Veteran rhythm & blues vocalists William Bell and Andre Williams each released new albums as they respectively close in on their 77th and 80th birthdays; they have some things in common but in other ways, they’ve always been poles apart.
They each started recording as members of vocal groups six decades ago, in the mid ‘50s doo-wop era: Memphis-born Bell with the Del Rios, Alabama-born, Detroit-bred Williams with the Five Dollars and Don Juans. But where Bell was inspired more than anything else by Sam Cooke’s stirring gospel soul, Williams’ main role model was jive-jumping Cab Calloway: “not a great singer — and neither am I — who knew how to entertain and tell a story,” he told Red Bull Music Academ. Where Bell’s singing dredged lovely wells of emotion, Williams’ records were mostly talked, chanted, rambled and dripped with raunchy humor. Each of them had intermittent chart success through the ‘60s, mainly on the R&B side of the dial; Bell had more, and eventually went Top 10 pop with his disco wah-wah ballad “Tryin’ to Love Two” in 1977. Yet both artists had a lot more luck composing songs that other people sang.
Bell wrote or co-wrote “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which you probably know via either Albert King or Cream; “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” done by Otis Redding and then the Byrds; and “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” which Billy Idol hit big with in 1986 as “To Be a Lover,” and Van Morrison seemingly referenced directly in “Have I Told You Lately” and by the early ‘90s, became a Top 5 pop smash and wedding-reception standard for Rod Stewart. Bell’s records have been sampled by Dilated Peoples, Flo Rida, 50 Cent, Ludacris, RZA, and all sorts of rappers.
Williams’ best known co-write, “Shake a Tail Feather,” can be heard in versions by Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Mitch Ryder, the Romantics and Cheetah Girls, among countless others; his “Twine Time” went Top 20 in 1965 for Alvin Cash. Rockers from Frank Zappa to George Thorogood and funksters from Stevie Wonder to Parliament-Funkadelic have recorded other songs, and Fatboy Slim sampled “Humpin’ Bumpin’ and Thumpin’.” Yet by the ‘80s, both Bell and Williams were obscure — Bell self-releasing albums almost nobody heard; Williams strung out on crack in Chicago, sleeping in shelters and cars.
With help from Norton Records’ crate-digging, raw rock ’n’ roll exploiting co-founders and musicians Miriam Linna (she drummed for The Cramps) and Billy Miller (he sang for the rockabilly outfit The A-Bones) Williams eventually found a new audience. Since 1996, he’s released a pile of mostly tossed-off-sounding albums on roots and garage imprints like Norton, In The Red and Yep Roc, plus others overseas, atop guys from the Dirtbombs, Sadies, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Morning 40 Federation banging primal and, at least theoretically, funky riffs. His nine-song I Wanna Go Back To Detroit City is his fifth set for the generally alt-countrified Chicago label Bloodshot, and sounds typically, endearingly impromptu: gruff chants under greasy vamps, including one about not being invited into any halls of fame, one about hard times (hospitals closing down, blood on the streets, $20 bus fares), one proposing a clandestine hookup at a cemetery, and two named for the run-down but resilient Motor City. “Detroit (I’m So Glad I Stayed)” opens with Williams hilariously booming “I am a Democrat with a Republican attitude!,” then turns into glam-beat hard rock courtesy of guitarists from Detroit bands The Gories and Outrageous Cherry, embellished by loose motorbooty P-Funk-style backing harmonies. For the closing swamp-groove instrumental “Morning After Blues,” it’s possible Williams just opted to sleep in late.
Bell’s This Is Where I Live, his first album to get legitimate national distribution since 1977, winds up in swamp country as well — “Mississippi Arkansas Bridge,” about a blues club across the Big Muddy where illegal things happen, has a rhythm that’s pure polk salad; it’s followed by album closer “People Want to Go Home,” melodically and lyrically channeling Joe South’s country-soul “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home.” Like Williams’ new album, This Is Where I Live relies on a real sense of place; the title tune starts out in Memphis and talks about how this was a different world when Sam Cooke sang “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But Bell’s album — released on the 21st century revived Stax Records label, whose original sound he helped shape back in the ‘60s — feels as tasteful as Williams’ feels lecherously tasteless. Americana architect John Leventhal produced it, immaculately, and helped with writing, as did his wife Rosanne Cash and his “Walking in Memphis” co-conspirator Marc Cohn.
In a few tracks, notably the immediate-impact opening single “The Three of Me,” the easy, throaty warmth of Bell’s phrasing is a ringer for Van Morrison’s, and you wonder which of them found that sound first. “The House Always Wins” and “More Rooms” concern houses, but the former builds from a gambling metaphor, while the latter is a sermon of sorts about how marriages need more than just the bedroom to last. There are a couple pledges of devotion, and a few tough blues numbers — Bell even revives his own “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and when he intones about how without bad luck he’d have no luck at all, you marvel to think that Bell once came up with that seemingly eternal line, that it didn’t just always exist. And you also know he’s lived it — as has Andre Williams, as diametric as their aesthetics still seem. For each of these ageless embodiments of black history you hope the bad luck is far behind.