Friday, October 11, 2019

"Soul Sanctuary" - Interview with Al Bell

Photo courtesy of Reed Bunzel, Al Bell Presents, LLC. 

You could say Al Bell and Prince had a meaningful relationship before they even met. As the former chairman and owner of iconic Memphis soul label, Stax Records, Bell was integral in the development of music that influenced the Minneapolis-born superstar.

Also specializing in funk, gospel and blues, Stax propelled the careers of acts like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Bar-Kays, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes and the Staples Singers. The latter group achieved its first No. 1 hit with "I'll Take You There," written by Bell. Nearly 20 years later, Prince would help write and produce two albums for singer Mavis Staples.

But the special connection between Prince and Bell was mutual.

"I can't say this about a lot of artists, but the first time I met Prince was spiritually, and it was on 'Purple Rain,'" Bell said. "I tuned into this brother's soul. ... You talk about being on one accord? Prince and Al Bell."

As a visionary, Bell said he relies on his ability to hear and feel what artists are attempting to manifest through their music. Though he'd heard Prince's earlier music, "Purple Rain" caught Bell's attention.

"I felt the spirit in him and the emotions that were coming from him as he sang that song," Bell said. "It was like, 'I know this guy.'"

Ten years after the release of "Purple Rain," Bell would assist Prince as he was trying to assert himself as an independent artist, and encourage musicians, particularly black musicians, to retain ownership of their master recordings. Bell helped turn Prince's 1994 song, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," into an international hit, which further spurred Prince to continue on his path to complete freedom from Warner Bros.

But before Bell played that crucial role in Prince's career, the Purple One recruited him to co-produce Mavis Staples' 1989 album, Time Waits for No One. 


"Because he had studied 'I'll Take You There' and the songs that I had produced, he knew me as a producer," Bell said.

But instead of working in the studio together, Prince sent demos from Paisley Park in Minneapolis to Bell, who was at Ardent Studios in Memphis. The two men would discuss edits over the phone.

"It was amazing," Bell said. "I never talked to someone by phone who could discuss the details without it being filled with detail-itis."

But what really struck Bell was Prince's composition style on the demos.

"He would sing the song and say, 'Horns,' and then hum out the horn parts and go right back to the lyrics," Bell said. "[He'd say,] 'Background,' and then do the background part and go back to the lyrics while he was playing his guitar. He would arrange it as it came out of his head."

Bell also noticed Prince would send over multiple guitar tracks for one song.

"I would say to him, 'I hear you're doing several different guitar tracks. Which one are you going to use?'" Bell said, laughing at the memory. "He said, 'Oh, I'm going to use the one that's supposed to be used and we'll know that when we get it finished.' ... He was a visionary."

By the early '90s, Bell had moved on from working with major labels; he'd followed up his stint at Stax with a position as president of Motown Records Group. He founded an independent label, Bellmark Records, in 1992.

In March 1993, Bellmark distributed the double-platinum song "Dazzey Duks" by hip-hop duo, Duice. Then, two months later, the company released Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" by Atlanta-based duo Tag Team. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

"These guys had shopped that record throughout the industry and nobody would take it," Bell said. "Even my staff was saying, 'Man, these guys are whack.' I didn't know what 'whack' was. ... [I said,] 'All I know is this is a hit record.'"


As Bellmark's success was ramping up, Prince's relationship with Warner Bros. was crumbling. Prince argued that he should be able to own the rights to his music, and dictate the pace at which it was released. Eventually, Prince changed his name to the Love Symbol to be able to control future output.

But Prince did approach Warner Bros. about releasing "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."

"They told him that he had over-saturated the marketplace [and] that the song was dated," Bell said. "He asked them, 'Well, can I release it as a single myself?' And they laughed and said, 'Yes, go ahead.'"

At the time, Bell was mentoring Kerry Gordy, the son of Motown mogul Berry Gordy, and former Vice President of Prince's Paisley Park Records, which Warner shuttered in 1994. Gordy encouraged Prince to ask Bell about releasing the song.

"Prince called and said, 'Al, can you release a single on me and market it and turn it into a hit?'" Bell said. "I said, 'No, Prince, I can't--unless you send me a hit first.' He laughed."

The next morning, Prince sent over "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Bell said he played it nonstop in his office for 30 minutes, as his staff members gathered outside to hear it through the walls.

Bell was impressed with Prince's sincere performance, and the song's message to women.

"I said, 'I don't see how these people at Warner Bros. could miss this,'" Bell said. "'This is a masterpiece.'"

Bell agreed to release the song--under Prince's symbol moniker--in partnership with Prince's NPG Records. But before signing the agreement with Prince's lawyers, he called Warner Bros. Chairman/CEO Mo Ostin to confirm that Prince had permission to release the song.

"I don't think I ever told [Prince]," said Bell, who wanted to be respectful of Ostin, whom he considered a peer. "[Ostin] said, 'I've authorized him to do that, no problem. But does he have that girl with him?'"

Bell assured Ostin that Prince was releasing a solo song and never asked whom Ostin was referencing. But he suspects it was Marvin Gaye's daughter, Nona, who was working on projects with Prince.

"I think she had gotten their attention at Warner Bros.," Bell said.

The song was released on February 24, 1994. An EP, The Beautiful Experience, followed in May. Initially, Bell faced resistance from primary and secondary radio markets. The program directors admitted they were overwhelmed by Prince releases. In response, Bell decided to break the song in smaller, tertiary markets.

"I told my staff, 'We're going to go into 'I Ain't Never Heard of It, Louisiana,' and treat it like New York City because this is a hit record.'"

"The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" CD single. Photo by Phil Simms.

The process gave Bell a sense of déjà vu. Back during his Stax days in the '60s and '70s, he had to navigate a racist system, which forced him into smaller markets.

"We didn't have but a few stations that would play the product," he explained. "And then you had retailers that wouldn't stock black product, and especially the kind of product that we had at Stax. And what I'd have to do in many instances was let them have the product on consignment, persuading them, 'OK, when you sell through, then pay me what you sold.'"

There were also some black radio stations that would not play Stax music.

"They didn't want the blues," Bell said of some black consumers. "It reminded them too much of slavery. ... And here we were, just a few inches away from what they considered blues music. So it was 'Bama' music or 'too southern.'"

Bell said he even had trouble getting Otis Redding's music played on the top black radio station in Atlanta.

"I was able to take advantage of those experiences and all of those pains and be able to apply it differently with Prince," he added.

His strategy with "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" paid off. The tertiary markets were appreciative and excited about the song. Unable to ignore the word-of-mouth buzz, the primary and secondary radio stations began calling Bellmark.

According to Bell, they'd ask, "Do you guys have a record called 'The Most Beautiful Girl in the World' by Prince? Why haven't you sent us a copy of it?"

As Bell worked the single, Prince shot a video, which he was eager to release. But Bell insisted they wait until the song advanced on the Billboard charts.

"He wouldn't argue, but he would call back and say, 'Is it time now?'" Bell said, laughing.


Eventually, the video was released, and the song peaked at No. 3 in the U.S. And it became Prince's first and only No. 1 hit in the U.K. It was certified gold, selling 700,000 copies.

"It was hard work, but it was enjoyable," Bell said. "And I must tell you, I learned more about marketing recorded music and working with radio and retail during that period of time than I have throughout my entire career."

Bell said Prince's name change--the media was calling him "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince" at the time--and his appearances with "slave" on his face only added to the popularity of the song. And he personally called Prince by his birth name or "my brother."

Marketing aside, Bell understood and supported Prince's concerns.

"He had all the right in the world to feel the way that he felt and to take the positions that he was taking," Bell said. "The artists and producers were, at best, treated as indentured servants and, at worse, slaves [at major labels]."

The success of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" also boosted Bellmark and Bell's confidence.

"It gave me another burst of, not only energy, but conviction that I did know something about what I was doing," Bell said. "It let me know for certain, 'You're not crazy. It's just that this racism that you're fighting out here is real.'"

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As for Prince, Bell knew the artist was ready to focus on building up NPG Records.

"He wanted to see different kinds of music and artists than these companies were allowing to be released in the marketplace," Bell said. "He didn't think small."

Although they never worked together again, other people would share what Prince was saying about Bell. These are conversations Bell recounts with pride. For example, Prince acknowledged the trials Bell experienced at Stax, which had, coincidentally, lost its ownership of its catalog to Atlantic Records--and its parent company, Warner Music Group--in the 1960s. Though Bell built Stax back up as an independent label in the '70s, it eventually went bankrupt.

"Prince said, 'That man was brutally assassinated by our industry,'" Bell heard someone say. "And it's amazing for him to be still alive [in this business]."

On another occasion, journalist Tavis Smiley called Bell to share Prince's words about "Wattstax," the famous 1972 concert and subsequent film released in commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles.

"It was a phenomenon that America hasn't really given you credit for--putting together and pulling off 'Wattstax," Smiley told him. "Prince said that's one of the greatest things he's ever seen. ... I just thought you'd appreciate hearing [that]."


These days, Bell, 79, is the CEO and chairman of Al Bell Presents, LLC. He has returned to his home in Arkansas, where he is a visiting professor at the University of Arkansas. He is also working to build a music ecosystem in the northwestern part of the state, which has financial resources--major companies like Walmart and Tyson Foods have headquarters there--and ambitious performers.

"There's so much more to be done in this business," he said. "The authentic music that's indigenous to America is the music that comes from the African Americans. ... I'm about preserving and perpetuating that music."

In recent years, the legacy of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" has been muddied by allegations that Prince plagiarized the song from Italian artists Bruno Bergonzi and Michele Vicino. Currently, the Prince estate is being sued by, ironically, Warner Chappell Italy.

Bell said he is unaware of the details of the allegations, but offered a couple perspectives.

"[Musicians are] trying to figure out another way to make another nickel or a dime or a penny to stay in business, or just to make some money for their livelihood," he said. "[And] Prince, like any other successful artist out here, or any other progressive human being, was influenced by somebody. Somebody influenced you, whether you were consciously aware of it [or not]. ... So I don't know."

For Bell, there is no question about the legacy of Prince, whom he calls brilliant, and a "good guy."

"I don't know if you could place Prince in a genre of music," he said. "Maybe you can say inspirational because it was a lot of inspiring music, and some of it you'd have to think about twice to really get it, or you'd get it subconsciously."

“I really don’t like categories, but the only thing I can think of [to describe my music] is inspirational." - Prince to Larry King, 1999

It's high praise coming from Bell, a Grammy Trustees Award recipient, who has worked with countless legendary artists.

"[Prince] is one of our rarest spiritual beings performing the musical art form that I've ever seen or heard," he said.


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