When we invited William Bell to the Tiny Desk, we looked forward to witnessing part of a veteran soul hitmaker's journey back to the spotlight. Bell is known for writing and performing several of the R&B classics that emerged from Memphis' Stax Records in the 1960s, "You Don't Miss Your Water" and "Everybody Loves A Winner" among them. After decades away from Stax — and away from sizable record labels entirely — he returned to his old label home earlier this year to release This Is Where I Live. So we were ready to be won over by Bell's rich, expressive voice and bandleader's charm; we were prepared for emotionally dense songs that say a lot in only a few words. We just didn't expect so much yellow.
Bell, who's 77 and now makes his home in Atlanta, worked suavely through two new songs from This Is Where I Live. The title track follows an autobiographical structure common among soul singers of a certain age (see: Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Aaron Neville). It narrates the story of Bell's life in specific detail, from the first time he heard Sam Cooke to the memorable hotel stay when he wrote "You Don't Miss Your Water," the song that "took [him] all around the world." And "The Three Of Me" is a love song of measured regret, typical of earlier Bell ballads but for its patina of time-worn wisdom.
To close his performance, Bell led the Total Package Band through one of the most enduring songs he's written: the blues standard "Born Under A Bad Sign," which has been covered by folks like Cream and Koko Taylor since Albert King first recorded it in 1967. When Bell's co-writer on the song, Booker T. Jones, played it at the Tiny Desk in 2011, his solo organ work lent the tune an appropriately eerie cast. For Bell and company, though, "Bad Sign" became a joyous, communal celebration. Nearly every member of the 12-piece band took a chorus before settling into an energetic vamp, their leader's grin as bright as his band's T-shirts.
- "This Is Where I Live"
- "The Three Of Me"
- "Born Under A Bad Sign"
Producers: Rachel Horn, Niki Walker; Audio Engineers: Suraya Mohamed, Josh Rogosin, Andrew Huether; Videographers: Niki Walker, Colin Marshall, Kara Frame, Maia Stern; Production Assistant: CJ Riculan; Photo: Claire Harbage/NPR.
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