Like Detroit’s Motown, Stax Records in Memphis was a family. While Motown was smooth, Stax was gritty. And being a biracial label in the south presented challenges.

William Bell was there in 1961. He wrote “Born Under A Bad Sign” with Booker T. Jones at Stax who told The New York Times in 2016: “He was an innovator as a singer. He set the standard for Percy Sledge and all who sang with heart, soul, and feeling.”  His “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a 1961 Stax hit and one of the quintessential soul recordings to emerge from the Memphis scene. At 83, he has just released his 15th Studio Album, One Day Closer To Home, via his Wilbe Records.

“We were like family inside the confines of Stax. When we came out, we caught flak, but inside we didn’t care which race or religion or what sexual thing you were. We just wanted you to be creative and have some (licks) that we could exploit!”

“I worked at a club on Hernando called The Flamingo Room, and Elvis used to come by there. He would visit the churches and come by the Flamingo Room to watch us perform and everything. So, we all knew each other.

“Sam (Philips at Sun Records in Memphis) was forerunner, and then Jim (Stewart at Stax) followed up on that, and people like Rufus Thomas were also over on Sun Records for a while, and we were all kind of a small but tight knit unit of people from the same neighborhood. I was from South Memphis. Rufus was from South Memphis. He was a deejay on the only black station, the first ever, WDIA. So, we all knew each other and had families and such, and so it just worked out great.

“Of course, it was during the times of staunch segregation, but we didn’t care. We just moved along inside the confines of the music buildings and everything. We just got along great, and it was that way for everybody, the rockabilly players and the blues singers, because we heard everything on the radio. I heard country, and I heard gospel and blues and jazz and all on the same stations during the day.

“But you know, you learn to adapt, and you realize we were all working together, and I was fortunate enough to start at an early age. We were just totally melded together from clerical people to the musicians, singers, everybody, and we didn’t care. We didn’t even look at color inside those confines.

“We were just really grass roots. Most of the artists came right out of church and into the secular music and just like Sam (Cooke) did, we realized that the same people that worked hard all week, went to the clubs on Saturday night and went to church on Sunday mornings.

“Those same people bought our music. It was like the grass roots level of feeling that we projected because it was all stemming from the church, and we laid the blues stuff we’d heard from the masses like B.B. and Bobby and Jr. Parker and all of those guys, and Ike and Tina. So, it just melted all together. We didn’t realize that we were creating anything. We just did what we felt was natural that we had been exposed to and everything all of our lives.”

“When I started working with Rufus Thomas, I was 14. Like I say, he was a deejay on WDIA, but they had a theater on Beale St. that was about a block around the corner from the club I worked at called Hernando’s. So, they had a Wednesday talent contest and working at the club I had a doo wop group called the Del Rios.

“We would work at the club and during the intermission I would always run around to the theater because everybody knew me. They would let me in, wrap me up in a curtain because they had what they called shake dances at that time, and the scantily clad women. My first record as the Del Rios. So, I wasn’t supposed to be there. Rufus was the M.C. He had a guy with him called Bones. So, it was Rufus and Bones. He was an M.C. and comedian, and they would do a little dance, singing, and comedy skit like Pigmeat Markham and Baby Seals.

“They would always let me in, and I could watch the show and wrap up in the curtain. So, Rufus and I got to know each other. I knew his son Marvel and his daughter Carla. My group did the backup work for “Gee Wiz” for Carla Thomas.

“When we went out as the Stax Review in the states here, we had a mixed group with the MGs and the horn section with Wade and Anderson and all of the group, they’re all mixed up, and we would travel in one bus most of the time, and the horns and the band and maybe in two or three artists. Sometimes we’d stop at a restaurant, and they wouldn’t serve us, or we had to go around the back and categorically, every artist, Steve (Cropper), Duck (Dunn) – they all said, ‘Well, if they can’t eat here, we all won’t eat here.’ We all leave and go somewhere else, and the same thing with the clubs and the status and stuff that we worked.

Photo courtesy of Stax Records

“Sometimes black clubs would be hostile to white musicians and everything and we’d come to say, ‘Hey, man, chill out. You gotta come through us to get to them. You know, we’re family.’ So, they would, and then vice versa. We had to have two different sets, one for the early sets in the afternoon for the blacks, and then later on at 8 o’clock at night for the whites, but we finally started playing on those tours not doing it anymore. We were going to do one set, one show for everybody. So, they would put the blacks upstairs, the whites downstairs, but it was a start.

“And it made a difference. A lot of time we caught flak, and we ploughed along. We’d see crosses burning sometimes in the south. So, it was a lot of stuff that we went through as a unit that would completely come together as a mobile family at Stax, and we just never really got into the color thing or the prejudicial thing. Like Steve said, we didn’t care. But when you come out of Stax sometimes the police would sit outside and wait until we came out and try to harass us and tailgate us all the way home and stuff like that.”

“I feel very fortunate. I tell people all the time, I say, I scratch my own itch. So, I feel very fortunate to have good health and my good frame of mind, coming from out of the projects myself – and David Porter, Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire. We were all neighbors from across the street and driveways together there.

“We all came out of the same area, and about six blocks from where the Stax building was. South McLamore. I feel very humble, and I’ve performed for three presidents, two in the United States: President Bush Sr. and President Obama – and then in Africa, President Tubman. So, I’ve performed for three presidents, and I’m still standing. The man upstairs is very kind to me.

“One time in my career we traveled for 90 days at a time on one-nighters in buses and cars and for that long to travel that long and still be healthy and not have any injury or something, it’s amazing. I’m amazed at it ’cause I think of some of the things we did and nights we traveled all night up and down the highways, sometimes two-lane highways in the fog.