William Bell Heads Back To His Roots In 'This Is Where I Live' William Bell cut his first Stax records tracks more than 50 years ago. Now, he's back on the label. Bell tells NPR's Scott Simon about his new album, and remixing one of his biggest hits.

William Bell Heads Back To His Roots In 'This Is Where I Live'

William Bell Heads Back To His Roots In 'This Is Where I Live'

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William Bell cut his first Stax records tracks more than 50 years ago. Now, he's back on the label. Bell tells NPR's Scott Simon about his new album, and remixing one of his biggest hits.


It's been a long time since we last heard from William Bell.


WILLIAM BELL: (Singing) Last night had a dream, and there were three of me. There was the man I was, the man I am and the man I want to be.

SIMON: More than 50 years ago, William Bell was one of the first artists signed to Stax Records, the legendary soul label that was based in Memphis. He had a number of hits, solo and co-writing, with Booker T. Jones. Then the label folded in the 1970s after the death of Otis Redding and amid competition from Motown.

But William Bell kept working. And now Stax is back, reactivated a few years ago. William Bell is back on the label where he began. His new album, "This Is Where I Live." And William Bell joins us now from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thanks so much for being with us.

BELL: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I want to get into your personal history and, thoughtfully, some of it's in a song. Let's listen to "This Is Where I Live."


BELL: (Singing) In a hotel room I wrote me a song, and it took me all around the world. Now I spend all my time playing music, making rhymes. This is where I live.

SIMON: Wrote a song and it took me around the world. That is the story of your life, isn't it?

BELL: It is. Absolutely (laughter). My first hit song on Stax was "You Don't Miss Your Water," of course, and that has been just with me throughout the years.

SIMON: So what's it like to be back at Stax and Memphis?

BELL: It's like coming home. And the people that are there for the new Stax, they knew of William Bell and knew of my career. And so it was just a good place to be at this time.


BELL: (Singing) Got a one-way ticket on a Red Eye Express. Man, it's good to be home again.

SIMON: Must give you some pleasure to do another Stax album, doesn't it?

BELL: Oh, it does (laughter). And working with John Leventhal is just a joy. He is such a fantastic writer, producer, musician, arranger. And to get to work with him is just a joy.

SIMON: Well, I want to ask you about a song you wrote with Booker T. Jones for Albert King in the 1960s. This is a real classic.


ALBERT KING: (Singing) One, two. Born under a bad sign. I've been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all.

SIMON: You've got a version on this new album.

BELL: I do. John brought the idea to me. He said, I want to do "Born Under A Bad Sign" on you. And I said, well, I've done that before. And he said, yeah, but I want to do it differently. And he gave the track to me and, of course, it took me a couple of days to get into it and listen to it. But finally - I finally did and we did it. And it came out great.


BELL: (Singing) I can't read. Didn't learn how to write. My whole life has been one big fight.

SIMON: How's this version different, do you think, from the classic one you did?

BELL: Well, number one, the iconic bass line is not there (laughter). And that was one of the things that - in creating this song, that was one of the things that I had from the beginning was that bass line. So it's almost like a remix but a soulful remix, that kind of swampy and Louisiana kind of swamp. So it works for this song.

SIMON: At this point in your life, is this just a song lyric? Were you born under a bad sign or a lucky one?

BELL: (Laughter) I don't know if it's bad or good, but I tell you what, growing up sometime you felt like that, you know, because, of course, I came from a neighborhood where it was not that affluent and everything. But the song itself just kind of resonates to people of having a few problems or hard times and everything. And so that's what it's about.


BELL: (Singing) I've been down. I've been down so long.

SIMON: It sounds like you - you wanted to take a nod to your classic roots in this album. But you didn't want it to be - you didn't want to pretend that it was 50 years ago. You wanted to do something new.

BELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. We wanted to retain some of the earlier Stax identity to it and yet modernize it and bring it up to today's music because it's now world music and it's not so regional.

SIMON: Yeah.

BELL: We really scrutinized the songs that made the cuts of the CD and everything. And hopefully we accomplished that.


BELL: (Singing) I never gave you fancy clothes, no diamond rings or the finer things. But when you feel all alone don't you despair.

SIMON: Who'd you write this song for?

BELL: Just a good friend of mine that's having some hard times, some health problems and stuff. And sometimes as you grow older and all of your friends and family passes away and you feel like you're out there on a limb on your own. And I just wanted to say that they - don't worry. I've got your back and I'll take care of you.


BELL: (Singing) I will take care of you.

SIMON: What do you want to do next?

BELL: (Laughter) Well, I'm pretty busy. But I'd like to get more and more into movies and then soundtracks and stuff, yeah.

SIMON: So you're going to be the next James Bond?

BELL: I don't know about that, not at this age (laughter).

SIMON: (Laughter) Are you doing a lot of touring this summer?

BELL: Oh, we are. Actually we start the first of June with John Leventhal and the band. I'm a people lover so I love getting out and meeting the fans and then performing and all. I'm still - I still get a joy out of that.

SIMON: William Bell, his new album, "This Is Where I Live." Sounds like you live on the road.

BELL: I've been blessed to have good health and strength and vitality at this age. And as long as that's a common theme, I'll keep doing it. There's no such thing as retiring to me.

SIMON: Well, a pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much, Mr. Bell.

BELL: Always a pleasure. Thank you for having me.


BELL: (Singing) Don't you know there's more rooms in a house.

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