In the 1960s and ‘70s, William Bell belonged to Stax Records’ family of singers, songwriters and musicians. The Memphis label released hits by such classic soul artists as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave and Eddie Floyd.
Bell wrote and recorded one of Stax’s early hits, the heartfelt 1961 ballad “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” His other hits include “Everybody Loves a Winner” and a 1968 duet with Judy Clay, “Private Number.”
“We knew we were creating good music at Stax,” Bell said this week from Atlanta. “We didn’t know the music would have the impact that it has had.”
Unlike the pop radio-friendly productions from Detroit’s Motown Records, Stax didn’t tailor its music for mainstream consumption.
“We came right out of church,” Bell said. “Our influences were blues and jazz and gospel and some country. We were just grassroots, down-home, feel-good music.”
Though Stax and Motown were competitors, Bell said, they were friendly rivals.
“We were as successful on our end as Motown was on their end. For about 10 years, between Stax and Motown, we kept the world dancing.”
Bell’s career got interrupted in 1963 by a military draft notice. He took basic training at Fort Polk with another talented young musician, New Orleans’ Allen Toussaint.
After two years in the service, Bell played catch up. “By the time I came out in ‘65, Otis, Rufus and Sam and Dave were kicking butt,” he said.
But with time, talent and Stax on his side, 1967 became one of Bell’s best years. Bell released his own hit, “Everybody Loves a Winner,” and wrote Albert King’s blues classic, “Born Under A Bad Sign.” British supergroup Cream also recorded “Sign” for its 1968 Wheels Of Fire album.
“Cream pushed the song right over the top,” Bell said. “That was the cream on the cake.”
The sad, chaotic decline of Stax in the 1970s left Bell and the label’s other acts reeling.
“We thought it would live forever,” he said. “When it didn’t, it was like a divorce or a family breaking up.”
Bell moved to Atlanta and slipped behind the scenes as a writer-producer. He dabbled in acting, too, but didn’t like the pimp and hustler roles offered to him.
Persuaded by Mercury Records to record again, Bell wrote and sang the biggest hit of his career, 1977’s “Tryin’ To Love Two.” He currently produces music in the Southern soul genre for himself and his fellow Wilbe Records artists, Jeff Floyd and Lola.
“I’m in the studio writing, which is like therapy for me,” he said. “And I’m working with new talent. It’s really rewarding to try to give back and make somebody else’s dreams come true.”