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William Bell @ B.B. King Blues Club (1/2010)

What a treat. An awesome double shot surprise for the second of three “Season of (Johnny) Winter” Mondays at BB King’s in NYC. This time the opening act was the great singer songwriter William Bell. On this gig his back-up band was headed by former Saturday Night Live band leader, guitarist G.E. Smith, with the addition of the Uptown Horns. It was a perfect soul revue staging that allowed Mr. Bell to explore the full range of his smooth but powerful voice, even in their too short stint on stage.

Though Bell did not enjoy the high profile of soul cross-over artists like Wilson Picket and Otis Redding, as one of the earliest recording artists on the Stax Records label he became a seminal figure in the creation of the southern soul sound. His key song “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (which he wrote and recorded as a teenager in 1961) continues to be a blueprint for gospel tinged, organ driven & muted horn R&B. While my favorite interpretation of the song was recorded by Brian Eno and John Cale on their “Wrong Way Up” album it was most notably covered by the Byrds during Graham Parson’s time in the group. It is no surprise that the G. E. Smith led backing band was so perfectly attuned with Bell since the elegiac ending music SNL used throughout Smith’s tenure was solidly based on “You Don’t Miss your Water’s” feel.

Guitarist G. E. Smith


Mr. Bell is also co-author of a cornerstone of electric blues “Born Under a Bad Sign”. Originally written with Booker T. Jones for inclusion on the Albert King album of the same name, the song found its way into late 1960’s pop culture when it was covered by Cream. Much to the amusement of the audience, Bell noted that the most recent cover version of the song was done by a newer pop icon, Homer Simpson. The tune was used as an opportunity to stretch out with individual members of the horn section getting a chance to shine and Mr. Smith accurately aiming a short but sweet solo featuring the stinging Telecaster sound he is noted for. Along with his own compositions, Mr. Bell peppered the set with snippets of well known soul sounds, including a bit of Otis Redding’s “Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)” and Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”.

Volumes have been written exploring how “Memphis Soul” evolved from the confluence of high lonesome country music, sanctified gospel and gut-bucket blues but if you truly want to understand its force you have to hear it done live. There are few better ways to experience the power of soul then spending an evening enraptured by the voice of Mr. Bell. Here’s hoping he will return to BB’s or maybe Highline Ballroom for a headlining show or two in the near future.

To view more of Kenny Pierce’s photos and read his review of the night, including headliner Johnny Winter, please click this link.

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