29th March 2014
Q: Finally, welcome to Japan! It’s taken you a while to get here…
WB: Well thank you. It’s good to be here. About two years ago, somebody approached me about coming and I had other engagements so now I’m ‘Oh…finally got here!’
You Don't Miss Your Water
Q: You Don't Miss Your Water is your most famous song: what do you recall of that session?
WB: It was my first one. I wrote it on tour with Phineaus Newborn’s orchestra and I was in New York at the time, doing somewhere out in Long Island and when I got back to Memphis, Chips Moman wanted to record me. We were at Stax and he was one of the producers there at the time and I was there with the Del-Rios which was my vocal group doing back-up work and stuff and I didn’t know if I wanted to do a single without the group but he finally convinced me. I said I had this one song which was You Don’t Miss The Water and another one just about completed so he said ‘Good. We’ll cut a demo session on it and let’s see what it sounds like.’ So we went into the studio at Stax, he got some musicians together…I think it was Lewie Steinberg, Chips and somebody else. It wasn’t the MG’s at the time - they brought Booker in later on – but anyway, we did a demo on it, took it into let Jim Stewart hear it and he said ‘Well…I don’t know…’ because it was a different kind of Soul ballad. Nobody had done anything of that Gospel orientated kind of stuff and he said ‘It’s a little bit too churchy’ but he took it out to Ms. Axton at the record shop next door and she loved it and said ‘We gotta put this out!.’ We recorded it in the latter part of ’60 and they released it out in ‘61 and it became a big hit – my first one.
Q: Were you happy with your vocal on that given that it was a demo?
WB: Not really but everybody loved it and they kind of overrode me becuase I was just the new kid on the block. When Jim said it was a little bit too Gospel-y I said ‘Well it is because I was singing in church prior to starting secular music. It sounded Gospel-y to me but it was a good story and good lyric. They took it down to one of the radio stations and they had what they called ‘Make it or break it.’ They’d put it on and let the audience call in and everyone was positive and loved it, asked who it was and asked to play it again so they wound up putting it out.
Q: Otis Redding then recorded it as well. Why do you think he choose that one?
WB: He always loved the song and he wanted to cover it so I said ‘Be my guest.’ (laughs) I covered one of his too: I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.
Q: You and otis had a great relationship…
WB: Oh we did!
Q: …what was he like as a man?
WB: Regular guy; down to earth. We travelled together and were competitive on stage but off stage we hung out and went into little neighbourhood bars down in Macon where he lived, drinking beer and having a ball! Just regular people.
Q: Any Otis anecdotes?
WB: Yeah. We were doing a show in Atlanta and we were down in Macon. I came from Memphis to Macon and we hung out there for a couple of days and he said ‘Ride with me up too Atlanta’ and Otis drove like (makes F1 car noise) neeeooowwwww! We left at the last minute. We were late for the concert and everything and he said ‘Oh we’ll be on time.’ What a ride! (laughs) We made it though. It’s good.
Q: Along with The Mar-Keys and Barbra Stephens, you were one of the first releases on Stax. What were those early days and the atmosphere at the label like back then?
WB: We were like a family. Jim and Ms Axton – Estelle – they were surrogate parents to us. We were all young kids from the neighbourhood and everything and they just said ‘Hey, you got a talent. Come on in, here’s a studio and work at it’ and they let us come in and hone our craft and taught us little things about the business end of it. It was great, we were all like family and that was strange back in those days because segregation was rampant but inside the studio, we didn’t see colour or anything. We just got together with Duck and Steve and Booker and Al and the rest of us would come in. Sometimes it would be two or three days staying in the studio writing, sleeping in a corner somewhere, sending out for hamburgers and just keep writing. It was a family situation with everybody and we wanted everybody to have a hit record so that’s why I started writing for other artists and stuff.
Q: What’s your memory of Booker T Jones and Born Under A Bad Sign?
WB: I was one of these artists that if I was not out touring, I was always in the studio because I wanted to learn all of the behind the scenes things; how to mic drums, how to do the board and engineer and stuff and I was always asking questions. I was there when Albert King was doing his session – Booker was producing him - and Albert only had two songs. They finished the two songs pretty quickly and Jim asked me if I had a song that Albert could do. Born Under A Bad Sign I had been thinking about for about a month and I had a bass line in mind, a verse and a chorus and that was it! I didn’t have a complete song so I told them I had one but it wasn’t finished, I’ll have to go in and finish it and he said ‘Well let me hear a little bit of it.’ Booker sat at his piano and I showed him the bass line, he started putting the chords too it, I sang it and they loved it - Albert loved it. Albert said ‘When can you finish it?’ and Booker said, We can go over to my house and finish it up. He had a keyboard in his den so we went over there and that night we worked on the song and came in the next morning. Albert didn’t read music really so I had to demo it for him. He said ‘Demo it, I’ll listen to it overnight and I’ll come in tomorrow and put my vocal and guitar work on.’ I demoed it, he took it back to the hotel and listened to it, came in the next morning for the session, put his vocals and guitar work on and that was it.
Q: You stayed with Stax right through until 1975, was it a different label after Otis died and Al Bell took over?
WB: Well we started having fairly decent hit records and Jim was a business man. He was a banker by trade but he was a Country fiddle player and his personality was not all business. He was not a wheeler-dealer, didn’t know how to deal with the DJ’s and all the distributors and all that stuff and Al had been a DJ in Little Rock and then he came to Memphis and then he want to D.C. Somehow, he and Jim got together and he came down to Stax and Jim asked him if he would like a job as a promotion guy. Al was one of these fast-talking, fast-walking guys so he fit what we needed at the time. He knew all the DJ’s because he was a DJ himself and the distributors and all so it worked out well. He came on board and Ms Axton was more or less the equalizer amongst everybody. She was like the Mama of the house but she had a keen sense of commercial because she worked in the record shop. She would call all of us kids in or sometimes she had speakers out on the street. She’d play a brand new record and the kids would listen and dance out on the sidewalk and everything and then she would call us in and say ‘What do you like about that record?’ We’d say we like the beat or lyrics or melody but she had a keen sense of what was commercially viable so the three of them between them, her, Al and Jim were great. That’s how it worked.
Q: Are you still in contact with anyone from those days?
WB: Oh yeah! I still talk to Jim sometimes. He’s not very active now because he’s up in age (84) but he’s still around. I talk to Booker and Steve all the time. Booker and I just did some concerts together Mar-Keys so we all keep in touch. I keep in touch with Eddie Floyd and Mavis. We just finished a movie together with Snoop Dog. As I said, it was a family and we still do concerts together and are always calling ‘How are ya? How’s the family?’ all that kind of stuff.
Q: How would compare the labels Stax and Mercury and which one, if any, did you model you’re or your own label on?
WB: More like Stax. Charles Fash was a good friend of mine even before I left Stax and my manager - who was Henry Wynn out of Atlanta - and I started Peachtree Records. We had Mitty Collier, Jonny Jones and quite a few other acts and I was doing all the writing and producing for the label and Charles Fash was distributing for us. That was the connection from Mercury and I after I left Stax, he was calling and saying he always wanted to work with me. I was kind of really down because as a young kid, going into Stax, we never thought it would end and all of a sudden it was over. I told Charles I didn’t know if I wanted to record again but he kept after me and finally he said ‘I’m going to come to Atlanta and we’ll go to breakfast and I’ll convince you.’ and he did. I decided to do four sides – four songs. I had two songs written and I said I’d do another two and he said that was a good start. He gave me a budget but of course Stax was closed so I didn’t have a studio to go into. There were studios in Atlanta but I didn’t know my way around Atlanta very much so I called Alan at Sea Saint studios down in New Orleans because me and Al go way back to my first record and I said ‘I’d like to use your studio, I don’t have any musicians, blah, blah, blah…’ and he said he had a rhythm section he would let me use. I went there and cut a demo with the Chocolate Milk Band that Alan had down there, took the demo back to Atlanta and I used the actual vocal that I cut on Tryin’ To Love Two because it felt good. I never could get that exact feel so I used the same vocal and put all the horn work and strings and background work on which were all from Atlanta; they were part of my singers on the road. At the time, one of Stax’s earlier guys, Ron Capone, was working at a studio in Atlanta and I wanted him to mix it for me because he knew my sound so he did, we took it too Mercury and we got my first million-seller.
Q: That was your first one?
WB: Yeah. You Don’t Miss Your Water sold well and other artists that cut Born Under a Bad Sign sold a million and I was writing for other artists that did. I was consistent selling 200,000 – 300,000 but never that gold record and this was my first time out at mercury and it went gold and I didn’t really want to do it! Ok…I ‘ll go in and cut four sides for you… So then I had to scramble and complete an album which we did, got it out and got another hit, Easy Comin’ Out. So that started me back off into the business again because I was acting for about two years with the academy theatre in Atlanta. I got with them and did some summer stock and I was pretty good at it but that was at the time of Black Exploitation movies and every script that I got they wanted me to play a pimp or a something and I wanted to be the Sidney Poitier! (laughs)
Other singers and musicians
Q: The late fifties, Memphis…did you ever meet Elvis or see him perform?
WB: Yeah. The club that I worked at - The Flamingo Room – Elvis would come by and sit in the back and watch the show. When I started working there with old man Phineaus’ band I was only fourteen…
Q: This would be 1954/55?
WB: Yeah it was a big band; a Count Basie kind of band with Hank Crawford, Charles Lloyd and a whole bunch of people, some of them went to work with Ray Charles later on. He had a big horn section and I was doing standards and ballads and on the weekend we had to do more popular music like the Doo-Wop singers so I formed this group. Then on the Sundays, we would do what they call the Fashion Show when I would a single thing with him. On the weekends, Elvis would come by and we knew a lot of the same people. George Klein was a good friend of mine, Dewey Phillips who was a DJ. I used to do with my group a Christmas show on Television that he had and we would do lots of Christmas songs and stuff. So Dewey was a buddy and Elvis was a Buddy. I went to a couple of skating parties and some touch-football things on Sunday afternoons. George has a show now on SiriusXM called The Elvis Connection or The Elvis Hour or something and he did a two hour interview with me a couple of months ago where we just talked about Elvis and the good times and the good old days but yeah, we all knew each other. I did a lot of the background singing with the vocal group for a lot of the country acts on Sun Records and hung out at the same clubs. Ronnie Milsap, Charlie Rich…we knew all those guys.
Q: You’re a big fan of Sam Cooke and Hank Williams, did you ever have an opportunity to meet them?
WB: I didn’t meet him but his songs….I was kind of a weird kid. I used to listen to Hank Williams - Country, Sam Cooke – Gospel, Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra. Those are the people that I listened to when I was probably ten years old. My first record that I bought was by Nat Cole called Unforgettable so I was a weird kid (laughs) but then again, Doo-Wop set in with all of the Flamingos and the Moonglows and all those people so when I started the vocal group, we would sing all of the harmonies and stuff.
Q: If they were alive, which songs would you like to duet with them?
WB: A Change Is Gonna Come with Sam. That was one of my favourites but I went all the way back to Soul Stirrers. As a matter of fact, I did a Sam Cooke tribute for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You Send Me and his other records I used to do with old man Phineaus’ band and then when I got the vocal group - Louis Williams who was part of The Del-Rios - sounds exactly like Sam. If you ever listen too Louis Williams and The Ovations you’ll think it’s Sam Cooke but it’s not, it’s Louis.
Q: I’m curious to know what you think of Billy Idol’s version of I Forgot To Be Your Lover.
WB: Oh (laughs)…you know, his record label called me up and said they had cut a big record with Billy Idol and it was going to be a hit and they wanted to see what I thought of it and quite honestly, when I first heard it, I didn’t get it. Ok, I’m glad Billy Idol cut it but how did he hear this version? So I told the record label that but then the more I listened to it, it kinda grew on me and then when the sales started coming in and it was No. 1 all over the world - he did about eight million copies of it – I’m going ‘Wow!’ but when I first heard it, I did not get it but I came to love it and then we were nominated for a Grammy on it.
Q: You did duets with Joss Stone and Snoop Dogg for the film Take Me To The River; What is your opinion of Hip Hop and modern R&B music?
WB: I like it. I don’t say I like all of it but I do love some of it; I can see the connection there. A lot of the Rap stuff, as long as it’s not too gangster or too vulgar, I can deal with it. When Snoop and I first met, he walked through the door and we just kind of clicked. I found out that he was a student of Soul music – he knew every song that I had done, literally quoting lyrics and everything. As we got into the movie, I realised that this was the same story. They are doing recitations on it and we’re singing melodies on it but we are talking about the same things. It’s just like Country music; we talk about the same subject matter. That’s why it’s so interchangeable. We got the idea because when they first started the movie, it was only going to be a CD album and they were going to do maybe a video for it and then they thought ‘Let’s work with some of these kids’ because I had asked about having the Stax kids come in with me. They said ‘Yeah you can work with the Stax kids – are they good?’ and I said ‘Hey! I used them at the Smithsonian and the AARP convention (American Association of Retired Persons). They blew people away because they were so talented.’ They kind of remind me at the age of fourteen or fifteen but anyway, they said bring them over to the session and when you see the movie, you’ll the inter-workings of the Rappers along with the Blues singers and the Soul singers. Even Lil P-Nut and Otis Clay, it just clicks because it’s the same music. Nobody had any egos or anything and it really worked out well. We’ve been getting all kinds of accolades and it won a lot of awards at South By Southwest and in London. It’s been a big thing for us.
Q: If you could assemble you’re ultimate band, who would be in it?
WB: Oh God…there’s so many….let me see. I would get Bootsy Collins on bass, Maurice White on drums from Earth, Wind and Fire because we grew up together in the same neighbourhood, Booker T. on organ, Tower of Power on horns…and the Memphis Horns – I’d combine them. I don’t know… those bands that I really loved were just awesome. Some of the bands from the early years like Sly and the Family Stone, Bootsy Collins, Tower of Power, Earth, Wind and Fire, they were so innovative and their sound was so energetic and dynamic man and that’s what I love. I’d combine a whole bunch of people, even some of James Brown’s crew. Maceo on sax…
Q: Oh yeah, you’ve got to have The Flames!
WB: …(laughs) Oh I would have a whole room full of guys.
Q: Mr Bell, thank you very much indeed.
WB: Thank you I enjoyed it.