William Bell refers to himself, primarily, as a "ballad singer." "Up-tempos I do," he acknowledges, "but ballads — you can dig deep in a ballad."
After more than four decades away from Memphis' iconic Stax Records, the 76-year-old singer and songwriter has, in a sense, come home. And "The Three Of Me," the opening cut from his new album This Is Where I Live, is Bell through and through: A ballad singer, indeed.
The Memphis-born vocalist and songwriter made his musical home at Stax from its earliest years, becoming a regular customer at its Satellite Record Shop out front before signing in 1961. A solid and expressive performer, Bell is best known for putting his pen to some of the most enduring pieces of soul songwriting of the '60s. He's responsible for writing or co-writing Stax gold like "You Don't Miss Your Water," the Albert King hit "Born Under A Bad Sign" and even the Yuletide favorite "Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday."
Bell left Stax shortly before the company collapsed in 1975, putting out several, under-the-radar albums via his own Wilbe Productions that tended toward disco and quiet storm r&b. But This Is Where I Live, which Bell wrote and recorded with producer John Leventhal (Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell), is a welcome return to what Bell has always done best: straightforward, deceptively simple soul music.
The story that Bell and co-writers Leventhal and Marc Cohn tell in "The Three Of Me" is humbly aspirational, recalling Bell's 1968 hit "I Forgot To Be Your Lover" in its reflection on a man's failings and his yearning to find forgiveness from the one he's pushed away. Age becomes Bell's voice, which is still sweet and unwaveringly earnest; befitting the song's conceit, he sings harmony with himself. It's a pleasure to once again hear his reliable romanticism arranged astride the earthy simplicity of horns, Hammond organ and unfussy guitar riffs.
Speaking by phone to NPR Music from his Atlanta home, Bell provided some insight into the creation of "The Three Of Me," his return to Stax and the universal nature of soul music.
Could you talk a little bit about how you wrote "The Three Of Me" and what inspired it?
We were sitting around in John Leventhal's studio and we were coming up with scenarios about how to write a different love song. And I think Marc [Cohn] had an idea of a title, but no words or anything. But the title kind of struck me, as if a man was just looking back over his life and trying to find out what he would do differently — the loves that he's lost or gained. And we just started writing, and this is what came out of it. It was written as a three-character series.
When you say a "different" kind of love song, what exactly do you mean?
Well, sometimes as you grow older you kind of reflect on your life and the loves that you've missed or lost or gained. You write about the things that might have happened, could have happened, woulda-shoulda-coulda, that kind of thing. And what you would like for it to be in a very different situation.
You're talking about looking back on a life. Do you feel like writing songs now, in your 70s, is any different from writing songs, say, in your 20s?
I usually write about life, about my personal experiences, and I'm a people-watcher, so I write about things that I see go on in other folks' lives. But whatever a situation is, I try to write truthfully about it. It's not that much different from when I started out, I guess. Initially, I started writing as an escape for my feelings, and I try to write honestly about it.
What about Stax made you so eager to come back?
Well, I've got fond memories there. I started as a teenager, writing and recording with my group The Del-Rios, and went from that to doing a single project with "You Don't Miss Your Water." So it's like going home. I've come full circle with that. And it's a comfortable feeling, just to be on Stax.
It's interesting that most of the time when you change labels, there are maybe one or two people that know about your career and your songs. But when I got to meet these people [who work at Stax, now part of Concord Music Group], most of them were aware of my past history as an artist — which was very important to me, because they know where I'm coming from, they know how to promote and market me, and they know the product that they're selling. As artists, we are products, so you got to package it and sell it, you know?
Besides being released on the Stax imprint, the album feels like it is a nod to the kind of classic Southern soul sounds that Stax and places like Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals produced in the '60s. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, because we wanted to recapture a little bit of my past writing techniques and the history, but also advance. I hope I have advanced as an artist, and we wanted to move on, because I was aware that now it's world music. It's not just one location, like southeast or northeast America or something — when you write a song, it's worldwide. You write it for worldwide acceptance. So John was aware of that also, and we wanted to include a little bit of each genre that I had been exposed to — a little country, a little folk, a little blues — so we just incorporated that. And actually, I think we came up with a little bit of a different sound. But you can still retain that common denominator — you still hear it's William Bell.
You said something about this being music for the world, not just for a particular region. What does that mean? What is the thing that is making it world music, or more universal?
Well, I've traveled extensively in my career, and I found out in touring and playing countries [where] they spoke little or no English, but I got the same reactions in the same intervals in the songs. And I'm thinking to myself, "How can this be?" It's all about the feeling. Rather than understanding a lyric, they feel the mood and the impact of the vocal. People, I've found out, are the same the world over. No matter what language or what region we come from, we have the same wishes, desires, frustrations, everything. So that's the person-to-person denominator. And so you write about things that people can readily identify with and say, "Wow, that's about my life."
Is that what makes a good soul song, that universal quality that makes people think "this is about me, this is about my life?"
It all starts with the song — the lyric and the melody — but it's the artist's interpretation of it. I started in church, so I have a deep love for lyrical interpretation and putting my heart and soul and feeling into lyrical content. I think that's what people pick up on — they can feel what you're doing.
Sometimes working in the studio, I'll close my eyes on a playback of something, because if the truth comes through on those speakers in that studio, of what I just did, then I believe it. And if I believe it, other people will believe it.
This Is Where I Live is out on June 3 on Stax.