January 14, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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What Stax groove gets you going? Tell us in the comments below.
Written by Samantha Crespo