Introduction to William Bell
William Bell is an American R&B and soul singer-songwriter who has achieved a degree of success through his own hits as well as by being a chief pioneer of the Stax-Volt sound. A former member of the vocal group The Del Rios, Bell signed up with Stax label in the early 1960s, where he achieved his first Hot 100 hit “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” One of Bell’s more notable hit was called “Private Number” in 1968, which he duetted with Judy Clay. Other hits followed like “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” (which was re-made into a big Top 10 hit by Billy Idol under the name “To Be A Lover”) and “Tryin’ To Love Two,” his most successful single on the chart. He continued to record with the characteristic Stax-Volt style even as Stax label folded, working in other minor imprints until he established his own label Wilbe in the mid-1980s. Bell’s last full LP released under Wilbe was New Lease on Life in 2006.
William Bell’s early life and career
R&B and soul singer-songwriter William Bell was born William Yarborough in Memphis, Tennessee on July 16, 1939. He took the name “Bell” as remembrance to his grandmother, whose name was Belle.
Bell started in the industry by having different musical stints. He once backed for Rufus Thomas, and cut a handful of singles as being part of a vocal group called The Del-Rios.
Bell’s tenure at Stax label, and his signature song “You Don’t Miss Your Water”
In 1961 Bell signed up with the Stax label. His first single with Stax, titled “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” was written by Bell himself. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and became a minor hit there (#95). The song was an exquisite bland of soul tinged with country influences, and it was one of the quintessential masterpieces that came out of the Memphis R&B and soul scene; it would be covered by Otis Redding in 1967. Speaking of Otis Redding, Bell would also write a song (together with Booker T. Jones) called “A Tribute to a King” (a Top 20 R&B hit in 1968) which was a sad farewell song to Redding, who died in 1967 on a plane crash. Redding had also been with Stax and also became one of the architects of the famed Stax sound.
Anyway, Bell’s earlier singles didn’t get anywhere much nationally, but his regional success enabled him to remain with Stax much longer. Finally, 1966 he scored his first substantial R&B hit with “Share What You Got (But Keep What You Need).” A two-year spell in the army though stalled his career, and it would be long before he released his own album The Soul of a Bell, in 1967.
Bell’s other notable singles at Stax
Bell had been in constant collaboration with another songwriter Booker T. Jones, and many of Bell’s charting singles were the songs they wrote together. Some of those songs include 1967’s “Everybody Loves a Winner” (#95 pop, 18 R&B) and 1968’s “Everyday Will Be a Holiday” (#33 R&B) and “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” (#45 pop, #10 R&B). Bell and Jones also wrote Albert King’s signature song “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which was also covered by the British blues band Cream.
At Stax, he also had a notable hit with 1968’s “Private Number,” his duet with Judy Clay. The single reached #75 on the pop chart, and #17 on the R&B charts. In the UK, “Private Number” was a bigger hit in the UK, peaking at #8.
“Tryin’ to Love Two” – Bell’s most successful single ever yet
Bell continued to churn out moderate hits for Stax until the label’s dissolution in 1975. After Stax, Bell signed with Mercury Records, where he achieved his biggest hit “Tryin’ to Love Two,” which he wrote with Paul Mitchell. The song came from his 1976 LP Coming Back for More. “Tryin’ to Love Two” gave Bell his one and only #1 hit (and second top ten hit) on the R&B singles chart. It was also Bell’s only Top 10 pop hit (#10).
Later life and career
Following his most successful single, Bell’s R&B hits began to dry up. By then he had established two independent labels, Peachtree and Wilbe, and released records such as Passion (1986) which found its most receptive audience in the British Isles.
By then Bell had become an institution in the world of R&B and soul. He received recogntions such as inductions into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and an award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s R&B Pioneer Award.
Into the 21st century Bell is still active performing and recording. His last album was New Lease of Life, released on Wilbe label in 2006. In 2012 he participated in the sold-out concert at Lincoln Center along with other stars.
As a songwriter, Bell wrote his own song “Any Other Way,” which turned into Hot 100 single by Chuck Jackson’s cover in 1963; Billy Idol’s 1986 Top 40 smash “To Be a Lover” was based on an original Bell hit “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.”