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William Bell and the need for legacy soul radio

William BellWilliam 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.

 

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Filed under Booker T Jones, internet, Jerry Butler, old school, Radio, Soul, Stax Records, Uncategorized, William Bell

The Inspiration Information of Shuggie at the Turning of the Millennium: Andre’s Outlook

Shuggie

Looking back on when the century and also the millennium turned,the year 2000 was felt very much like a huge temporal pain reliever for me. No Y2K,could buy anything in a record store without being constantly questioned as to the “credibility of my musical tastes and overall? The futurist mentality that most science fiction/Star Trek admirers such as myself had been pining for seemed to at last be on the horizon. One memory was on a dark,snowy January first playing the O’Jay’s song “The Year 2000” in my room and having similar thoughts as to what Eddie Levert was singing about-all that wonder and promise. It would be sometime towards the middle of this year that another millennial milestones of my musical development occurred: my own introduction to Shuggie Otis’s Inspiration Information.

First of all I wanted to say that during the 2000/2001 period? I wouldn’t have sought out Shuggie Otis on my own because I still couldn’t stand the blues. It had nothing to do with tuning into any cliches of self pitying lyrics or anything. It was more a cultural misunderstanding of intent. Growing up in 1990’s central/Northern Maine? All any music lover would hear was how much the blues was part of every popular music. Outside the Top 10 radio? Most non commercial radio at the time was obsessed with the blues. And with such a sense of seriousness. From what I saw? No one ever danced or clapped their hands to chase their blues away. Just listened,frowned and sometimes even drank a lot. Because those were not qualities I felt boded well with music,itself a motivating factor in life? I did flatly reject any connection that the music (which I loved with my heart and soul) and it’s connection with the blues.

So on one warm and welcoming day in the summer of 2001? My father and I were about to go for a cruise to take in the beauty of nature. As well as some always vital father/son bonding time. On our way we stopped at Bull Moose records,the local music store chain in the state of Maine,and my father came out very excited. He had a CD in his hand with this bright orange 70’s art deco style about it. He told me that Talking Heads’ David Byrne had declared this album the big unsung 70’s masterpiece and re-released it on his Luaka Bop record label. The album of course was Inspiration Information by this man I vaguely knew about named Shuggie Otis. When I asked my father who he was,he told me Shuggie was the son of the blues icon Johnny Otis.

What was I hearing here? Johnny Otis? The BLUES? Well I actually recalling rolling my eyes and tisking lightly to myself. Had a feeling of “here we go-someone trying to up-sell me on the blues again. Like it’s the only music in the world”. It was likely I wanted to hear a Stevie Wonder,Curtis Mayfield or Miles Davis record I’d bought with me at that time. It was my dad’s car of course,and I wanted to understand why he’d be so gleeful about this music. So my father put the record in the CD player of our used 1992 Toyota Corolla. The first thing that came out of the speaker was this beautiful swell of male falsetto vocal parts-harmonizing with each other over an upbeat wah wah bass/guitar and a sunny organ solo.

By the time the sweetly monotone voice of Shuggie himself came in with the lyrics “we had a rainy day/I’m in a sneak back situation/Here’s a pencil pad/I’m gonna spread some information/You, making me happier/Now I am snappier, while I’m with you”?How was this music blues? The only blues I’d heard thus far related mainly to unemployment,romantic distress and death. I wasn’t hearing any of that with Shuggie Otis. There was this realization I was indeed hearing that meaningful,bright funk/soul music I loved. But it was a totally different sound on that level. Through “Island Letter”,”Aht Uh Mi Hed”,”Happy House” and this amazing percussive instrumental called “XL-30” that I asked my father to repeat over and over again that afternoon? There was a hollow,dreamy sound about this album that I’d really never heard before.

My father told me Shuggie played almost all the instruments on the album the way Prince did. Later on as I listened and read the liner notes? It came to me where I’d seen Shuggie’s name before. During that era I was deeply into the music of the Brothers Johnson. Even more so when I fully realized their involvement with two musical icons in my life: Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. One of their biggest songs “Strawberry Letter#23” was originally written and recorded by Shuggie Otis in 1971 for his Freedom Flight album. After hearing the album itself and the bonus songs on that CD? I was truly shocked. By no definition I’d ever dealt with was this the blues that I had been hearing. Shuggie’s music helped me see the depth and complexity of the blues. This music was reflective,thoughtful,poetic and very tender.

Recently I debated with myself whether to bring this up here. But about seven years later? I was playing a beat up CD of this album I’d gotten later from the Bull Moose free bin with my fiancee while driving through town during a visit to see his family. Upon hearing “Aht Uh Mi Hed”? He remarked how much he enjoyed the way Shuggie used organ in his music. Such an instrumentally inclined remark from a fellow Generation X’er was very much unknown to me even by that time. It was only a year ago that I ended up with the album again-released with Shuggie’s newest set of unreleased material called Wings Of Love. After playing it in the car? Even my musically persnickety mother fell under the spell Shuggie Otis set with Inspiration Information. Although he absent mindedly remarked just last week that she thought “XL-30” sounded like something from the score of the film Napoleon Dynamite? Even her respect for Shuggie’s musicality remains undiminished.

Part of my overall respect for Shuggie Otis also came from how his music helped me to better appreciate session musicians and the vital role they play in many a musical masterpiece. I was aware of his session playing for his father Johnny. But not necessarily in how his playing helped to revitalize the careers of Etta James,Louis Jordan and Bobby Blue Bland and “Louie Louie” composer Richard Berry. Growing up I’d tended to view musicians who played out front in bands as being the most musically important-either as soloists or as members of bands. Though already very aware and involved with listening to The Crusaders by this time? My admiration for the non session/solo music of people such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa, Bernard Wright,Weldon Irvine and bands such as Stuff began to grow and increase follwing my exposure to Shuggie.

As for my father,the man who originally introduced me to Shuggie Otis? He is still broadening my appreciation of the man to this very day. Only earlier today,when discussing this blog with him,did he discuss Shuggie’s involvement with Frank Zappa. Shuggie in fact played electric bass on Zappa’s iconic instrumental “Peaches en Regalia” from his 1969 album Hot Rats. My dad is a long time admirer of Zappa,who was an individual who often elevated musicians considered to be sidemen into positions of prominence. One such musician was the violinist Don Sugarcane Harris. It was mentioned by my father this afternoon that he first heard about Shuggie Otis via his session playing on Harris’s 1970 LP release Sugarcane. So when Luaka Pop reissued the Inspiration Information album on CD? My father,being unfamiliar with Shuggie’s solo music,was very eager to hear it. So as I was writing my own story about this man and his album? My father was telling me about the first time he heard of Shuggie Otis.

One of the reasons I still find this album to be some of the most beautiful funk ever recorded is association. When I first heard it? That magical 21’st century had arrived. The future that everyone had been dreaming about in the century before had at last arrived. And considering the dark days of the post 9/11 world would arrive in only a seasons time? This introduction to Shuggie Otis to my life always reminds me of the importance of maintaining dreamy optimism. Especially in the hardest of times. Also,with some later help from Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary? Hearing Shuggie Otis completely altered my perception of the blues. He really put a sunshine funk filter inside of his musicality. And it helped me realize that broadness of the soul/funk/jazz/blues musical spectrum-outside of any locally based misconceptions. As Branford Marsalis said of blues music itself? To this very day,whenever I hear Shuggie Otis’s Inspiration Information,it makes me smile.

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Filed under 1970's, 1990s, Funk, Local Radio, Maine, Psychedelia, Radio, Shuggie Otis, Soul