as close to jazz as Bell ever got; he mostly sings sultry lover jams over jazzy instrumentation here.
Bell returned to the Stax fold for this album, a bluesy affair built around his still beautiful pipes and songs about being OK with your place in life, and appreciating your age. The album finally got Bell the recognition he deserved all along: He won the 2017 Grammy for Best Americana album.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.