“You don’t miss your water, till your well runs dry,” reflects William Bell in the chorus of his Stax Records debut single. But from a career perspective, after some 60 years and 16 albums, the Memphis soul legend has never let that happen.
In recent years, he has performed at the Obama White House, played London’s Royal Albert Hall and been inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame alongside Justin Timberlake. He was also prominently featured in the documentary “Take Me to the River,” which inspired his current touring show of the same name with an all-star band that includes Bobby Rush and Charlie Musselwhite.
This time of year, when heaters are switched off in favor of open windows and bare shoulders…
Last year, the 78-year-old artist won his first Grammy, and, during the awards telecast, shared center stage with 33-year-old Austin bluesman Gary Clark Jr. Together, they performed another Bell classic, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which he co-wrote with fellow Stax artist Booker T. Jones.
This weekend he’ll perform live at Cape May’s Convention Center 6 p.m. Saturday, April 21, as part of the Exit 0 Jazz Festival. While the festival may be jazz slanted, Bell’s songs seem to appeal to fans of all genres of music. That goes for the pros too, as his songs have been covered by artists far and wide, including bluesman Albert King, classic rockers Cream, country-rock legend Gram Parsons, reggae artist Peter Tosh, ’80s-pop icon Billy Idol and, perhaps most improbably, ambient musician Brian Eno.
“I think a lot of artists in every genre of music relate to my songs because I come from a viewpoint of truth, and I try to write in such a way that there’s nothing ambiguous about it,” Bell says. “I try to make it simple and plain, and a lot of artists can relate to that.”
Like most R&B artists of his era, Bell grew up singing gospel music in church, but the world of secular music soon came calling.
“I would sneak down to Beale Street (in Memphis), and hang out and watch Rufus Thomas and all of those different people that came through town. And everybody knew me because I was already singing around town.”
A few years later, he recorded his first single, “Alone on a Rainy Night,” as part of local doo-wop group The Del Rios, and afterward signed to Stax Records, initially as a staff writer.
So how different is Memphis today from the era when Jerry Wexler had to persuade “Billboard” magazine to change the name of its black music chart from Race Records to R&B?
“Memphis changed quite a bit after Dr. (Martin Luther) King was assassinated,” says Bell, who now lives in Atlanta. “And it changed for Stax when Otis (Redding) died. For a while, the music in Memphis just kind of died. But now I can see where there’s a resurgence in the music. I can see that energy in Memphis coming back, and that feels good.”