Early in life, William Bell had thought to become a doctor. Singing was just a relaxing pastime reserved for social gatherings. But friends convinced him to try his hand at entertaining and he and his group won second prize at the annual Mid-South Talent Contest of Memphis, Tennessee. The prize was a recording contract with Stax Records.
When William Bell came to Stax, things were just beginning to happen for the label. In fact, it was called Satellite Records. Jim Stewart, president of Stax, was there, and Rufus and Carla Thomas and the Mar-Keys, but not many more. Bell recorded “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well Runs Dry)” as his first solo record and had a smash hit. Becoming an entertainer was a good idea after all.
William Bell’s talents as an entertainer do not stop at singing. He is also an accomplished songwriter on his own and in collaboration with other composers. “I write either from a personal experience, an observation, or I just take a particular situation. My very first song was written from a personal experience and I find, looking back over a lot of tunes I’ve written, that listeners can identify with them better if they are on a personal basis.”
One of Bell’s closest collaborative relationships was with Booker T. Jones, leader of the successful Stax group Booker T. & the MGs. Together they wrote such tunes as “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” “Private Number,” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the title song of an album by guitarist Albert King which was a major hit for the British recording group Cream.
William Bell had a close friendship with the late Otis Redding. “When he first came to Stax,” says Bell, “we did a lot of touring together and got to be really close friends. Naturally, his music had an influence on me. Before then I was exclusively a ballad singer. By being with Otis Redding and working with him on a lot of tunes, it gave me an insight on upping the tempo of the songs. I guess he probably got a lot of things from me and other artists at Stax as well,” Bell reflects. “I think that’s what the Stax thing is all about—it’s a family thing where everybody benefits from everybody else’s experiences.”
Personable, pipe-smoking William Bell is 5’10” tall and was born in Memphis on July 16. His earliest musical influence was his mother who sang with a gospel group at their church. Young William would go with her to church and listen to her practice with the group.
His hometown even had him pointed in the direction of his future career. “There was always music around Memphis,” remembers Bell. “When I was a kid, I can remember sneaking into the old Palace Theatre where Rufus Thomas was performing and watch what they called the ‘Midnight Ramble’ shows. Kids weren’t allowed so I would sneak in through the back door. “The shows were just like old vaudeville shows with comedians and a chorus line of girls dancing and everything. I would sit there and pick up on the steady flow of blues singers like B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Jimmy Parker.”
Bell recorded his hit of “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and his first album, The Soul of a Bell, before he was drafted. Following his stint in the Army, Bell recorded the Bound to Happen album, followed by Wow! William Bell and Phases of Reality.
As a sideline to his music career, William Bell is also an actor. A graduate of the two-year program at the Theatre Academy of Dramatic Arts in Atlanta, , where he now resides, he has played a variety of acting roles in stage plays while enrolled at the school. He is probably the only Black actor to play the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
“Acting and singing are closely related,” William says. “In a song you have to project and you have to be believable, but you sing the lyrics. In acting you have to project a believable character by getting involved in the character and delivering your lines so that the audience will believe that your emotions are speaking.”
Bell is also involved in a company with his manager Henry Wynn, one of the nation’s top Black entertainment promoters, called Bel-Wyn Management, Inc. in Atlanta. The firm is the parent company for Peachtree Records, Azrock Publishing Company, a music publishing firm, and Wilbe Productions. Wynn handles the management end and the day-to-day office activity while Bell concentrates on songwriting, publishing, and producing.
Being involved in the business end of music also, Bell has noticed a change in the amount of experience an artist has when he “makes it.” “I think some of the newer artists should experience a little more of an apprenticeship in the business,” observes Bell. “An artist who decided six months ago to become a singer all of a sudden can write a song, have a smash hit million-seller and not know how to walk on a stage. “There are some artists, too, from the old school so to speak, even though they are only 25 or 30 years old, they have been at it since childhood. There is not really such a thing as an overnight success.” Although it didn’t happen overnight, singer, composer, actor, businessman William Bell is a success at everything he undertakes.