Although legendary soul musician William Bell just released his first major album in nearly 40 years, it’s like he’s never been away. The man who gave us such classics as “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (1961), which was the first hit by a solo singer on the Stax label, “Private Number” and “Everybody Loves A Winner,” returns to Stax with a warm, straight-to-the-heart yet gritty and funky sound on This Is Where I Live.
Bell might not be a household name, but his compositions, several co-written with Booker T. Jones, have been popular for decades, with a diverse range of artists recording his work, including Otis Redding, Cream, The Byrds, Albert King, Billy Idol, Carole King and Sturgill Simpson.
From the bright opening guitar riffs of “The Three of Me”—a reflective ballad about deciding which self best suits him (“The man I was/ The man I am/ The man I want to be”) in his quest to hold onto love—to the swampy funk of the blessing and curse of love in “Poison In The Well,” Bell ponders the glories of love and the ease with which it can turn sour.
Produced and arranged by Grammy winner John Leventhal, This Is Where I Live is an autobiographical work in which Bell tells the story of his life, especially in the title track and “Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge.” The latter tune was inspired by his days as a youngster crossing into the rough neighborhoods of West Memphis to play in clubs where he wasn’t yet old enough to perform.
Overall, This Is Where I Live is a strong, fitting return for a singer who helped turn Stax Records into a soul powerhouse.
DownBeat recently caught up with Bell, whose tour includes upcoming shows at Pier 97 in Hudson River Park, New York (Aug. 6), and The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia (Aug. 7).
Why did you decide to make this album now?
We were approached to do an album for Concord, the company that took over Stax’s catalog. I have my own production company and label, Wilbe Records, so at first I didn’t know whether I’d want to do this on another label. But Stax picked up the soundtrack for the  documentary that I’m a part of, Take Me to the River, about the origins of soul music in Memphis and about Stax.
So, I thought it might be a good time, and then the label hooked us up with John Leventhal, Rosanne Cash’s husband and a great guitarist. John and I hit it off right away; we had several meetings and found we had many of the same ideas about the kind of record we wanted to make.
How did you select the songs?
John and I sat a listened to every song after we recorded it; we wanted to make an album that was about my career and my life—something about love, but also a reflective album. As you grow older, you start to reflect on your career, and the songs we chose tell that story.
John also brought a beautiful song by Jesse Winchester [“All Your Stories”], and he and Rosanne wrote one for the album, “Walking On A Tightrope.”