Legendary soul singer and songwriter William Bell released his 15th album, One Day Closer To Home, on April 14 via his Wilbe Records label. The album, his first since his GRAMMY-winning 2016 project This is Where I Live, explores a cross of musical genres, true to Bell’s form.
Born in Memphis in 1939, Bell started singing in church, becoming an early star in his choir. As a teenager, he played live gigs with Rufus Thomas and Phineas Newborn, getting an immersive education in the music business, and Bell paid attention at every turn. He started writing songs, having early hits with “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the latter penned with Booker T. Jones. Bell became known for his poignant lyrics and soulful melodies and enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Stax Records until he relocated to Atlanta in 1969.
BMI caught up with Bell, who was working on album art in his studio in Atlanta in preparation for the vinyl release of One Day Closer to Home. Bell shared some of his most memorable moments from his long career, how his songwriting has evolved over the years, and the advice he’d share for anyone starting their career in the music industry.
You won your first GRAMMY Award at the age of 76 with your 2016 album This Is Where I Live. What did that feel like after so many years of working as an artist?
It felt wonderful. It was an affirmation that I had reached some of my aspirations in my career. When your peers and your fans are in tune with your creative works — and to get that affirmation of winning a GRAMMY, which is the ultimate that all of us reach for — it was just wonderful. It was actually kind of surreal at the moment.
You’re about to release your 15th album, One Day Closer To Home, in which you and your touring band, The Total Package Band, explore the major musical genres of the last century. What can your fans expect from this album?In the course of my career, I’ve traveled around the world a couple of times, so they can expect a cross of musical genres. I try to write a way that I can connect with everybody, not only in this country but around the world. It’s crossing genres of music; I’ve had experiences with all different genres of music from jazz to blues to R&B and country, so I do a little bit of all of it. It’s just writing good, solid songs and trying to tell a good story.
How has your songwriting process evolved over the years?
Well, experience is actually a good teacher — whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, you should learn something from it. I hope that I’ve been able to learn a few things through my longevity. It’s made me more introspective and worldly in my subject matter, and I think I have branched out.
I think travel educates you a lot. In traveling, I’ve realized that people are people the world over, and they have the same wishes, desires and frustrations no matter what country they’re in. The trick is to write honestly and truthfully about subject matters and then try to frame it so that no matter where they are, they can relate to it.
Your career has spanned several decades. Looking back, what was the most memorable or impactful moment of your career so far?
Oh, that’s a hard one — I’ve worked from cotton fields to most of the top venues. But I have to say, I’ve performed and entertained three different presidents around the world — two in America, President [H.W.] Bush and President Obama — and one in Africa. For a little kid coming out of Memphis, Tennessee, that’s quite rewarding in itself. And then, of course, the GRAMMY. Looking back, I think those were the highlights.
Speaking of performing, you and The Total Package Band have a lot of fun during live shows. Are you planning on touring for One Day Closer To Home?
We are planning on going out for some dates — not a long tour or anything, but to help promote the new CD. I’m a people person and I love meeting my fans and the industry people that come to the shows, so I don’t want to give that up. After COVID, we keep evolving and we try to find different ways to reach them with DVDs and stuff like that.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting their career in the music industry?
Well, the main thing is, I would tell them it’s highly competitive, so you have to believe in what you’re doing. Learn every aspect of the things that you’re going into within the industry, whether it’s behind the scenes or performing or songwriting.
Also, get a good education, because you’re going to have to know where you want to go and what goals you have for your career. And then you have to give that particular knowledge to all your representatives surrounding you because we don’t do all this on our own — we’ve got people behind the scenes who are the wind beneath our wings. You have to be able to communicate what goals you have, so everybody’s on the same page.
I read that mentoring is important to you — you’ve been involved with the Stax Music Academy Kids, The GRAMMY Museum, Berklee College of Music. Can you share a little bit about how you got involved in mentoring?
One of the best experiences is being able to give back and pass the torch on to the youngsters. A lot of the older musicians, like B.B. [King] and Bobby Bland, took me under their wings and taught me the ropes. It’s important that we pass that torch on to the younger kids. Hopefully, that helps them in their careers and [avoiding] some of the pitfalls of the industry.
Who are some of your artistic inspirations and musical inspirations?
I started in church at a very young age — my mom was singing in the choir, so I wound up singing in the choir. And then, at about 7 or 8 years old, I was singing with the choir backing me up [laughs]. It was wonderful getting to learn a craft and how to express the feeling behind what you’re trying to convey.
With Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers, l loved the harmonies and I loved the way Sam sang and ad-libbed. He was one of my heroes growing up and I was lucky enough to get to meet him during his lifetime. There were a lot of other artists like Nat [King] Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett — I was a weird kid [laughs]. I was a loner and I listened to Hugo Winterhalter and Count Basie because I loved the construction and the chords and all the violins and everything — that was my dreamland stuff.
Well, it definitely shaped you as an artist, so I think all that time spent listening to that music certainly paid off!
I learned a lot just through osmosis, probably. In high school, I had the good fortune of being able to win a talent contest in Memphis, and I was able to acquire a weekend gig with Phineas Newborn Sr. in Memphis. He had some really talented jazz musicians. He had a 14-piece orchestra panel kind of like Count Basie, and I was the kid, so I just got a lot of knowledge from them.
What are you working on now?
Well, we’ve just had some CDs pressed and we’re working on creating hopefully a GRAMMY-winning cover for vinyl, which is a little bit different from what we’re doing with the CDs. And we do it all under the same roof here in my company, so I’m sitting with my creative person and working with her on designing the vinyl cover.
How did you start working with BMI and how has that relationship impacted your career over the years?
I go back many, many years when Frances Preston was at the helm. This was in the early ’60s, and, of course, I signed to BMI. They’ve been instrumental in the development of so many songwriters and supportive of so many songwriters. It’s just a wonderful institution. And I’ve been totally satisfied with them through the years.
It’s been a wonderful association, growing up in the time that I came up in, and having the good fortune of being able to rub elbows and gain knowledge from so many different people.