Tuesday, January 18, 2011

TOP STORY >> Ex-Stax chief still has soul

Leader executive editor

Al Bell, the former Stax Records executive, is back in the spotlight with a new Web site, Al Bell Presents American Soul Music, where you can hear classic Stax artists and new soul singers who are keeping the Memphis sound alive.

Bell, a former disc jockey at KOKY who graduated from Scipio Jones High School in North Little Rock in 1958, called us from his home in North Little Rock before the holidays, sounding upbeat now that he has a presence on the Internet.

“We present the music from the 1940s to the present,” Bell said in his distinctive voice that would be just as convincing if he were a preacher or a voiceover for instant oatmeal.

Sounding a lot like Morgan Freeman (Bell, at 70, is a few years younger than the veteran actor and TV pitchman), the former record executive is the full-time-d.j., story teller and soul historian on Al Bell Presents.

It’s an attractive Web site: Al Bell Presents looks like a jukebox, and the music never ends.

Most of the old Stax music is there: Booker T. and the MGs, William Bell, Otis Redding, Mavis Staples, Eddie Floyd, Carla and Rufus Thomas, as well as the greats from Motown (where Bell was later an executive): Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and from other labels: Aretha Franklin, Tracy Chapman, Dionne Warwick — even B.B. King and Big Joe Turner and the new soul singers who are dominating the charts and much more.

Al Bell knows soul music.

You’ll hear Billy Stewart’s bouncy “Every Day I Have the Blues,” which is nothing like B.B. King’s. You can also watch rare videos of Ray Charles, Mary Wells and others.

Last year, Bell was named chairman of the Memphis Music Foundation and next month he’ll receive the Grammy Trustees Award, along with industry veterans Bruce Lundvall, who revived Blue Note Records in the 1980s, and Wilma Cozart Fine, whose Mercury Records issued some of the greatest classical LPs in the 1950s and 1960s.

They’ll be in good company: Receiving lifetime-achievement awards will be actress Julie Andrews, country star Dolly Parton, gospel centenarian George Beverly Shea, punk pioneers The Ramones, folk superstars the Kingston Trio, jazz drummer Roy Haynes and the classical Juilliard String Quartet.

Bell has come a long way from the little farm community outside Brinkley called Dark Corner where he was born. The family moved to North Little Rock in 1945, when he was 5.

“I went back every summer,” he told us. “I saw Louis Jordan on the street corner. He was a distant cousin.”

“I grew up influenced by Louis Jordan,” he said. “He caused me to appreciate great writing.”

The great R&B singer, perhaps the state’s most important musician, helped invent soul and rock-and-roll.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, perhaps the state’s best-known gospel singer, was born up the road in Cotton Plant.

Bell had several Arkansas artists at Stax, including Johnnie Taylor, Mabel John and Albert King, who made his greatest records with Stax.

Bell produced many of the Staples Singers records, which are perhaps the most enduring in the Stax catalogue.

He is listed (under his real name, Alvertis Isbell) as the composer of “I’ll Take You There,” one of the Staples’ biggest hits from the “Beatitude/Respect Yourself” LP. The latter song served as an anthem of sorts in black America in the 1970s.

“I love the Staples Singers,” Bell said. “I’ve never heard such harmony in my life. Nobody can sing and move more spiritually than Mavis,” referring to one of Pops Staples’ daughters who is still recording and performing. Her latest record is “You Are Not Alone” with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.

Bell remembers bringing the Staples to the Pine Bluff High School Auditorium, where Mavis cried as she sang “On My Way to Heaven Anyhow.”

Many of the old Stax stars are gone — Little Milton, Pops Staples, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes. Bell gave the eulogy at Hayes’ funeral in 2008.

“I was surrounded by some of the greatest talent in the business,” he told us. “What was beautiful about Stax — it was perfectly integrated. We were diverse.”

Recording with Isaac Hayes and Booker T. Jones were such white musicians as Steve Cropper, Wayne Jackson and Donald (Duck) Dunn of the MGs. They’re still performing together.

After it went out of business in the mid-1970s, Stax continued to reissue old records through the Fantasy label, which is now owned by Concord Records. The “Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration,” a 50-track double CD, is a fine overview of the label’s history.

For serious soul fans, “The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles,” a monumental three-box set containing 28 CDs, says it all: Everything’s here from the little soul label that changed music history.

“It was the greatest experience of my life,” Bell said. “I’ve been blessed.”