There is little in life as impressive and convincing as the voice of a quiet man telling the truth.
William Bell a sage songwriter and stoic soul balladeer told us heartfelt, hard won truths about the eternal trials of love in an incandescent series of records issued from Memphis in the 1960s on the mighty Stax label which still resonate.
These records, especially those contained on his magnificent, ‘Soul of a Bell’ album have become boon companions during the trials and triumphs of my own life.
Wherever I go William Bell goes with me.
During my second year at college I grew weary of the role of ninja intellectual and withdrew to the quiet of my room overlooking a Cambridge meadow. There, largely heedless of my official studies, I obsessively read St Augustine, Dante, Raymond Chandler, Seamus Heaney and Russell Hoban.
My engagement with these profound truth tellers was accompanied and reinforced by a soundtrack largely composed of Schubert, Aretha Franklin, Laura Nyro, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and William Bell.
And, it might surprise you to learn that if all the hours of listening were collated it was William that I turned to most often for wisdom and solace.
Wisdom and solace told in the voice of a quiet man telling the truth. In William Bell’s songs and singing there’s no hectoring, no over emoting, no grandstanding. Instead it’s as if someone looks you dead in the eye before saying .. this is how its been for me brother – maybe you know the feeling.
You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. Tell it to me William! Tell it to me!
In contrast to the urgent, urban, industrial beat from Motown the beat from Stax was measured, agrarian, heavy with Southern heat and shimmer. This is music which seems to beckon you in to share a grown up tale of life as it is lived by folks just like you.
The introductory gospel piano says, ‘listen up!’ I’ve got something important to tell you. The stately tempo laid down by mournful horns, dead man walking drums and enveloping organ frames William Bell’s reflective, rueful vocal.
It’s the sound of a man finally understanding and coming to terms with the consequences of the arrogance of his mistaken choices. The bravura of the playboy falls away revealing the shamed penitent who must walk on alone without the one who really did love him. There’s no going back now. Walk on knowing that some lessons have to be learned the hard way – you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. Till your well runs dry.
There is no trace of self pity in William Bell’s vocal. Rather, this is a man who is singing this song gently to himself or the silent moon above. ‘Listening to ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ you know it’s true and that it carries a folk wisdom that will always be true. Attend to your well.
A year later William Bell, with, ‘(I wouldn’t have it) Any Other Way’ once again elegantly captured one of the perpetual dilemmas of love – how do you cope with being rejected and discarded by the one who held your heart? I have to admit I’ve sung this more than a few times to the moon myself back in the day.
Haven’t we all, bruised and reeling from a break up adopted the pose of the couldn’t care less lover airily declaiming, desperate for the message to be reported back, now that I think of it (not that its been much on my mind) I really wouldn’t have it any other way. Any other way.
It’s obvious here that William and the team at Stax were aware of the exquisite charm of the records of the late 50s/early 60s Drifters as well as the tender, heartfelt outpourings of Arthur Alexander. The result is a glorious record that has soul staying power and pop gloss.
Next another of William’s songs that never fails to stir the heart, ‘Private Number’
Private Number is one of the great soul duet records of the 1960s ranking with Marvin and Tammy and Otis and Carla. The song tells the story of the lover who has been,’away’ seeking to rekindle the flames of love with the one whose memory has perhaps been all he has had to hold onto in their time apart. Where is, ‘away’?
William Bell was a Vietnam veteran so it may well be that, ‘away’ was his way of alluding to shattering experiences of war. Many, many soldiers struggling through the days and sleepless at night must have wondered who now had their baby’s precious private number. And, arriving home intact but forever scarred who wouldn’t be chastened to learn that the private number had been changed?
The sense of dread this sets up makes the relief of hearing, ‘Welcome Home, nothing’s wrong’ overwhelmingly powerful. To collapse, safe, into the arms of the one you love after an ordeal is one of the most emotionally nurturing and reassuring experiences of our lives. Life will go on and all will be well no matter how terrible the events of the past.
As the 1960s ended there was a deep sense of foreboding in the air. An uneasy sense that the days of sunlit hope were now overshadowed and that something terrible was coming – a bad moon on the rise.
William Bell, in his characteristically personal and understated way caught this feeling in his most mature inquiry into the challenge of keeping love alive as the grinding years grind on.
His song, ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’ is the soliloquy of a man, a wounded soldier on the battlefield of love, summoning up all his depleted energies in one last attempt to save his marriage.
We open with looming strings evoking glowering rain heavy clouds about to unleash a deluge.
Then tolling, Curtis Mayfield like, guitar appears before William’s at first meditative and later rueful and anguished vocal proceeds as he examines his conscience and identifies with painful honesty how he has failed to combine the roles of companion, lover and husband.
In moments of revelatory clarity he understands that love not endlessly renewed must wither and will die. Somehow, taking her for granted, he has lost his way and fallen into romantic lethargy. Simply he forgot to be a lover.
Now he knows the depth of his transgressions he can only beg for forgiveness and the chance to show that the love he forgot to offer still lives in his heart.
The sixties songs of William Bell amount to a kind of pilgrims progress taking us into the joy of winning love, the pain of losing of love and the desperate struggle to hold onto love in the face of our inevitable human weaknesses.
Through our stumbling missteps and mistakes most of have all foolishly taken for granted that the the well of love will somehow be endlessly replenished. We forget too easily that love needs nurture. That we must be a lover as well as the one who is loved.
The course of love necessarily involves doubt and struggle as well as growth and contentment. William Bell, with his insistent quiet voice telling the truth, is just the companion you need beside you on your journey
I regard, ‘The Soul of a Bell’ as an essential record. Order it today.
In addition to the songs considered above look out for:
Share What You Got … ‘
‘Everybody Loves A Winner’, ‘
Everyday WIll Be Like A Holiday’
and his original of the now blues standard, written with Booker T, ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’.
After leaving Stax William had a major US hit with, ‘Tryin’ to Love Two’
All his albums reveal a singer who digs deep into a ballad to bring forth beauty.
William Bell is a very fine songwriter and his songs have been memorably covered by Otis Redding, Joe Tex, The Byrds, Albert King and Cream among many others.
If you search YouTube you can find William performing with masterful ease before President Obama and bringing in the new year on Jools Holland’s UK TV show.