WILLIAM BELL: FRIDAY, MAY 5—BLUES TENT, 4:10 P.M.
For someone who never crossed over to lasting pop success in his day, William Bell has nevertheless had a deep and lasting impact on American music. His 1961 hit “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a landmark development in Southern Soul, did more than any other song to put the fledgling Stax label on the map, and he practically defined soul-blues with “Born Under a Bad Sign,” later a hit for both Albert King and Cream.
He’s definitely getting his due now, however: Bell’s latest album, This Is Where I Live, garnered him lots of critical acclaim and his first Grammy; Otis Redding’s version of “Water” served as a bookend for the first episode of the excellent Cinemax series Quarry, and he played for the Obamas as part of Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul in 2014. Now he takes the stage for the first time at the Jazz Fest on Friday, May 5 in the Blues Tent—another first he’s very happy with.
First of all, congratulations on the Grammy!
Well, thank you! I was up for two, you know. I won for the Americana album of the year, but I was also nominated in R&B.
The album’s producer, John Leventhal, is mainly known for country music. Did it feel like a good fit from the outset?
This is actually his first soul project, but he had won Grammys for his wife, Rosanne Cash—just a wonderful producer and songwriter. We worked very well together. We didn’t rush into it; we took two-three weeks to pick each other’s brains and try to figure out the kind of project we were trying to accomplish.
The album feels like a tailor-made suit. How did you decide on the songs?
We took our time to really figure out what would work. I’ve been known mostly as the ‘love man,’ the ballad singer, but as you get older, that love situation changes from that hot passionate thing to something more… reflective, you know. [laughs]
It does seem to be an attempt at a more adult type of soul.
As we grow older, we hopefully grow a little bit in our thinking, you know. We wanted to write about relationships and love—whatcha did wrong, whatcha did right, or whatcha didn’t do. [laughs]
Remarkably, you’ve never played Jazz Fest before! Looking forward to it?
Yeah! I’m getting a lot of firsts later in life, so I guess I’m a late bloomer or something. It’s just wonderful. I have been to the Fest, and I played that Ponderosa Stomp. But it’s great to take the stage finally.
I have a lot of love for this city. You know, ‘Water’ first broke out in New Orleans, the first place outside of Memphis. And one of my first performances on the road was here, at the ILA Hall [home of the old black longshoremen’s union on S. Claiborne, demolished after Katrina]. Percy Stovall, one of the great original R&B promoters, got me that gig, and he got me on a tour with all the greats coming out at that time: Robert Parker, Chris Kenner, Ernie K-Doe. We went all the way from Pascagoula to Opelousas.
‘Born Under a Bad Sign,’ which you perform on the album, is known best in cover versions. Did you want to make it your own?
Not really. It was John’s idea. I had recorded it myself a couple of times, a version that was one of his favorite tunes. I resisted at first, but he wanted to strip it down and do it totally different. He put me a track together, a swampy back porch kind of version, and he took out the iconic bass line! That’s what I wrote the song around! But I said, ‘Okay, let me live with this a while.’ I went and lived with it at the hotel for a couple of days, and I started to get it. Then I came in and said, ‘Well, let’s see. Let me do a run-through.’ Then when I was done he was jumping up and down, and he was saying, ‘We got it! We got it!’ I said, ‘Hey, I didn’t even start yet!’ [laughs]
As a singer, do you feel you’ve moved beyond soul and blues?
You know, I think I am a little bit more than just a soul singer. I started in church, but when I was 14, I started singing in clubs on the weekends, with people like Hank Crawford. I was singing jazz and standards stuff with them. Then, to get the weekend crowd, he wanted me to form a doo-wop group, the Del-Rios. That’s really how I got into the soul thing. Blues, R&B, jazz—when you’re working in a club, you learn everything.
What was it like to actually play at the White House?
Kind of surreal, you know, meeting the President and the First Lady. They were wonderful hosts. Afterwards we got a wonderful letter from them. You know, looking back, when you’re a little kid coming from a deprived section, then you’re singing before the most powerful family on Earth… I got reflective on that. It was great to see Stax there, too, like old homecoming week—Memphis homecoming week.