Insider Interview Memphis: Al Bell
If the name Al Bell doesn’t immediately ring a you-know-what, hit the highlights: In high school, he DJs dances in Little Rock, Arkansas. Lands a job at the local radio station. Relocates to Memphis, Tennessee, to pioneer promotions for Stax Records (rises to studio owner). Signs the Staple Singers (writes ‘I’ll Take You There’). Collaborates with Isaac Hayes on Hot Buttered Soul. Heads Motown Records Group. Establishes his own label (releases Prince’s ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’). Accepts the GRAMMY Trustees Award (2011). And, as you’ll read here, he hasn’t slowed down yet.
In 1965, DJ Al Bell (left) joins Jim Stewart and Stax Records as the Memphis label’s first promoter © Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Tell us something that might surprise us.
I can’t sing. I can’t dance.
But you can listen.
Whenever the song ‘To the Aisle’ by The Five Satins was played, it wouldn’t be difficult for the girls to get the guys to come off the walls. I had the girls tell me about the song and what it meant. Later, I learned to go where the jukeboxes were and listened to what people were paying to play. I listened to each song 20, 30, 40 times and wrote down the lyrics so I knew the story.
New on view: ‘And The GRAMMY Goes To Memphis,’ through 31 October 2014. Eye GRAMMY Awards attributed to the region (including those given to Elvis Presley and Al Bell), a B.B. King Lucille guitar, archived video and never-before-seen photos © Stax Museum of American Soul Music
What else were you spinning back then?
Gospel, then jazz (Thelonius Monk). Johnny Mathis, The Platters, Big Joe Turner, B.B. King – a good mix of what’s called blues and R&B today.
As a DJ, you played what listeners wanted to hear. As a promoter for Stax, you shaped what listeners wanted to hear. How did you change course?
We dealt with the music and artists we enjoyed, and we’d get out and work our butts off. If it took a year to get them exposure and perform, that’s what we did.
Between 1961 and 1975, from a converted Memphis theatre, Stax Records unleashes Booker T. and the MGs, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes and Eddie Floyd, among other soul artists, to world listeners. But by 1975, defunct deals and litigation force the label into involuntary bankruptcy. Though the studio was demolished, theStax Museum of American Soul Music was erected onsite in 2003 © Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011
Are you still out there listening?
I’m pushed more now than ever before because I deal with music as art, and our industry is busy marketing anything that’s sensational to sell. I’m always looking for that rare artist. I stand at the back of the room so I can see the artist and how people are reacting.
The Stax Museum’s galleries and interactive exhibits reveal performance footage, oral histories, and exclusives including Isaac Hayes’ restored 1972 Superfly Cadillac El Dorado © Dan Ball for Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau
If you miss Bell at the back of the room, look for him working with the Memphis Music Foundation and David Porter’s Consortium MMT, or listening to the student ensembles of the Stax Music Academy. (That’s the extracurricular music program adjacent to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Soulsville, USA – the name Bell created last century for this musically vital Memphis neighbourhood.)
Al Bell with students of Stax Music Academy, the extracurricular program that trains in the tradition of Memphis’ Stax Records. Student ensembles perform regularly – see the schedule here © Stax Museum of American Soul Music
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