77 Year-Old Soul Singer William Bell’s Long Haul To The Grammys

Photo credit: Paul Natkin/Getty

2017 is William Bell’s 60th year in the music industry. He’s 77 years old. Cream, the Byrds and Linda Ronstadt have recorded his songs. And this year, he’s up for his first Grammys.

Strangely, they’re in what could be considered opposing categories — American and traditional R&B — but it makes sense for Bell, who never quite fit into easy categories. Performer, songwriter, producer — Bell has done it all.

Born William Henry Yarborough in Memphis on July 16, 1939, Bell, like a lot of soul singers from his era, first started singing in church when he was just 8 years old. He graduated to secular music when he was 14, and attended Booker T. Washington High School, which was a hotbed of nascent R&B talent: “Green Onions” writer and Stax house band member Booker T. Jones (of the MG’s) and Rufus Thomas were among Bell’s classmates. (He took his surname from his grandmother, Belle, whom everyone said he looked like.)

Bell started working with pianist — and jazz legend in his own right — Phineas Newborn, who obtained Bell’s mother’s permission to let her 16-year-old gig with Newborn’s band on the weekend. By 1957, he’d formed his own group, the Del Rios, and played in and around Memphis. During this time, he was also backing up Rufus Thomas, whom Bell described as “like a surrogate father to us all.”

At the end of the ’50s, Bell was brought on by Stax Records — Memphis’s top R&B label and Motown’s chief competitor in the market — as a songwriter. In 1961, he cut one of his defining hits, “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well Runs Dry),” which would later be covered by the Byrds and Otis Redding.

After releasing a stream of locally successful singles for Stax, Bell was drafted in 1963. He would have to wait four years for the chance to record his debut album, The Soul of a Bell, which featured fellow Stax luminaries Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Though the single “Everybody Loves a Winner” was a moderate hit, Bell’s time in the military had denied him the chance of recording when his brand of country-soul was en vogue. By 1967, Motown, the Summer of Love and the early stages of funk were the defining sounds in the market.

Inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1987 — he was already a member of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame — the same year he won the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s R&B Pioneer Award, Bell was also honored with the W.C. Handy Heritage Award in 2003. Bell’s live performance schedule rarely dimmed, but he took until 2016 to release an album of new material, This Is Where I Live, hailed by AllMusic as “his strongest and most powerful work since the late ‘70s.”

“I’m a late bloomer, I guess,” Bell told the L.A. Times when asked about this year’s Grammy nominations, his first. “But, you know, I’ve been in this business my whole life, since I was 14 years old recording. So it’s just rewarding. I guess if you stay in it long enough, sooner or later you hit a streak.”

SOURCE: People – Alex Heigl