Al Bell is a recording industry legend, responsible for shaping Stax Records and more specifically, the careers of Booker T and the MG’s, The Staple Singers, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Sam and Dave and The Bar-Kays, just to name a few.
(Photo: Gerald Cyrus)
Recently, Bell was notified he has been awarded the Grammy Trustee Award, an honor Bell considers the highlight of his career.
Before Bell was busy creating the “Memphis Sound,” he was the president of his high school student council with what a local radio station general manager called, “A profound gift to gab.”
The general manager discovered this when Bell called him in, along with KOKY disc jockey Leo Jocko Carter, and the head of his Jones High School music program, to act as judges for a talent competition. Bell named the contest “Radio Station T.O.U.G.H.” and after the contest was over, Bell was asked to catch a bus to Little Rock; a bus ride that marked the beginning of his professional music career.
The year was 1957 and Bell had been assigned the Sunday morning show from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. It was there that Bell discovered just how crucial music was in impacting people’s lives; at times, Bell would listen to a certain record 40 or 50 times, writing down the lyrics and studying the notes played by specific instruments.
“I enjoyed being in a position where I could play music, you know, that made them feel good – uplifted them,” Bell said. “I began to appreciate (music) more and more and more.”
Bell’s appreciation for music never wavered, even when he took a disc jockey gig at WUST in Washington. Bell realized his listeners had never heard the “funky” Stax records he was enjoying. When he played a Stax record for the first time, he was threatened with losing his job.
According to his station manager, people in Washington were more civilized than people in Memphis. Bell said he didn’t waver, choosing to play a Memphis hit, “Sweet Sixteen,” by B.B. King, which turned Bell into a celebrity overnight.
“What happened was, I just got into people and it’s been that way throughout my career and to present day,” Bell said. “My whole life was about making music that makes people feel good – that gives them a sense of hope in the midst of hopelessness – that when they’re sad, to make them happy … music has the power to do that.”
Although Bell owned his own, “Safice Records,” he still traveled to cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore to promote Stax music. And when Jim Stewart asked Bell to come to Stax in 1965, Bell didn’t hesitate.
“When David Porter brought me by Stax one day and I walked into Studio A and looked and saw two white guys and two black guys playing this music that I’d been hearing – I was in awe,” Bell said.
Bell said he came to Stax because he knew what it was and he believed he could – from a marketing and promotions standpoint – turn it into a major company.
“Stax was like my oasis,” Bell said. “And it became that for all of us because we could leave the outside world and come inside of Stax and, as human beings, live in absolute and complete harmony because of the music and the spirit that existed amongst us inside those walls.”
Recently, Bell launched albellpresents.com. His hope in running the website is to build and promote the careers of rare artists who perform unique songs and emotionally interact with and entertain their audiences.
Slowing down has never been considered. In fact, when asked about retirement, Bell laughed and said, “Oh, it’s not even in my mind. As my dear friends Ed Townsend and Marvin Gaye sang, I’m ready to ‘get it on.’
“I am just now ready to go and do the things that I know should be done and want to do that deserve recognition. We have to get back to rare performing artists. And when I hear people say, ‘old school,’ I say, ‘Are you kidding me – old school? Would you call the Mona Lisa old school?’ This is art, this is art, this is art.”
Saturday, Bell will step on stage to accept his Grammy Trustee Award. It is at that pivotal moment, he said, he will rediscover just how influential his career has been to others and how extraordinary the relationships in his life are because of his career.
The Grammy Trustee award is presented by vote of the Recording Academy’s National Trustees to individuals who have made significant contributions to the recording industry. When longtime friend of Bell and president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Neil Portnow, personally called Bell to inform him of this honor, Bell said, “At that moment, all of the energy literally left my body. I became lifeless and before I knew it, tears were just rolling down my face.”