This past Sunday we went to see the great Stax artist William Bell perform at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis. Bell is 78 years old. He returned to the scene in triumph with his 2016 recording This Is Where I Live, winner of that year’s Grammy for Best Americana. Not blues, not rhythm and blues, not soul — Americana, as Bell proudly mentioned a couple of times during the show. The late recognition rightly means a lot to him.
We attended the first of two sold-out shows on Sunday. He looks like a tough guy, but he is an incredibly warm artist. We sat right in front of him. I snapped the photo at the right from our table. I hadn’t seen him perform during his heyday in the ’60s, so I can’t state definitively that he is still at the top of his form. He can’t ever have been better than this, though, can he? His show turns back the hands of time. Here is a current profile that does a good job telling his story.
I didn’t know about the 2016 recording, the Grammy or the return to touring. As he performed in front of me, I looked up in awe and gratitude. In his voice and repertoire, I thought to myself well before he mentioned the Grammy, I heard America singing. He touched me. I was deeply moved. Looking down at me, he could see it. More than that, he appreciated it. He reached out and shook my hand in the middle of the show. I love this guy.
We saw Bell backed by the Total Package Band. The band is out of Atlanta, where he now lives. With three horns and two back-up singers, they provided a perfect setting for his songs. NPR caught Bell and the Total Package Band for a Tiny Desk Concert in September 2016 (video below). My purpose here is only to let you know that if Bell swings by your way and your taste is like mine, you really don’t want to miss his show.
NPR’s Rachel Horn gives this background for the video:
When we invited William Bell to the Tiny Desk, we looked forward to witnessing part of a veteran soul hitmaker’s journey back to the spotlight. Bell is known for writing and performing several of the R&B classics that emerged from Memphis’ Stax Records in the 1960s, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Everybody Loves A Winner” among them. After decades away from Stax — and away from sizable record labels entirely — he returned to his old label home earlier this year to release This Is Where I Live. So we were ready to be won over by Bell’s rich, expressive voice and bandleader’s charm; we were prepared for emotionally dense songs that say a lot in only a few words. We just didn’t expect so much yellow.
Bell, who’s 77 [now 78] and now makes his home in Atlanta, worked suavely through two new songs from This Is Where I Live. The title track follows an autobiographical structure common among soul singers of a certain age (see: Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Aaron Neville). It narrates the story of Bell’s life in specific detail, from the first time he heard Sam Cooke to the memorable hotel stay when he wrote “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” the song that “took [him] all around the world.” And “The Three Of Me” is a love song of measured regret, typical of earlier Bell ballads but for its patina of time-worn wisdom.
To close his performance, Bell led the Total Package Band through one of the most enduring songs he’s written: the blues standard “Born Under A Bad Sign,” which has been covered by folks like Cream and Koko Taylor since Albert King first recorded it in 1967. When Bell’s co-writer on the song, Booker T. Jones, played it at the Tiny Desk in 2011, his solo organ work lent the tune an appropriately eerie cast. For Bell and company, though, “Bad Sign” became a joyous, communal celebration. Nearly every member of the 12-piece band took a chorus before settling into an energetic vamp, their leader’s grin as bright as his band’s T-shirts.
Bell mentioned Stax founder/producer Jim Stewart several times during the show. He recalled that his fellow Stax artist Albert King needed one more song to finish the album he was working on in 1967. Stewart asked Bell if he had one. Bell said he did, but he wasn’t finished with it. Stewart asked him to play it for King to see if he liked it. Fortunately, he liked it. When King’s single of the song came out, so did Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and all the rest.