Rosanne Cash: You've just been nominated for two Grammys, you're currently on tour, and you're about to play Lincoln Center's American Songbook (February 24). It's so inspiring to see a well-traveled, deeply soulful, and mature artist like yourself receive this renewed appreciation and attention. Is there an extra sweetness to making new fans and feeling the enthusiasm of old fans at this point in your life and career?
William Bell: Yes. It's a validation of all the hard work over the course of my career to be getting accolades this late in my life.
RC: For your new fans, could you talk a little bit about your background and your musical career?
WB: My mom was musical. She sang in the church choir. I first sang in church when I was about seven years old. And even after I started performing in nightclubs, my mom insisted that I be back home early enough on Saturday night to make it to church on Sunday morning.
I was 14 the first time I sang in front of a paying audience. It was at amateur night at the Palace Theater in Memphis . . . and we won!
RC: And how about your experiences with the legendary label and studio Stax Records?
WB: Stax was a neighborhood thing. It was a converted movie theater that included a record shop, where a lot of the neighborhood kids hung out. I lived about six blocks away, on the same block as David Porter and Maurice White (of Earth, Wind & Fire).
The first time I recorded there was when I was 16 years old, when my vocal group, The Del Rios, sang background vocals on Carla Thomas's hit song "Gee Whiz."
In the early years, I remember Chips Moman, Jim Stewart, Estelle Axton, Booker T. Jones, Al Jackson, Duck Dunn, and Steve Cropper. And then later on, Otis Redding, Albert King, Pops Staples and the Staple Singers (including Mavis), David Porter, Isaac Hayes, and Al Bell.
RC: Do you remember meeting Otis Redding for the first time?
WB: I was home on furlough when Otis arrived in the Stax studio as the driver for Johnny Jenkins. After Johnny sang all the songs he had, there was some time left, and Jim Stewart asked if anyone had a song. Otis said he did, so they let him record it. It was "These Arms of Mine," and when Otis opened his mouth to sing everyone in the studio came running to find out who it was.
Even before Stax, black and white musicians played together. For example, we used to jam with Ronnie Milsap and Charlie Rich in clubs. It upset the powers that be, but we didn’t care.
RC: Were musicians aware at the time of the extraordinary part Stax played in racial integration?
WB: We were aware that we were doing something different, because we were harassed by the police when we left the studio. One time I drove Steve Cropper home and the police followed us all the way to his house, and then followed me all the way to mine.
I opened the first truly integrated club in Memphis, the Tiki Club, in 1965. It was in a black neighborhood but we welcomed everyone. I was harassed for that, too.
Even before Stax, black and white musicians played together. For example, we used to jam with Ronnie Milsap and Charlie Rich in clubs. It upset the powers that be, but we didn't care.
RC: How did you come to record your first hit, "You Don't Miss Your Water"?
WB: I wrote it in New York City, in a hotel near Times Square, while I was touring with the Phineas Newborn band. Chips Moman approached me about a solo project because half of The Del Rios had been drafted. So I pulled that song out of my bag, and the rest is history.
RC: Who were your most important musical influences?
WB: Sam Cooke, Phineas Newborn Sr. and Jr., and Nat Cole.
RC: As a singer, I have tremendous respect and admiration for how beautiful and intact your voice is, at the age of 77. You still hit all those notes, and your flexibility is inspiring! Any secrets or hints you can pass along?
WB: Live healthy and moderately, and keep your chops up!
Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash has released 15 critically acclaimed albums and received four Grammy Awards. She has also written four books, including the best-selling memoir Composed. Visit www.rosannecash.com for more information, including upcoming tour dates.