When it comes to overlooked, it’s hard to see past William Bell (no pun intended). Precious little has been written about William and his contribution to soul music, but when you poke and prod beneath the grooves and squint at the small print on the records, you’ll discover that he was a key figure in the development of Stax Records’ punkish ying to Motown’s pop yang. All music fans like Motown. All music snobs prefer Stax. That’s just the way it is. And while the stories of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson et al are widely known, William Bell’s tale could do with a leg up.
Bell learned his chops playing in Rufus Thomas’ backing band. It couldn’t have been easy. Thomas has a voice like a rooster at the break of day and liked to dress up in the sort of costumes Elton John might have refused to wear on account of them being too outlandish. Tired of doing the Funky Chicken, the Funky Penguin, the Push And Pull, the Itch and Scratch and all manner of novelty nonsense, William made the decision to go it alone. A wise decision, as it turned out. With a series of self-penned, tear-soaked, southern soul-inflected heartbreakers, he firmly established himself alongside Isaac Hayes and David Porter as one of the go-to staff writers at Stax. You Don’t Miss Your Water. Born Under A Bad Sign. A Tribute To A King. I Forgot to Be Your Lover. All flowed effortlessly from his pen and into the R’nB charts alongside a handful of duets with Judy Clay.
I first discovered William Bell via Paul Weller, who stuck a version of Bell‘s My Whole World Is Falling Down on his You Do Something To Me single. Weller plays a terrific high in the mix guitar riff (same as the original, only grittier, rougher and much more mod) and channels his best white man sings Otis vocal. But don’t let that put you off. It was 1995 and everyone was going mental for Ray Davies. Weller was just being contrary, for which I am eternally grateful as I now own a handful of William Bell LPs on the strength of his cover. Recorded for a Radio 1 session, it’s played live without overdubs and is a fine indication of just how tight and in-tune with one another Weller’s band was back then. Essential listening, as they say in some parts.
An interesting (and totally off the wall) cover is by Jamaican Ken Parker. His uptown uptempo version was recorded at Studio One by Coxsone Dodd and skanks in all the right places. The version I have is over 8 minutes long and goes kinda dubby in the middle before making its way back to the main song and melody. Me tinks da ‘erb might be involved. Jesus. I came over all Alan Partridge there. Sorry ’bout that. Anyway, heady stuff from the son of a preacher man, as they sing in some parts.
Three very different, excellent recordings straight outta three of the most famous studios in recording history – Stax, Maida Vale and Studio One. How’sabout that then, guys ‘n gals?