Maybe before Al Bell could properly mount his comeback — if indeed the legendary impresario and songwriter ever quite left — he needed a reminder of what was holding him back. Now living in North Little Rock, Bell earlier this year was back in Memphis, a town where he ran and later owned Stax Records in the late '60s and early '70s. Like its great rival Motown, much of the Stax catalogue still defines American popular culture of its day, and today, when you recall Sam and Dave or Isaac Hayes or Booker T. and the MGs, you have Bell partially to thank. But the label melted down in spectacular, traumatic fashion, and Bell, who had previously marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., felt in the breakdown the same enmity that ultimately saw King killed. He was persecuted (successfully) and prosecuted (unsuccessfully, on bank fraud charges) and was laid low.
Time has been kind enough to the man who wrote "I'll Take You There." He went independent as Bellmark Records and released a pair of songs in the '90s that are about to get stuck in your head: Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" and Prince's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." In 2009, the BBC and the New York Times chronicled his return to the Memphis music scene as chairman of the Memphis Music Foundation.
Stax's legacy in Memphis now includes a museum and a music academy, with kids performing the songs that may have assisted in their very conceptions. So it was that Bell was back in the River City to take in one of these concerts, and was, he says now, stunned at the talent. Kids tackling Hayes' "Shaft" and Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood." When a teenager stood up to sing "So I Can Love You," by the Emotions, Bell had time to think, "Oh, she's not gonna do that, now — that's too much for her" before she floored him with her rendition. "She brought me up out of my seat," Bell said.
A day earlier, he'd told a reporter that Stax would live on forever. Now, here was the proof before him.
"It brought tears to my eyes," Bell said. "It was that powerful. To me, it was a healing moment. I didn't realize after almost 40 years that all that had happened to me in the '70s, that I had compartmentalized and moving past it in my life and not even given it any thought.
"I thought about the motion picture 'Waiting to Exhale.' I got a chance to exhale. I feel great. I'm just excited. I'm ready now, really, because I hadn't thought about a legacy. Now my focus is on making sure the things I've been gifted to be able to realize and understand and achieve, that I can pass it on. You can't get it at Harvard or at Howard. I'm obsessed with not taking it to my grave with me."
This is Al Bell at 73, then. The former record executive who got his start as a Little Rock DJ is back in Arkansas to try and find the next thing, or the next maybe very big thing, or at least to groom artists in such a way that they're not gnashed into pulp by the music industry that, in Bell's estimation, has all but imploded under the tide of digital delivery.
Here's the landscape he sees now. Recorded music sales constitute a historical anomaly: Artists have always performed live, and it was only with the advent of vinyl that companies could turn a buck on a recorded performance. The dominant companies now are scrambling to sell to tweens, hooking kids on merchandise to recover part of what they've lost in CD sales. "They forgot all about the other people out here who have an appreciation for music," Bell says. "People are hearing all kinds of music through Rhapsody and Spotify and other platforms, but our industry hasn't been servicing them well." Creativity shriveled. Meanwhile, delivering music to people has never been easier.
Bell aims to develop artists in a post-CD era. No longer are recordings tangible goods. So it's back to the fundamentals. Find singers and rappers and musicians who put on a real show and can draw a crowd. "All that recorded music becomes in that paradigm," he says, "is a marketing component you use to create asset value and name recognition."
If that sounds less than romantic, consider that it can also be freeing (as in no more glutting a 15-song CD with six decent tracks and nine pieces of filler just to justify your $18) and Bell is buoyed by the prospect of blowing up an industry model that buckled under its own cynical bloat.
"By now if I had devoted as many hours to working in and studying all of the dynamics in the music industry for the past 40 years, I would be so sick and tired of it I wouldn't want to hear the word music," said Deanie Parker, a former do-it-all at Stax, now a board member for the Soulsville Foundation in Memphis. "But this man, it is bread and butter and vegetables and a side of his favorite dessert. It's his sustenance. If there were no music then he would have no breath."
Parker and Bell go way back, almost 50 years. She was just out of high school when she started hosting an hour-long afternoon block on WLOK-FM in Memphis; he was a DJ at the station, and noticed her struggling. "He decided he was going to teach me the tricks of the trade," she said, and his tutoring stuck. She figured it was going to be more of the same until the day she went into the control room and Bell wasn't around. "I just knew he was going to be there, right," she said, "but he left a note that said, 'You're on your own, kid. Go for it.' And I thought, 'Oh, my lord!' "
She was at Stax a few years later during the tear that Bell, then a vice president there, took the company on to build a back catalogue. "It was such a natural high that there is no way to describe it," she says now. This is what you get when you're cranking out a half-dozen albums a week and Booker T. and the MGs are your house band. Motown, said Parker, "had a formula. We didn't. We had a feel." And Bell set the tone for that. "If things are difficult for him," she said, "if he is spending 26 hours working a day, it is in large part because he's swimming upstream. Because he knows there's a right way to do it."
Bell claims to work only 20 to 22 hours a day, but in any case, he's following his own formula: courting artists, teaching and, in his words, "working your buttocks off." You may see him nodding his head at a venue around Little Rock these days, a hard-driving man at peace.