The very best soul artists, like we saw with Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone, tend to become better the older they get; what little they lose in physical strength (vocal pitch and tone), is disproportionally gained through emotional strength and the acknowledment that now the end is near.
As a young Stax artist, William Bell became world-famous for his one-take, perfect, soul vocals; somehow standing out in a roster of artists which included Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and the Staple Sisters. Part of what made Bell great 40 years ago was his machoism and assurance that time was on his side; his life had to be lived. What makes Bell great now is the opposite, it’s an understanding that he’s singing about a life that has been lived.
At 78, Bell performs with the type of pose and elegance that made him stand out as a young artist; whereas some singers may be able to sing soul music – Bell’s difference is that his soul sings music. It’s this difference that presumably contributes to the subtle interpretative changes he makes to his biggest hits; there is a different message to be communicated with the songs now than there was when they were written. Nowhere is this more obvious that on ‘Everybody loves a winner’- originally a track about missing a loved one but now sounding like it’s about a life coming to an end. It’s opening ‘once I had fame/ oh I was full of pride… but my fame oh it died’ is sung with strains of regret; whilst the pride used in its purposeful refrain of ‘Mr Nobody is Mr Somebody now’ tells the story of personal resilience and determination. There’s not a dry eye in the house given this delivery.
In-song tributes to fallen friends Sam Cooke, Ottis Redding and Ben E King provide more moments for contemplation, as does a moment during ‘I forgot to be your lover’ when Bell orchestrates his band down to the softest drum beat, over which he whispers the opening to ‘You send me’.
Bell was famous 40 years ago for creating untouchable, wise, soul music; somehow he’s managed to make this music even more powerful.