Bell signed with Stax in 1961, when he was just 22 years old. In 1967, he wrote his biggest hit, "Born Under a Bad Sign." Throughout his career, his songs have been covered by soul, blues, and rock and roll musicians --- including the blues legend Albert King and the punk rocker Billy Idol.
Now, William Bell has a new album out --- his first with Stax in more than 40 years. Bell wrote and recorded the new record, "This Is Where I Live," with producer John Leventhal. On paper, they seem like a musical odd couple --- Leventhal is best known for his work with country-leaning artists like his wife Roseanne Cash and Shawn Colvin. But in the recording studio, they make a perfect team.
Kurt Andersen: William, you were born and raised in Memphis and Memphis was the place that southern soul was born. At the time, in the '60s, did it feel like you were doing one kind of soul and up in Detroit, at Motown, they're doing a different kind of soul?
William Bell: We knew that Motown was doing a version but it was always polished for middle America. We were grassroots, right out of church, right out of the cotton field, and for the common blue-collar worker. In Memphis you had country and western, blues, jazz mixed into one. So we were a product of our environment.
You were coming up just before the civil rights movement. Was the racial tension not yet acute?
It was just as acute --- my first inkling of it was when I was about twelve years old. That's why Stax was so phenomenal because it was like an oasis in the middle of a desert. You got inside the walls of Stax and you didn't care about color, race, or whatever --- just whatever you brought to the table in terms of creativity or talent. But the minute you walked out of the door, it was there.
Old soul songs are sampled all the time in hip-hop. For instance your song "I Forgot to Be Your Lover" has been sampled a lot --- is sampling fine by you?
It is by me because it's a form of flattery. If somebody can relate to something that I created 40 or 50 years ago, enough to want to record it or sample some parts of it, that means whatever I've created has some kind of substance that lasted.