Songcraft: Spotlight on Songwriters Podcast

William Bell

Ep. 80 - William Bell

Born Under a Bad Sign: A Southern Soul Legend

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The R&B legend reveals how he first got connected with the famed Stax label by singing background vocals on a Carla Thomas hit; why label boss Jim Stewart didn't like Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water" at first; his love for Eddy Arnold and why he believes there's less distance between country and R&B than many people think; how songwriting is therapy; his thoughts on the difference between the Muscle Shoals and Memphis sounds; why he ended up using the scratch vocal on his first million-selling record; and the reason he had to listen to Billy Idol's cover of his song many times before it clicked.

A legendary recording artist and songwriter for the Memphis–based Stax label, William Bell first found success with his own recording of “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a song that would go on to be covered by Otis Redding, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Byrds, and others. He found chart success in the ‘60s and ‘70s with additional self-penned singles, such as the Top 20 hits “Everybody Loves a Winner,” “A Tribute to a King,” “Private Number,” and “Tryin’ to Love Two,” which hit #1 on the R&B chart and #10 on the pop chart. His Top 10 R&B hit “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” went on to be covered by Billy Idol as the Top 10 pop hit, “To Be a Lover,” and was reinvented once again when Jaheim sampled it in “Put That Woman First,” a Top 5 R&B hit and Top 20 pop hit in 2004.

In 2016 Bell returned to the re-formed Stax label to release This Is Where I Live, an album of primarily original songs that featured William’s own interpretation of “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which was originally recorded by Albert King and went on to become a blues standard that was named one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock & Roll” by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

A partial list of artists who’ve recorded titles from the William Bell songbook includes Lou Rawls, Percy Sledge, Big Mama Thornton, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart, Etta James, LaVern Baker, Dusty Springfield, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Melissa Etheridge, Robert Cray, and Sturgill Simpson. Additionally, his songs have been sampled by Ludacris, Kanye West, and others.  Bell was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. He was honored with the R&B Pioneer Award by The Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and the W.C. Handy Heritage Award from the Memphis Music Foundation. In 2016 the Americana Music Association honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. The following year he earned his first Grammy award for This Is Where I Live, which was named Americana Album of the Year. 


Songcraft's William Bell Playlist: Spotify users can select the song you'd like to hear below, or simply start the player and enjoy a selection of William's great songs. If you don't have a Spotify account, follow the prompts to sign up for free. Click this link to take you directly to the playlist in the Spotify web player.