William Bell-Never Like This Before.

Label: Kent Soul.

Format: CD.

Veteran Southern Soul man William Bell was born William Yarbrough on July the ’16th’ 1939, in Memphis, Tennessee. Growing up, he sang in church and was inspired by the gospel group The Soul Stirrers, who at the time, were led by Sam Cooke.

By the age of ten, the future William Bell had written his first song Alone On A Rainy Nite. Even then, it was almost inevitable that he would embark on a musical career.

At Booker T Washington High School, Memphis William Yarbrough decided to form a vocal group with some friends. That was when he decide to change his name to William Bell, which was his grandmother’s surname. 

Aged fourteen, he won a talent contest and soon was singing in clubs in the Memphis area. Soon, the young singer was making waves in the local music scene.

William Bell joined The Del Rios which would launch the career of several future soul greats. This included Louis Williams of The Ovations and Norman West of The Soul Children. 

The nascent group began singing in clubs in the Memphis area, and decided to enter a talent contest which they won. That was how they came to the attention of Rufus Thomas who at the time was a local radio DJ.

Having won the talent contest, The Del Rios secured a one-off record deal with local label Meteor Records. It was an imprint of LA-based Modern Records which was owned by the Lester Bihari.

In the studio, Rufus Thomas’ band The Bearcats provided a bluesy backdrop on Alone On A Rainy Nite and the upbeat, and rocky track Lizzie.  William Bell who was just seventeen took charge of the lead vocal.

Sadly, when the single was released in November 1956 the sales were disappointing. This was disappointing for William Bell who wondered whether to pursue a different career?

That was how the young singer found himself studying to become a doctor. However, he didn’t turn his back on music and continued to work with Memphis bandleader Phineas Newborn until the early sixties. William Bell also continued to write songs, including one that would kickstart his recording career.

Towards the end of the summer of 1961, William Bell was performing in New York when he wrote You Don’t Miss Your Water. At the time, he was with a record deal. However, this would soon change.

On returning to Memphis, William Bell met Chips Moman who was the head of A&R at a new local label. He asked him if wanted to do a session Stax Records which would become the singer’s musical home for the next fourteen years.

At Stax Records, William Bell was reunited with Rufus Thomas, who was also signed to the label until its demise in 1975. However, a lot would happen before that.

Between 1961 and 1968, William Bell released fourteen singles on Stax Records. These singles featured the original design on the blue label with the Stack Of Records’ logo. This is why this period is often referred to as Stax’s blue period. 

The fourteen singles and their B-Sides feature on Never Like This Before, which is a new compilation from Kent Soul, an imprint of Ace Records. For fans of the veteran Southern Soul man and Stax Records this will be a welcome release.

The twenty-eight tracks on Never Like This Before are in chronological order, and show how William Bell’s music evolved between 1961 and 1968. His period begins with one of his best known songs.

Opening Never Like This Before is You Don’t Miss Your Water which was released in 1961 and was William Bell’s debut single for Stax Records. It was an innovative song with no middle eight and no instrumental break. Instead, there were just three verses where the label’s newest signing delivered a despairing vocal full of heartbreak and hurt. It’s no surprise that the song would later become a Southern Soul classic. Although it was a local hit the single reached just ninety-five in the US Billboard 100. Ironically, things might have been very different as the B-Side, Formula Of Love, a mid-tempo track, was originally meant to be the single. Luckily, there was a change of heart and the single was the start of William Bell’s long association with Stax Records which became his musical home.

It wasn’t until 1962 the William Bell returns with his second single for the label, Any Other Way which features a soul-baring vocal. On the B-Side was a cover of the Hal Blair and Don Robertson composition Please Help Me I’m Falling. It features a vocal that’s emotive vocal that’s akin to a confessional. However, despite the quality of both sides the single failed to chart.

In 1963, William Bell’s career was interrupted when he received his call up papers and like all young American men, had to spend time in the military. The singer was sent to Hawaii, but returned to Memphis whenever his leave permitted and returned to the studio.

During 1963, William Bell released four singles, but none of them charted. The problem was serving in the military meant he was able to promote the singles. This included I Told You So which showcased the early Stax sound that was starting to develop. On the flip-side was What’Cha Gonna Do which he wrote with guitarist Steve Cropper. They would go on to write a number of songs.

This included Just As I Thought where they joined forces with Willie Parker. Just like William Bell’s previous single it’s another example of the early Stax sound. On the B-Side wasI’m Waiting On You, an underrated and oft-overlooked song that was the perfect platform for the twenty-four year old who was maturing as a singer. 

William Bell’s third single from 1963 was What Can I Do (To Forget) where he lives the pain and hurt in the lyrics. Tucked away on the B-Side was Somebody Mentioned Your Name, a gospel-tinged slice of Southern Soul. It’s another underrated track that’s one of the hidden gems from the singer’s blue period.  

Despite commercial success continuing to elude William Bell, he released one more single in 1963. This was I’ll Show You, a  heartachingly beautiful ballad which he wrote with Booker T Jones. On the flip-side was Monkeying Around which was one of a number of songs with a similar theme. It would later become a favourite of Georgie Fame who covered the song on his sophomore album and included it in his live sets. 

During 1964, Stax Records released just one single by  William Bell. This was the Southern Soul ballad  Don’t Make Something Out Of Nothing which he wrote with Steve Cropper. On the B-Side was Who Will It Be Tomorrow which also features Stax Records’ future Queen of Soul Carla Thomas. Sadly, when the single was released it failed commercially. 

Things didn’t improve in 1965 when the ballad Crying All by Myself was released as a single and failed to trouble the charts. That’s despite featuring a vocal that’s akin to a cathartic outpouring of hurt and heartache. It was accompanied by a wistful sounding arrangement where the horns play a leading role. On the B-Side was the Motown influenced Don’t Stop Now.  

As 1965 drew to a close, William Bell had released eight singles on Stax Records and just one minor hit single. However, soon the singer would be able to return to civilian life and he hoped that his fortunes would improve.

William Bell, Steve Cropper and David Porter joined forces to pen Share What You Got (But Keep What You Need). It’s a beautiful ballad that was recorded in 6/8 time and features soaring, soulful harmonies. On the B-Side was Marching Off To War a powerful track that featured lyrics full of social comment. When William Bell’s first single of 1966 was released it reached number twenty-seven in the US R&B charts. At last, his fortunes had improved.

This continued when the soulful dancer Never Like This Before was released later in 1966, and reached number twenty-nine in the US R&B charts. On the B-Side was Soldier’s Goodbye, which another song about the Vietnam War penned by William Bell and Steve Cropper. Their songwriting partnership was going from strength-to-strength.

After two hit singles William Bell was in no hurry to release a new single. He wanted to find the right song and wrote the ballad Everybody Loves A Winner with Booker T Jones. Stax’s famous rhythm section plays little part in the arrangement where strings provide a wistful backdrop for the vocal. Hidden away on the B-Side was the dancer You’re Such A Sweet Thang. It provided a contrast to the single that reached ninety-five in the US Billboard 100 and eighteen in the US R&B charts. This made it William Bell’s most successful single to date.

Later in 1967, William Bell returned with the followup to his biggest single. This was the dancefloor friendly Eloise (Hang On In There). On the B-Side was One Plus One a vastly underrated Southern Soul ballad that could easily have been the single. Maybe it should’ve been as Eloise (Hang On In There) failed to trouble the charts?

Despite this, Stax Records released The Soul Of A Bell, which was the twenty-eight year old’s debut album. However, it also failed to chart which was another disappointment for the Memphis-born soul man.

Fortunately, this was just a temporary setback for William Bell. (Hang On In There) was the first single he released in 1968 reached thirty-three on the US R&B charts. It would go on to become a seasonal standard. On the flip-side was the bluesy sounding Ain’t Got No Girl. 

Disaster had struck on the ‘10th’ of December 1967 when the plane that was carrying Otis Redding and members The Barkays crashed in a lake in Madison, Wisconsin. William Bell was devastated at the loss of his friend and what was one of Stax’s up-and-coming groups.

William Bell and Booker T Jones penned a tribute to Otis Redding, A Tribute To A King. His voice was filled with emotion as he delivered the poignant lyrics. The song was destined for the B-Side with Every Man Ought To Have A Woman chosen as the single. However, when it was released in 1968 DJs discovered the B-Side and started playing the tribute to a giant of soul music. It entered the charts reaching eight-six in the US Billboard 100 and sixteen in the us R&B charts. This made it the most successful single of William Bell’s blue period.

During his blue period at William Bell released fourteen singles at Stax Records between 1961 and 1968. Along with the B-Sides they feature on a forthcoming compilation Never Like This Before, which will be released by Kent Soul on ‘27th’ of May 2022. 

This lovingly curated compilation will be of interest to fans of William Bell and anyone interested in Southern Soul’s greatest labels, Stax Records. For newcomers to the veteran soul man, whose now eighty-two, and still performing these songs live, it’s the perfect introduction to a legend of Southern Soul, who played his part in the sound and success of Stax Records. 

Later in 2022, a second compilation covering William Bell’s yellow period will be releasing completing the story of his Stax Records’ years. Never Like This Before is just the first part in his fourteen year spell at the label that was his musical and spiritual home.

 William Bell-Never Like This Before.

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