Soul Survivor, Thriving
William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” the rueful heartbreak ballad released as the B-side of his 1961 debut single for Stax Records, introduced one of the most expressive voices in Southern soul: rich, deep, pleading, and promising. His latest album This Is Where I Live – a return to the revived Stax more than 50 years later – sounds like almost no time has passed. The heart still thumps, the passion still smolders, and after decades, Bell’s voice is still as warm as a cognac nightcap.
Soon after the initial demise of Stax in 1975, Bell had his career’s biggest hit with “Tryin’ To Love Two,” for the Mercury label. Both his solo releases and compositions for others, the most famous of which is Albert King’s signature “Born Under A Bad Sign,” set a high bar for effusive love-and-trouble soul blues; Bell stayed frequently sampled and covered, and except for a few years’ stint in the Army in the early ‘60s, he rarely let his creative muscles go unexercised. Wilbe Records, the indie label he founded in 1985, has put out about half a dozen William Bell releases over the years, the most recent being 2006’s New Lease On Life.
This Is Where I Live is a total success, slinky and steady from the opening, countrified deep self-reflections of “The Three Of Me” through a sharp, spooky revisiting of “Born Under A Bad Sign” to the title track, an amiable autobiography (“I was born in Memphis/ in a different world”) co-written with producer John Leventhal. “I Will Take Care of You” pledges love with sincere conviction, and “More Rooms” mourns the ghost of it, the two thematic pillars of soul.
In interviews, Leventhal has said he tried to avoid indulging in too much nostalgia, with an eye on crafting a modern platter to showcase Bell’s maturity. Bell’s best work was always mature – sophisticated sounds for grown folks, ever since his sadder-but-wiser debut – so things worked out especially splendidly. William Bell at his best and as he is today are pretty close to identical; the well is far from dry.