Whoever wrote the proverb “All things come to those who wait” must have had William Bell in mind. William Bell is reaching the zenith of his career these days not out of nostalgia or sentimentality, but because he is at the zenith of his abilites. Blues and Soul music have not been getting alot of respect these days. Recent reports say the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is gravely ill (and unfortunately has since passed). The Grammy Awards even removed those iconic and uniquely American genres from its live television presentations a couple years back. That’s okay, there is some good news coming out of these genres. Here’s a little trivia quiz for all the music lovers out there: What artist’s live performance stole the show at the 2017 Grammys and won the Grammy for the 2017 Americana Music Album of the Year? Answer: William Bell. “You mean the Blues legend William Bell who wrote “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’? The legendary Stax soul singer?” One and the same. Last night he proved why he is still the world’s greatest blues/soul/Americana or any other genre performer alive, period.
It would be a huge disservice to bring up age after Bell’s performance last night. The show wasn’t great for a man of his age (79 years young) because William Bell isn’t affected by age. This is not hyperbole, we have plenty of that in Americana Music circles these days. This man hit every note, from a sustained high note during “I Forgot to be your Lover”?/Sam Cooke medley to his trademark “huh ha”baritone that punctuates many of his classics and causes the ladies to swoon, and hit every note in between. Bell’s dynamic performance in this intimate jazz club, (so intimate that the stage was practically crowded with his 8 piece band, that’s including his 2 back-up singers/dancers), was even more miraculous since it was coming off his headline performance in front of a crowd in the tens of thousands at the Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth, MN. Ever the consummate pro, not only did Bell and the Total Package Band, his crack band from his home in Atlanta, perform two shows at the dakota (I attended the late show) less than 24 hours later, they effortlessly mastered the dynamics of the jazz club, with Bell often holding the mic far from his mouth, filling the room with his unamplified voice, but also brought it down to where the band was playing so quiet you could hear a pin drop and that included the mesmerized audience in a dinner club, no small feat.
The evening got off to a propitious start with the Total Package Band taking the stage alone, opening with “In Stone/Uptown Funk”, the Mick Ronson and Bruno Mars homage to the Minneapolis Sound and a nice way of showing their respect in the home of the Purple One. Lead and back-up singers and dancers Phyllislorena Smiley and Xavier Lewis got the audience revved up with their call and response for what was next. As the horn section of baritone sax Ty Holmes, Alex Walke tenor sax and on trumpet Melvin Miller broke into the familiar strains of Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” it was Showtime and out came the Stax legend dressed to the nines in all black, sequined sport coat, hat and sunglasses.
After acknowledging the crowd’s enthusiastic welcome (nearly a third of the audience was giving him a standing ovation) the band segued into Bell’s 1977 hit on Mercury “Easy Comin’ out (Hard Going In)”. This much overlooked Bell penned, playfully suggestive, double entendre (easier to sneak out of the house then it is to sneak back in) is a reminder that William could write romantic soul that rank right up there with Al Green and Marvin Gaye. The lush horns and hard driving rhythm section of “Easy Coming out”was the perfect opener and set up the second number, my personal favorite, “Any Other Way”.
One of Bell’s earliest Stax singles (1962) ,”Any other Way” is a deceptively simple number but one of those songs that only a few performers can pull off. I have a live version of this song that is absolutely killer but I cannot remember where I got it nor have I ever been able to figure out the origin or album from which it came. On this mystery version you hear a young singer (Bell?) in a noisey club call out the song title before launching into a sparsely arranged (just organ, guitar, drums and bass) and relaxed version of the song that is exquisite in its simplicity and aching in the singer’s pain as he tries to put on a brave face when actually he is devasted by the break up with the love of his life.
This bothered me so much that I vowed to myself that if I ever got the chance to meet the songwriter, I would ask him. So in 2011 I am at the Pondersoa Stomp in New Orleans and attending one of those panel discussions that make the Stomp such a favorite among music heads. That year they were doing a tribute to artists from Stax and the panel included William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Mack Rice and Deanie Parks a former backup singer and a board member for the wonderful charter school sponsored by the Stax Museum, the Stax Soul Academy. At the end of the panel discussion they opened it up for questions from the audience comprised of some of the biggest music writers and industry movers and shakers. I am so nervous I wrote out my question so I would not freeze when called on but at the last minute I lose my nerve.
Thinking this might be my once in a life time chance to learn the origin of one of my favorite songs I tap the shoulder of the woman sitting next to me and said “Excuse me, could you do me a really big favor and ask William Bell this question?” The woman turned out to be the curator or director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I figured she would not be intimidated like I was but she counters with a question: “Why won’t you ask him the question?” I honestly reply: “I’m not sure if it is him or someone covering his song and I don’t want to look foolish.” Shooting me a look of incredulity, she says “What makes you think I want to look foolish?.” Before I can come up with a reply the moderator announced the panel discussion was over.
Not yet ready to give up, I see the Stax contingent clustered a little bit from where I was standing so I saunter up to Eddie Floyd, William Bell and Stax Charter School Director, Deanie Parks, and say “Excuse me Mr. Bell? I had some questions about the charter school…” but before I could finish the sentence Ms. Parks wheels around to face me and says “Don’t blow smoke up our asses, you just want to get a picture with William!”
I must have looked like I was about to start bawling as I attempt to stutter out a defense of myself, “no really, I am writing a travelogue of this trip and wanted some background on the school…” when the incredibly kind and gracious Eddie Floyd, whose impact on soul music and discography equals if not surpasses Bell’s, diffuses the situation offering to take my picture with William. Although I would have preferred Ms. Parker taking a picture with me, William and Eddie (whose Rare Stamps greatest hits on Stax is one of my favorite, well-worn, soul discs) I wasn’t about to press my luck. Still visibly shaken by Ms. Parker’s psychic abilities, Eddie assures me as he hands me back my camera, “Don’t let Deanie get to you we all know you’re earnest about your interest.” I was truly touched by Eddie’s kind words I responded to Eddie with something to the effect “I am” adding “..you wait and see” before launching into my question about the version of “Any Other Way”.
After conferring briefly with William, Eddie correctly surmised that the version I was referring to