More on Stax from William Bell (Part 1 of 2)

My feature on Written in Their Soul also drew from a conversation with William Bell. But because of space considerations, precious little of our chart found its way into the story. Here then are some of the best bits from our chat, in the words of William Bell. – bk

I, as a songwriter, listened to a lot of Sam Cooke’s work. Because I was singing gospel early on, The Soul Stirrers and Sam were my idols. Then, after Sam left of course and did ‘You Send Me’ and everything, it just mushroomed from there, and I thought he was just prolific as a songwriter.

As far as the songwriters at Stax, to me, Booker and I were a good team. David [Porter] and Isaac [Hayes] were a great team. Then, you had Deanie Parker, and then you had Bettye Crutcher and Homer Banks and Henderson Thigpen. So, we had writers come through, and then Eddie Floyd as an artist and writer. Then, you had just a number of Stax artists that would come through, and they were just great interpreters, you know, as far as Johnnie Taylor and the Sam & Dave’s and everything. They didn’t write a lot of their material, but they were great artists to present your songs to, because they would interpret them in such a way that they were always a hit.

Early years
I was an only child up to the time I was 10 years old, and my mom remarried, so I had some siblings then. I was singing in church and everything, and so I was kind of a loner, and my thing was I was always thinking about something and daydreaming, and that was escapism. I’d get my ideas and my feelings out on poems and stuff like that.

And then, when I started in the music thing, I was at the Flamingo Room. I was working at 14 years old. I started dabbling with piano. A lot of the earlier musicians there in the band were teaching me chord structure, and then I started in school studying music theory and in the choral group there and all that stuff, so for harmonies and stuff. So, I was always listening. I was a people watcher and just kind of a loner and, being a loner, I had ideas, and I wanted to express [them], and I would always jot them down as a poem and then, later on as I said, when I started dealing with music and taking piano lessons and stuff, I started writing songs.

Coming to Stax
When Jim [Stewart] signed me, we were the backup group. They had put some group on that was singing flat or out of tune. So, they wanted us to do the work on it, so we did, and Jim liked our sound. So, he signed us to Stax Records as The Del-Rios. We did, I think, about three 45s for him, and most of the guys in the group were older than I was, so they had the draft during that time, and they were drafted in the military and left me and Louis Williams as a duo. So he started another group, and I went solo to do ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water,’ but Jim signed me as an artist, but he knew that I had abilities to write also. I was not officially signed as a writer to Stax, but they would always ask, and I was always in the studio if I was not touring or working. And they would say, ‘Well, have you got anything that this artist or that artist can do?’ And I always came through for them, so I was an unofficial writer too.

Working at Stax
Inside the confines of Stax, there were Black, White, male, female. We didn’t care about color, whatever gender. It’s what you brought to the table in terms of creativity. And Jim and Estelle let us come in and hone our craft and work, and all the other musicians that came in, like the M.G.’s and all of those, we sat there and learned the ins and outs of the recording business not only from a performing standpoint but from the creative standpoint, from the business standpoint also. So, I think that was one of the things that made Stax great is that we were all mixed, and so we came from different cultures, because you had the Black-White connection there, then you had us being confined to South Memphis.

And we all knew each other so, whether you were Black, White, or whatever the situation was, we all grew up under the same kind of environment. We heard the same kind of music on the radio, like one radio station. Whether you’re Black or White, they played gospel, blues, jazz, country/western.

There was competition, but we were still together even as competitors on the stage or off the stage, and we would do our best to be the best and then, backstage or behind the scenes afterwards, we’d go out and have lunch or dinner and laugh about it, you know? But, it was highly competitive, but we sincerely wanted every act, every writer and everybody within that confines of the Stax organization to have a hit record. So, sometimes I would write for Rufus [Thomas], I would write for Carla [Thomas], I would write for whoever was coming in, because I want them, even though they were competitive to me, I wanted them to have a hit too, because Jim always instilled in us, ‘If one record is successful, then we all feel that success,’ because it hits all of us, and that’s a great way to look at it, you know? It all comes out of the Stax organization.

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