William Bell: Bound To Happen
By David Nathan
In person interview, Mercury Records, New York City, June 1977
THOSE soul folk who are familiar with the work of one, Mr. William Bell, will recognize the title of our article as taken directly from one of the said gentleman's half-a-dozen albums for Stax Records. The title was somewhat prophetic and even if it's taken a few years to be fulfilled, those in the know will testify that it was one of those predictions that had to come to pass because such is the talent of Mr. Bell that, in the words of another soul man (Mr. Brook Benton), it was just a matter of time.
With "Trying To Love Two" as Mr. Bell's first single for Mercury (and first recording in just over two and a half years) proving to be one of the man's biggest ever hits and an album now out, it seems that 1977 testifies that William's time is here. Taking a few minutes to go back over what has definitely been an illustrious career, the friendly Mr. Bell recalled how he first became involved with Stax Records back in 1960. "I was playing at local clubs in Memphis, you know. I'd written a few songs and I was kinda friendly with both Rufus and his daughter Carla Thomas — back then she was a teenager! I knew of Stax and I'd hung around a little and then, when I came off tour one time, I was asked if I was interested in recording. Well, naturally, I said 'yeah' and we went in and cut 'You Don't Miss Your Water', which began a hit almost overnight." In fact, it provided Stax with one of its first hits at a time when Atlantic was handling distribution and turned out to be William's biggest hit to date. "It sold a million, I believe and the closest Stax single I had to that was 'I Forgot To Be Your Lover' which did over 750,000."
Back to the early Sixties: "It was shortly after joining the company that I was drafted into the service, the military. In fact, the event inspired one of the songs that I originally cut for my first album 'Marching Off To War' was the song and it was never actually put on the album we did ('Soul Of A Bell') but came out as a single. I came out of the service around 1963 and took some time to readjust to being out. During the time, I wrote quite a lot of material and concentrated on seeing where my music was heading." To the charts was the obvious place, since William enjoyed a succession of strong r&b singles in tunes like 'Never Like This Before', 'Eloise (Hang On In There)' and, of course, 'Tribute To A King,’ William’s posthumous salute to labelmate Otis Redding.
But one of the highlights of his recording career came with 'Everybody Loves A Winner', a 1964 hit which has since been recorded by a number of other folk, including Delaney & Bonney, Rita Coolidge, etc. When Gulf & Western became involved with Stax from a distribution point of view in 1968, William's career continued on the solid path it had already begun. "We had a hit with 'Happy' and during that period, we cut the duets with Judy Clay. That was interesting, because it was never planned. You see, I had a recording session going and Judy was due in directly after me. But when it came for her session, they were short of songs and so they got the ones they had to do done and had time left over. So Judy asked if maybe I had any songs. Well, I had 'Private Number' but obviously there wasn't enough time for her to learn it just on the spot. So I did the vocal track for the record and Judy learned her part and came back in later and recorded it. We never planned to be a duo but at the time, people like Marvin (Gaye) & Tammi (Terrell) were popular, so the company put the record out and it did very well.
"We cut another three things, "My Baby Specializes', 'Left Over Love' and 'Love-itis' but we never did an album because we'd never planned it that way and Judy was contracted to Atlantic and when the distribution pact was over, she was supposed to go back to the company. I guess over the next couple of years," comments William, "Stax began to see me as an album artist and that helped a great deal in terms of my blossoming out, learning, growing. I would say that through the albums, I began to acquire a bigger following."
Albums like "Bound To Happen" were produced by Booker T. and then around William found that his albums revolved more around concepts than just being songs thrown together for an album release. "I think it was the album 'Wow!' that really showed a change because we had material in there that you could call social commentary. I guess I'd matured somewhat and it was reflecting in my writing. Plus music had begun to change and we were naturally trying to keep up with what was going on."
Then with albums such as "Relating", Mr. Bell found himself working increasingly as both a producer as well as performer. "I'd done a lot in terms of assisting producers up until that point. You know, I'd give some concept of what I thought we could do with a song, which wasn't too hard for me being a writer too. I had a lot of ideas in my ideas, so I just had to relate them to the producers." The 'Relating' album itself was more or less about one-to-one relationships,' comments the gentleman. "I guess love has always been a dominant theme in my material — because it's a reflection of life, it's something we all experience. That particular album was about the different situations that arise within relationships."
Sadly, it came at a time when Stax was beginning to fail financially and it was around 1974 that "my contract was up and that was that. It was kinda sad for me having been with the company since its early days and it definitely left a mark on me in terms of my being in no hurry to sign another contract." In fact, William moved from Memphis to Atlanta and concentrated all his efforts into acting and producing. "It was a challenge getting into acting but I would have to say that it wasn't that much different from being involved with music. I found it very rewarding and I really worked hard with the Academy Theatre in Atlanta. I still performed every now and again in clubs and so on, so music never completely disappeared from my life."
In fact, William continued the musical side of his career producing other acts, something that was by no means to him since he'd been involved with his own label, Peachtree, since 1967. "I formed the label with my then-manager and it was distributed by Mercury, strangely enough! It was a good relationship then and with my being with the company now, it looks as if it will continue to be.
"But anyway, back then we had Mitty Collier, James Fountain, The Dynamics and a couple of other acts. We did very well for a while but the problem came when I began to become more successful myself as an artist and had to devote more time to being on the road. And frankly, the creative side of the label began to suffer because I just wasn't able to stay on top of it all. I guess it lasted around three years. Mitty? Well, the last time I spoke to her, she was back into gospel and I understand she was going to be ordained in the church."
One of William's assignments after leaving Stax involved producing The Counts on an album that was released on the Aware label, through the now defunct G.R.C. Corporation. “Like I said, I still stayed involved in music but I had no immediate plans to run back in and record myself. What happened was that I knew Charlie Fach, the President of Mercury Records and whenever he'd come into town, he'd call me and we'd get together. Well, he was in Atlanta during 1976 for a visit and he just asked me why I didn't come back to his side of the fence — meaning records! I hummed and thought about it and had to be convinced it was the right thing. After seeing what happened to Stax, I was in no hurry! Watching a company go from being virtually a million-dollar organization to bankruptcy was not a pleasant experience. Anyway, after about eight months, we concluded a deal and I went back into the studios in August of last year."
William confesses that after "two years out of the business as an artist, I thought it was gonna be tough but I'm pleasantly surprised to see that it's been cool. During the period I wasn't recording for anyone, I'd written a few things and started working with a jazz pianist here in Atlanta, Paul Mitchell. So when it came time to go into the studios, we had some material ready including 'Trying To Love Two', I cut the rhythm track down in New Orleans, because the musicians had the feel I wanted and we used the Chocolate Milk rhythm section at Allen Toussaint's studios down there — and I was really happy with the way it turned out. We did all the vocals and strings and so on in Atlanta, with Paul taking care of a lot of the arrangements. The rhythm concept and the vocal concept were basically mine — and it seems that we worked together well as a team."
The success of the single paved the way for the album. "We finished the album in late February and I'd say basically the theme of it is love. But musically, it's different, it reflects my growth. We tried to put together an album that would appeal to every one. I did about seven of the songs myself and we redid 'You Don't Miss Your Water', up-dated it, and a couple of records from the sixties for that whole nostalgia thing. We put a couple of songs in there for discos but, basically, I've always been a ballad singer, so you'll find some good ballads in there."
Having been on the music scene for over fifteen years, Mr. Bell has had a chance to watch audiences change and music itself change. "It's changed tremendously, mainly because now there's more intermingling. It's no longer strictly 'r&b' or 'rock'. It's contemporary music. And listening audiences have become a whole lot more sophisticated along with that. They demand more in quality and that's good for a creative artist, because it makes you work harder. And it makes me especially happy because it means that people are listening more to good lyrics, which means you've got to work at writing a good song. An artist has to be sharper and it's no longer enough just to be able to sing. You've got to know what you're doing creatively. To me, that's good — because it will separate the good from the bad. You know, at one point, the business just became cluttered with so many artists, so many records. I think that now, people are more selective, so you've got to work harder than ever at what you do."
It would appear that Mr. Bell is into a winning formula and when it comes to discussing the themes for his music," he states categorically: "I'm a people watcher! I'm the guy you see at a party just standing watching everyone else. It's like your eyes become camera lenses, you observe, listen and learn. That's where I draw a lot of my inspiration from — watching others. Then, there are personal experiences too. But I find that communication can be achieved when you make your music universal in content. That way, everybody can relate. That's why I think 'Trying To Love Two' has been successful. Because people relate to it personally or know of other people in that triangle situation.
"You know, it was interesting because I was talking to some people about the record and they mentioned the Mary McGregor hit, 'Torn Between Two Lovers' which is a slant on the same situation. I guess this is just the time for writing and singing about i! All I can say is that it's a slice of life and we have to accept the good with the bad. You know, it may not be the ideal situation being part of that love triangle, but we can't deny it happens! And maybe the record will help people stop and check out whether it's such a good idea to be involved in that!"
"Trying To Love Two" may well make some folk question the moral right and wrong of such situations (as William points out, it just does happen!) but one thing's for sure: it will remind people that Mr. William Bell is very much alive and kicking and recall the time when we first heard that prediction. It's no longer true that William Bell is "bound to happen" — because he's happening right now!