We’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of Stax Records with a look back at some of the most iconic artists who called the label home. To commemorate the occasion, Concord Music Group and Rhino are partnering to release Stax Classics, a slew of collections and reissues from Stax’s legendary vaults. Over the next five weeks, Summer of Stax will delve into the stories of these legendary artists and their most essential recordings.
The three previous installments in Summer of Stax have covered the King and Queen of Memphis Soul, the house band that broke out on its own, and the trio of acts that gave the label a new lease on life after the death of its biggest star, Otis Redding. This week, however, the column will focus on two of Stax’s lesser-known artists who nevertheless had a major impact on the label: a romantic soul man and a blues master.
William Bell joined Stax in its early days as a staff songwriter, alongside his childhood neighbor David Porter (who became Isaac Hayes’s writing partner). In 1961, Bell released his debut single, the bluesy ballad “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” While the record failed to make the R&B chart, it did hit #95 on the Hot 100, giving Stax one of its first national hits.
Its impact extended far beyond its chart performance, however: it helped define the newly emerging genre of Southern Soul. (Seven years later, the Byrds covered it on their landmark album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, on which it helped define another new genre: country rock.)
Bell’s career wouldn’t take off immediately, though. The combination of an early ’60s stint in the military and a series of underperforming singles kept Bell sidelined until 1967 when he reemerged into the public consciousness (after a couple minor R&B hits) with “Everybody Loves a Winner.” The single, which fleshed out the sound of the barebones “You Don’t Miss Your Water” while retaining its distinctive 6/8 rhythm, gave Bell his first R&B Top 20 hit and returned him to the #95 pop peak of his previous success.
The following year, Bell earned three of the biggest hits of his career with very different recordings. The first, “A Tribute to a King,” was Bell’s well-meaning (if lyrically awkward) ode to Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967. Originally released as a B-side on an overlooked single, its topicality made it a success in its own right, climbing into the R&B Top 20, peaking at #86 in the Hot 100, and even crossing over into the UK Top 40.
His next single was a romantic duet with fellow Stax singer Judy Clay called “Private Number.” It did even better than “A Tribute to a King,” hitting #75 on the US pop chart and an astonishing #8 on the UK singles chart. It spawned another single billed to the duo later that year, the delightful dance tune “My Baby Specializes.” It appears on Bell’s Stax Classics set despite that fact that, oddly, only Clay seems to feature on the record. (It also failed to match the success of “Private Number” on either side of the Atlantic.)
Bell’s third great hit of 1968 was also his biggest ever at Stax. The regretful ballad “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” gave Bell his first entry into the R&B Top 10 and just missed the Top 40 on the pop charts. Like “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” however, the single’s success didn’t sustain any career momentum. Apart from 1969’s “My Whole World is Falling Down,” which peaked at #39 on the R&B charts, Bell wouldn’t have another hit single for five years.
Bell returned to the charts with “Lovin’ on Borrowed Time” in 1973: a #22 R&B hit and a romantic ballad, like so many of his records. His next two — and final — charting singles for Stax also appear on this compilation: 1973’s “I’ve Got to Go On Without You” (#52 R&B) and 1974’s “Gettin’ What You Want (Losin’ What You Got)” (#39 R&B).
In addition to these minor hits, Bell’s Stax Classics also includes two of his non-charting singles. One of these, 1971’s “All for the Love of a Woman,” shows a grittier side of Bell than that which features on his smoother hits, though still firmly in his love song wheelhouse.
The other record, 1969’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” broke from this mold by being fleeter and funkier than most of Bell’s discography, telling the tale of a hardscrabble life. By the time Bell released his recording of the song (which he had co-written with Booker T. Jones), however, it was already identified with another artist on the Stax roster: blues guitarist Albert King, who had made “Born Under a Bad Sign” his signature tune two years earlier.
Unlike Bell, King was already somewhat established before signing with Stax in 1966. He had been recording for over a decade and had even earned a #14 R&B hit with “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” in 1961. But what really distinguished King from most of his Stax colleagues wasn’t his previous success, but his genre. While Stax was making its name as the premier source for Southern Soul, King was one of the titans of postwar electric blues alongside his namesakes B.B. King and Freddie King.
King’s distinctive style — he played left-handed on a guitar strung for right-handers, giving his strumming an “upside-down” tone — made him a favorite of blues rockers like Cream, who covered “Born Under a Bad Sign” on their 1968 album Wheels of Fire. His intensely bluesy style precluded him from making much impact on the pop sphere, but the soulful backing by Stax house band Booker T. and the MGs helped him regularly feature on the R&B charts. Strangely, King’s edition of Stax Classics omits 1968’s “Cold Feet,” King’s highest-charting pop single (and a Top 20 R&B hit), as well as 1966’s “Laundromat Blues,” his first hit for the Memphis label.
Most of King’s other Stax hits do appear on the compilation, however, including such favorites as 1967’s “Crosscut Saw” (a reworking of a dirty blues from the early ’40s), 1972’s “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” (a rare appearance on the pop charts, peaking at #91), and 1974’s “That’s What the Blues is All About” (his highest-charting Stax single, climbing to #15 on the R&B ranking). In addition, King’s Stax Classics features a couple of crucial but non-charting singles: a live version of “Blues Power” from 1968, and oft-covered “The Hunter,” written by the MGs and released as a single in 1969.
In addition to King’s singles, Stax Classics includes a few essential album tracks. King’s version of Elmore James’ “The Sky is Crying,” drawn from his 1969 album Years Gone By, became one of his signature songs, as well as a template for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version. The same year, King recorded Jammed Together, a collaboration with fellow guitarists Pops Staples of the Staple Singers and Steve Cropper of Booker T. and the MGs; the instrumental “Don’t Turn Your Heater Down” is pulled from this set. Lastly, King’s self-composed “Travelin’ Man” shows up as a selection from his final Stax album, 1974’s I Wanna Get Funky.
Like many former Stax artists, King struggled to continue his success after leaving the label. He recorded for a series of small labels until the mid-’80s, before dying in 1992 at the age of 69. Despite his long career, however, King forever remained best identified with the tracks he cut for Stax in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
In contrast, William Bell, like his peer Johnnie Taylor, scored his biggest hit after leaving Stax. In 1976, while signed to Mercury, he released “Tryin’ to Love Two,” his only R&B #1 and a Top 10 pop hit. As had happened throughout his career, Bell struggled to build on his success.
In 2016, however, Bell mounted a surprise comeback with his album This is Where I Live. The record, his first in a decade, earned Bell a Grammy Award for Best Americana Album, and he performed a version of his immortal composition “Born Under a Bad Sign” at the ceremony with Gary Clark Jr. Appropriately, the label that released Bell’s record was the newly revived Stax.
Next week: Hold on! A very Dramatic installment of Summer of Stax is comin’!