WILLIAM BELL-THE MAN IN THE STREET.
William Bell-The Man In The Street.
Label: Kent Soul.
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 and can be divided into his blue and yellow periods.
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.
In 1961, William Bell released his debut single for Stax, You Don’t Miss Your Water. It was an innovative song with no middle eight and no instrumental break. Instead, there were just three verses. Later, the song would later become a Southern Soul classic. The single was a local hit, but reached just ninety-five in the US Billboard 100. This was a disappointing for everyone concerned given the quality of the single.
It wasn’t until 1962 the William Bell returns with his second single for the label, Any Other Way. Despite featuring a soul-baring vocal the single failed to chart. Success continued to elude the twenty-three year old Southern Soul man.
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 and then Just As I Thought which showcased the early Stax sound that was starting to develop. The singles were the perfect platform for the twenty-four year old who was maturing as a singer.
The third single William Bell released during 1963 was What Can I Do (To Forget). What was his fifth single for Stax failed to chart.
Despite commercial success continuing to elude William Bell, he released one more single in 1963. This was the beautiful ballad I’ll Show You. Just like the three previous singles he released during the year it failed to trouble the chart.
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. 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.
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). This a beautiful ballad that was recorded in 6/8 time and reached number twenty-seven in the US R&B charts. At last, the twenty-six year old singer was enjoying a degree of commercial success.
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.
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. The single reached ninety-five in the US Billboard 100 and eighteen in the US R&B charts. This was William Bell’s most successful single to date.
Later in 1967, William Bell returned with the dancefloor friendly Eloise (Hang On In There). However, it 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. When he released Hang On In There, his first single of 1968, it reached thirty-three on the US R&B charts. It would go on to become a seasonal standard.
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.
In 1968, William Bell and Judy Clay recorded Private Number. This future soul classic only reached seventy-five in the US Billboard 100 and seventeen in the US R&B charts. Meanwhile, the single reached number eight in the UK in early 1969. By then, William Bell had enjoyed further commercial as a new chapter in his career began.
The death of Otis Redding had left a huge void at Stax. Many thought that William Bell was the man to fill the void as his yellow period began later in 1968. It’s documented on Kent Soul’s new compilation The Man In The Street. It features twenty-four tracks and covers the remainder of his career at the Stax.
William Bell’s yellow periodbegan when he released I Forgot to Be Your Lover in December 1968. It’s heartachingly beautiful ballad that he penned with Booker T. Jones and features a vocal full of emotion and regret. On the B-Side was Bring The Curtain Down. The single reached forty-five in the US Billboard and ten in the US R&B charts in February 1969 and was the soul man’s biggest hit to date.
William Bell was reunited with Judy Clay and released My Baby Specializes in 1968. However, it stalled at forty-five in the US R&B charts.
Buoyed by the success of the single I Forgot to Be Your Lover, Stax released My Whole World Is Falling Down as the follow-up in 1969. The vocal is filled with sadness and despair and is accompanied by gospel-tinged harmonies on this poignant Southern Soul ballad. It reached thirty-nine in the US R&B charts. Tucked away on the B-Side was the hidden gem All God’s Children Got Soul. It’s a driving dancer where horns accompany the vocal as William Bell breathes life and meaning into the lyrics.
The second single he released in 1969 was Happy, a joyous, string-drenched dancer. On the B-Side was the dramatic balled My Kind Of Girl. It’s another hidden gem and is too good to be a B-Side. Sadly, the single failed to trouble the charts and was the one that got away for William Bell. However, the single later became a favourite on the UK’s Northern Soul scene.
During 1969, William Bell collaborated on a number of singles. This included Soul-A-Lujah which featured Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas and The Staple Singers. However, it didn’t trouble the charts.
Neither did Love’s Sweet Sensation where he joined forces with Mavis Staples and nor I Can’t Stop a duet with Carla Thomas. This was disappointing for everyone concerned.
The William Bell and Booker T. Jones songwriting partnership penned Born Under A Bad Sign. It’s a mixture of Southern Soul, R&B and blues that oozes quality. Despite that single wasn’t a commercial success. On the B-Side was the cathartic confessional A Smile Can’t Hide (A Broken Heart). This underrated song and the single also featured on the album Bound To Happen.
Two years had passed since The Soul Of A Bell was released in 1967. William Bell returned with Bound To Happen in 1969 which stalled at forty-nine in the US R&B charts. However, it turned out to be the most successful album he released on Stax.
As the seventies dawned, William Bell and Carla Thomas released the duet All I Have to Do Is Dream in 1970. Commercial success eluded their latest collaboration and their search for a hit continued.
When Lonely Soldier was released later in 1970, it was the end of an era. It was the last song the William Bell and Booker T. Jones songwriting partnership penned. Their swansong was a poignant, moving and cinematic ballad that features Let Me Ride on the B-Side. It’s an oft-overlooked example of early seventies Southern Soul. Sadly, the successful songwriting partnership’s final collaboration failed to trouble the charts. The search for a hit single continued.
1970 was a disappointing year for William Bell, and so was 1971. His first single that year was the ballad A Penny for Your Thoughts. It features a tender, heartfelt vocal that’s accompanied by harmonies and an understated arrangement that allows the vocal to take centrestage. The first single of 1970 marked a change in direction. So did the B-Side was Till My Back Ain’t Got No Bone which Eddie Floyd and Alvertis Isbell cowrote. However, despite the change in direction the single failed to chart.
The second and final single William Bell released during 1971 was the paean All For The Love Of A Woman. Swirling strings and soaring harmonies accompany an impassioned vocal. The B-Side was the Eddie Floyd penned I’ll Be Home. It showcases a much funkier sound. However, despite the quality of both sides of the single it failed to chart. Sadly, 1971 wasn’t a good year for William Bell.
He had released his third album Wow…during 1971. It also failed to chart. The last two years had been tough for William Bell as commercial success eluded him.
Save Us was the only single he released during 1972. It’s a mixture of Southern Soul and funk that William Bell produced and cowrote with guitarist with Horace Shipp, Jr. The B-Side If You Really Love Him was written by Muscle Shoals-based songwriters George Soule and Terry Woodford. This ballad is bristling with emotion and the rueful vocal is full of sadness and regret. Both sides showcase a truly talented singer who could bring lyrics to life. Despite this, the single failed to trouble the charts.
There was further disappointment when his fourth album Phases Of Reality failed to chart in 1972. It hadn’t been a good year for William Bell.
1973 began with the release of the single If You Really Love Him, which William Bell co-produced with Al Jackson, Jr. It’s another ballad and features a wistful vocal as he sings about his lover: “who belongs to another.”The vocal is full of hurt and it sounds as if he has lived the lyrics. On the B-Side was The Man In The Street a memorable, melodic and catchy track. The single reached twenty-two on the US R&B charts and was William Bell’s first hit single since 1969.
The follow-up was I’ve Got to Go on Without You and it reached fifty-four in the US R&B charts. This bluesy sounding single is a tale of love gone wrong and a relationship: “that wasn’t meant to be.” On the B-Side was the uptempo You’ve Got The Kind Of Love I Need where hooks aren’t in short supply.
For William Bell the only disappointment of 1973 was when his fifth album Relating failed to chart. Little did he realise that it would be the last album he released for Stax.
By the time spring turned to summer in Memphis, in 1974, William Bell had released the Southern Soul ballad Gettin’ What You Got (Losin’ What You Had). It feature the vastly underrated and beautiful All I Need Is Your Love. Backing vocals on both sides come courtesy of Charles Chalmers and the Rhodes sisters, Donna and Sandra, who featured on many sessions at Hi Records. They play a part in the success of the single which reached thirty-nine on the US R&B charts. However, by then, things weren’t going well behind the scenes at Stax.
That had been the case since at least 1973. However, many artists signed to Stax didn’t know just how bad things had got by 1975. By then, the label was heading towards insolvency. Before that, William Bell released one more single.
This was the laidback and seductive sounding Southern Soul ballad Get It While It’s Hot. On the B-Side was Nobody Walks Away From Love Unhurt which features Hi rhythm section drummer Howard Grimes. When the single was released in 1975 it wasn’t a commercial success and failed to chart. Sadly, that was the end of era.
Since releasing his debut single on Stax in 1961 William Bell had released twenty-six solo singles and five albums. Fourteen singles were released during his blue period between 1961 and 1968. These singles and the B-Sides feature on Ace Records’ 2022 William Bell compilation Never Like This Before. Less than a year later comes the followup.
This is The Man In The Street. It features the twelve singles plus their B-sides that William Bell released during his yellow period. It began in 1968 and ended in 1975. It was the end of an era for one of Stax Records most successful male vocalists.
Stax and Volt Records were forced into involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy on December the ’19th’ 1975. It was a case of how the mighty had fallen. After all, Stax had been one of the most successful soul labels during the late-sixties. Things were very different less than a decade later.
In 1976, Al Bell was arrested and then indicted for bank fraud during the bankruptcy proceedings. However, he was acquitted of the charges in August 1976.
Then in early 1977, Union Planters sold Stax, its master tapes, and its publishing companies for around four million dollars to a holding corporation. It then sold the assets to Fantasy Records later that year. By then, William Bell was signed to Mercury Records.
He had also enjoyed the biggest hit of his. This was Tryin’ To Love Two which topped the US R&B charts and reached number ten in the US Billboard 100. Despite this success, the singles William Bell released on Stax were his best.
This includes the twenty-four singles from his yellow period that feature on The Man On The Street. These singles and B-Sides feature many hidden gems and oft-overlooked tracks, and are a reminder of one of the greatest singers in the history of Souther Soul. William Bell was also a truly talented songwriter and producer whose spiritual home was Memphis-based Stax Records.
A reminder of the second part of William Bell’s time at Stax is The Man On The Street, another lovingly curated compilation that’s just been released by Ace Records. It’ll be of interest to fans of William Bell as well as anyone interested in Southern Soul’s greatest labels, Stax Records.
For newcomers to the veteran soul man, whose now eighty-three, it’s the perfect introduction to a legend of Southern Soul. William Bell played an important part in the sound and success of Stax Records over a fourteen year spell at the label that was his musical and spiritual home.
William Bell-The Man In The Street.
- Posted in: Funk ♦ R&B ♦ Soul ♦ Southern Soul
- Tagged: Ace Records, Kent Soul, Never Like This Before, Stax Records, The Man On The Street, William Bell