Bell was nominated in what could be considered opposing categories — Americana 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. Now he can add “Grammy winner” for his 2016 album This Is Where I Live to that pile.
Born William Henry Yarbrough 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.
Bell also saw one of his songs, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” succeed — albeit in the hands of another artist. Bell and Booker T. Jones wrote the tune for blues legend Albert King, who’s singing guitar and impassioned vocals took the tune to #49 on the R&B chart. The following year, Cream would cover the song for their third album Wheels on Fire.
At the end of 1967, Otis Redding would die in a plane crash. In many ways, it marked Stax’s downfall — MG’s guitarist and writer Steve Cropper had been removed as the label’s A&R director and the label lost a huge chunk of its back catalog in a deal with Atlantic Records, not to mention the popular duo Sam & Dave, who had technically been “on loan” to Stax from Atlantic.
Despite the turmoil, Bell would manage another hit with “A Tribute to a King,” a song he wrote about Redding’s death, in 1968. “It was an emotional release for me,” he later said. “I said, ‘Look, I want to record this song and just send it to [Otis’ widow] Zelma Redding. She received it and said, ‘You got to release this.’” It jump-started a hot streak for Bell, who would release one of his best-known hits, “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” — eventually covered by Billy Idol, of all people — late in the year. A series of duets with Judy Clay, including the hit “Private Number” capped off the decade for him.
As the ‘70s dawned, Bell’s fortunes dwindled. He’d relocated to Atlanta in 1969 and founded his own label, Peachtree, but was unable to mount a comeback on the charts until 1977, with the hit “Trying to Love Two.” He jumped labels in the mid-‘80s and had some success in the U.K. with Passion in 1985. He continued to record and release records until 1992, when he took a hiatus from recording, though his live performances didn’t dip.
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.”