William Bell was one of the first young men from South Memphis to walk over and investigate the Stax Records studios as they were being built in the old Capitol Theatre in South Memphis. Although perhaps never as big a star as Isaac Hayes or Otis Redding, Bell is deserving of acclaim for his success as a songwriter, as a performing artist and as the owner of his own independent record label, Wilbe Records. He generally is the last performer to appear at each year’s Soulsville Street Festival in South Memphis, and frequently performs with the Bo-Keys in various locations. William Bell is truly a living legend of Memphis music.
The last Saturday of April in Memphis is always one of the biggest days of the year for festivals and events, including the On Location: Memphis International Film and Music Festival, the Southern Hot Wing Festival, the Vollentine Evergreen Art Walk, and the Stax to the Max Soulsville Street Festival. The latter, which is free, is an annual outdoor party and concert, featuring many of the best living veterans of Stax, usually including William Bell, John Gary Williams and the Mad Lads, the Temprees and the Memphis revivalist band the Bo-Keys. Held on the back parking lot of the Stax Museum and the Stax Academy, crowds can run into the thousands.
After an early morning breakfast at the Magnolia Cafe, I parked my car downtown and set out walking across the bridge to Austin’s Butler Park, where there was an afternoon-long concert being held of Memphis music, scheduled to coincide with the film Take Me To The River, which was screened several times at South By Southwest this year. Despite the threat of rain, there was a decent crowd at the outdoor stage, and although rain started several times during the afternoon, it never continued long enough to run people off, and the day ended with the sun coming out. After an hour of so of DJ mixing from a really cool DJ, the show opened with a performance from the Hi Rhythm Section, and then a number of musicians featured in the film appeared, including Bobby Rush, Frayser Boy, Al Kapone, William Bell, Booker T. Jones, Charlie Musselwhite, Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson, Otis Clay, Iffy, Miscelllaneous Bosslife and Syl Johnson. Perhaps the high point of the day was when Snoop Doggy Dogg appeared without warning to join William Bell in a version of the classic “I Forgot To Be Your Lover.” It was actually a great day for Memphis and for Austin as well.
After a fairly late breakfast at Magnolia Cafe, I headed over to the Austin Convention Center to meet my friend Travis McFetridge, who had an afternoon panel. I was torn, because I wanted to see his panel, but I also wanted to attend the Memphis Music panel which Al Kapone was on, so I ended up going to the second one. This panel, held in conjunction with the Martin Shore film Take Me To The River, featured Al Kapone, Boo Mitchell, Cody Dickinson, Booker T. Jones, Frayser Boy, William Bell and Al Bell, and was sponsored by the Memphis Music Foundation. MY homeboy Miscellaneous was not on the panel, but was in the audience. Noted author Robert Gordon was the moderator.
Memphis soul revivalists The Bo-Keys have played a huge role in the rebirth of interest in the classic Memphis sound, and they have frequently provided the backing for Memphis soul great William Bell, so it was not at all surprising that Bell was tapped to perform at the Recording Academy celebration. He performed several of his biggest hits, including “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”, probably his biggest hit ever.
One of the better-kept secrets in Memphis is the Soulsville Street Festival, also known as Stax to the Max, a celebration of the South Memphis neighborhood around Stax and the legacy of great music that came from it.
The stage set up on the back parking lot behind the museum and Stax Music Academy featured a series of performances from local and out-of-town school groups, as well as former Stax artists The Astors, The Temprees, The Mad Lads and William Bell. In addition there were children’s crafts and recreational activities and food vendors, and a crowd of several hundred turned out on Sunday, after the event was postponed from Saturday due to rain.