William Bell never became a household name. His debut single, the one he wrote and recorded the year that Satellite Records changed their name to Stax, barely cracked the Top 100 chart. That song, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” worked out a bit better for Bell’s friend Otis Redding, and for a band called The Byrds. That’s more or less the same story as “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the song he cowrote with Booker T. Jones, which got covered by Cream and pretty much every blues rock band since 1968. Bell might have had a better chance at stardom if he hadn’t got drafted to serve in the U.S. Army in the middle of the sixties, right when Stax was taking off.
After Stax dissolved in 1975, Bell tried to reinvent himself. He had a top forty hit for Mercury, an easy-listening number with a funk beat called “Trying to Love Two.” He moved to Atlanta, put out a few self-released albums, ran a business, and did well with songwriting royalties. He didn’t lose himself in God or women or indulgence after the peak of his career, like some of the other stories we’ve heard before. He kept his voice and lived a comfortable life. You might say he was hiding in plain sight.
This summer, Stax released Bell’s first album for the label in forty years, in what may be the best album of his life. For the Organist, the writer Wyatt Williams drove around Georgia with Bell to bring us this story.
Produced by Wyatt Williams and Jenny Ament