William Bell and the need for legacy soul radio
By Ron Wynn
William Bell, classic soul and the need for legacy radio
By Ron Wynn
Many years ago (early ’90s) I made a trip to Chicago for my first face-to-face meeting and interview with the legendary Iceman himself, the great Jerry Butler. It was for a CD-Rom project (a technology that has long since faded into oblivion), and we had a wonderful 90-meeting plus conversation on a host of topics. The only time Butler got agitated during our entire encounter came when we talked about the problems he’d had with a recent album he’d recorded for a Southern Soul label (I think it was Urgent, but it was a long time ago, so it might have been something else).
“It’s OK for Tony Bennett to make new music, it’s OK for Barry Manilow or whoever to make new music, but for whatever reason I can’t get the radio stations to play my new music,” Butler complained. “They will play my old hits, but these new PD’s won’t give my new music a shot.” I recall that lament while listening to the songs from another soul legend’s latest release. William Bell may be the most underrated great male soul singer and songwriter active today. If not, there aren’t many others in the conversation.
If Bell had only written “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Born Under A Bad Sign” (along with Booker. T. Jones) those two are enough to certify immortality. But they are only the tip of his compositional iceberg. William Bell has been penning and singing glorious numbers since his teen years, and the new release “This Is Where I Live” (Concord/Stax) stands as both a wonderful retrospective portrait and a work every bit as good as anything coming from vocalists half or more of his 76 years. The title track is a glorious, demonstrative declaration of career achievements, sung without a hint of regret or pity, while “Poison in the Well” has that wonderful combination of irony, edge, heartbreak and the quest for salvation at the base of all great soul, country and blues tunes.
He also updates “Born Under A Bad Sign,” bringing in the wry understated tones that made it such a rousing hit for Albert King, while taking it just a bit slower, but with equal stature and resolve. The album is getting rave reviews everywhere, from NPR to The New Yorker. These are heady times for Bell, as he’s also featured in Martin Shore’s highly praised film “Take Me To The River,” and he even appeared at the White House in 2013.
There’s only one thing missing here for Bell, and it’s the same problem faced by Mavis Staples and Betty LaVette, two other superb veteran soul artists making wonderful and contemporary music. Other than specialty shows on college, community and public radio stations or internet sites, there’s not many places you hear their current music. Urban radio’s already super-tight playlists won’t even air the songs of many youthful Black acts whose sound doesn’t fall into a carefully defined, easily identifiable blend of heavily tracked vocals girded by hip-hop refrains. That’s not to dismiss out of hand the many talented and popular performers out there in the urban sphere, nor to vilify their sizable audiences. These stations make money for the corporations that own them, the artists they play sell out concert houses and get lots of airplay via streaming. A few of them even still sell a lot of physical product.
But there should still be a place where you can hear William Bell or Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings without having to pay a monthly fee. There’s a sizable constituency in the Black community for instance that doesn’t listen to specialty or satellite radio, and isn’t really into downloads or getting everything off the Internet. These are the people who regularly attend shows at places like the Municipal Auditorium in Nashville whenever acts like The Spinners or Artie “Blues Boy” White (to name just two that you also don’t hear on urban radio) appear.
This is the audience who would no doubt love an album like “This Is Where I Live” if they even knew it existed. Even the syndicated radio programs like “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” or “Steve Harvey Show” seldom air anything by someone like Bell. They generally play old-school funk and soul hits of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, or lately even blending in current material from recognizable urban artists, even those whose music they have to censor to fit their format. Plus there is as much emphasis these days on celebrity gossip and politics as on music, perhaps even more in some cases.
With June being either Black or African American Music month (depending on your preference), what is really needed to fill this gap are more legacy stations devoted to airing the entire spectrum of Black music. As someone who grew up in the era when there were far more Black-owned radio stations, I can recall a time when great personalities would introduce you to all types of wonderful performers. They still played the hits to be sure, and blues, jazz and gospel were already mostly restricted to weekend specialty shows. However that music did still get aired, and there were occasions when a Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann/Eddie Harris, B.B. King or Edwin Hawkins Singers would break into the main rotation alongside the other Motown, Stax and various hits of the day.
Today, an artist like William Bell or Mavis Staples has almost zero chance of getting on an urban radio station. Staples can open for Bob Dylan, but you’ll only hear cuts from her current music on specialty shows. To those who say the same thing is true for Paul Simon or Bob Dylan, neither of those people need radio airplay at this stage of their career. It would be pure icing on the cake for Simon to score a hit, but it would really mean something for William Bell to have his music heard by a larger audience, particularly those in the Black community who still remember “Trying To Love Two” or “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”
A natural place for this to happen seems to me satellite radio, which already has a number of special formats dedicated to Black music. I don’t know if you’d call it legacy radio or updated soul sounds or whatever, but there’s certainly enough of this 21st century soul being made to merit exposure. After all, you’ve got the likes of Leon Bridges playing at Bonnaroo, Staples out there with Dylan, Bell drawing big crowds on his current concert swing, and even some in neo-soul wing like Anthony Hamilton and Angie Stone who also could work in this format.
In the meantime, I hope the handful of Black-owned legacy stations out there in the broadcast sphere like Nashville’s WVOL-1470 AM are giving this new William Bell a lot of exposure, because it deserves it. Not only does it NOT sound like a retro project (the biggest complaint I’ve heard about people like Bridges and Hamilton from contemporary music programmers), but it’s also a wonderful indicator that soul in the greatest sense is timeless, and that William Bell is still one of its finest performers.