Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

William Bell  ~ Photo by Ginnette Callaway
William Bell ~ Photo by Ginnette Callaway
10/17/2017

Grammy winner William Bell visits Portland Wednesday as part of the Take Me to the River tour

By SCOTT CUNNINGHAM // Tour is a celebration of the rich heritage of classic soul and rhythm & blues sounds originating from Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.

In his spoken intro to the song I Can't Turn You Loose, Elwood Blues of the Blues Brothers says, "By the year 2006 the music known today as the blues will exist only in the classical records department in your local public library."

As I was speaking with classic soul icon William Bell on Monday, that quote came to mind along with the thought that Elwood could just as easily have been talking about classic soul and R&B. Fortunately, Bell is part of a group of artists who are reintroducing the world to the classic vibe of the original soul sound.

Bell is currently on the road as part of the Take Me to the River: Memphis Soul and Rhythm & Blues Revue tour that makes a Portland stop on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Legends Bobby Rush and Charlie Musselwhite will join Bell as well as Frayser Boy, the Hi Rhythm Section, and several alumni of the Stax Academy.

The tour is an outgrowth of the 2014 documentary "Take Me to the River" that brought together multiple generations of Mississippi Delta musicians for a one-of-a-kind look at the origins and evolution of music tied to Memphis and the Delta.

Bell and Rush are both experiencing a career resurgence and each took home Grammy's this year for their most recent albums. Rush won in the Best Traditional Blues Album category, while Bell snagged the award for Best Americana Album for "This is Where I Live".

"I was totally surprised, but elated over it after all these years because it was kind of like a confirmation of all of the hard work," Bell told me by phone from his Atlanta area home. "For your peers to recognize what you're doing, that's very special."

Bell's album is every bit as powerful as his earlier work, but in a more nuanced way, which isn't surprising considering he is now 78.

"It's not that hot passionate thing that you had at 18 or 20 years old. It's more reflective and refined now, looking back and reflecting."

Getting classic soul music back into the public's consciousness is a major goal of Bell's and was a driving force in the creation of the Stax Academy, which teaches children the origins of soul music and how to create original music within that framework.

"If we want to survive we've got to have someone to pick up the mantle and the torch and keep it going," Bell explains.

Importantly, the music industry itself has taken notice as artists like Bell, Don Bryant, and the recently deceased Charles Bradley have found commercial success with the music of their younger days.

"I think (winning the Grammy) opened some eyes in the industry. I would hope so. They are asking for authentic songs and melodies and real music now instead of sampling a lot of stuff."

If the reaction of younger fans is any indication, Bell has a lot of reasons to be hopeful that soul music will live on. As we talked, I mentioned the response I see from introducing people in their 20's to the music and how they are completely mesmerized by the sound.

On hearing this, he shared a recent experience with a new fan in her early teens who approached him after viewing the documentary.

"I thought she was going to faint, because it moved her. The music and the movie moved her that much. I was just amazed that she was that emotionally caught up with me as an artist and when I took a picture with her she burst out in tears again. It was just amazing that she was that caught up in the music and in that era and what we did."

I then asked him to explain what makes classic soul so emotionally powerful that it elicits such reactions.

"You've got to be true to your own self and your own feelings," he said.

"It's important to find a song that you believe in, that you can put yourself into a situation. It's similar to acting in you take on a role and if you're going to be that character, then you need to learn or develop that character and get the emotional range of that character. And that's what I do with a song, the same thing."

ON TOUR: William Bell will be performing at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland on Wednesday, Oct. 18, as part of the Take Me to the River tour. Bobby Rush, Charlie Musselwhite, Frayser Boy, Al Kapone, and others are also part of the event. Show at 7:30PM. Tickets are still available.

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