Al Bell's story is one of redemption.
The Brinkley, Ark., native got his start in the music business as a Little Rock radio DJ while he was still in high school. After graduating from college, he moved to Memphis, where in 1965 he joined the promotions department of Stax Records, home to soul pioneers like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Sam & Dave.
By 1968, Bell was head of the legendary label. But his career was tarnished when the label was forced into bankruptcy in 1975 and he was indicted for alleged bank fraud. Acquitted in 1976, Bell left Memphis and soldiered on through a stint as president of Motown Records and then founded Bellmark Records, which scored a No. 2 hit in 1993 with Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" and distributed the 1994 Prince single "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."
In 2009, Bell's circuitous journey brought him back to Tennessee when he was appointed chairman of the Memphis Music Foundation (MMF). And on Feb. 12, Bell-along with Blue Note president/CEO Bruce Lundvall and the late classical music producer Wilma Cozart Fine-will receive the Recording Academy's 2011 Trustees Award.
1 What does receiving this award mean to you?
After all that I've experienced and suffered in this business, I'm truly honored. This is the industry saying I've made a contribution and it's appreciated. Being bitter is not my nature. All these years, I've kept inside my feelings over what happened in Memphis. But God's spirit put me in a position to walk through it all. I forgave immediately but was still concerned because I didn't want others to think I'm a thief. Now I understand what Dr. Martin Luther King meant by "free at last."
2 You've been charged with revitalizing the city's music legacy. How do you plan to accomplish that goal?
The first thing I saw that needed to be done was to shine more light on the music legacy. Tourists go there today because of investments made yesterday in artists like Elvis Presley, Al Green and Isaac Hayes and labels like Sun, Hi and Stax. Graceland is here; the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Rock 'n' Soul Museum. As is the Memphis Music Resource Center, a free facility operated by the MMF where musicians can learn about the music business while actively participating in the industry. We need to make the local business and financial communities more familiar and excited about the music industry once again and then take that to a national level. We're also looking to bring more conferences, conventions and other events here.
It's time once again to grow our industry in Memphis, which will cause all other associated industries-hotels, restaurants, etc.-to also grow. Then the next mission is to lead these business and financial leaders toward investing in the career development of the next generation of rare, unique performers like a Presley and Green, who are different from anyone else. That's the true asset of the Memphis music industry. And that's what influenced me to return to Memphis and take on this responsibility.
3 Are you still involved with Stax Records now that it's a subsidiary of Concord Music?
I'm not involved directly with the label. But I've been engaged in conversations with key management there and [Concord chairman] Norman Lear about exploring ways to highlight the label and its catalog. I don't know yet what will come out of those conversations. But something positive will because I see Stax music and its artists growing in popularity as opposed to diminishing.
4 What is one of your favorite Stax memories?
The Wattstax music festival in 1972. People laughed when I came out to rent the L.A. Coliseum. I heard comments like, "You're going to do what?" and "Where's your money, colored boy?" After we did our promoting and officials realized there might be a lot of people coming, they began trying to break the contract. But it was ironclad except for one clause: the turf. We were told we couldn't have the event if the turf was damaged because the Rams were going to play the next day. So two to three weeks before the concert, we bought insurance for the turf.
After the Watts riots, any time one or two black people got together, white America figured there was going to be a problem. But everything turned out OK. It was a joyful, beautiful moment to see 112,000 of our people-from gang members sitting side by side to multiple generations of families-having a great time.
5 How is your online music channel, AlBellPresents.com, coming along?
I'm still playing soul music from the 1940s to the present. However, I'm in the process of redefining the channel and getting ready to launch phase two shortly.
6 The word "retirement" doesn't seem to exist in your vocabulary.
I don't even know what that means because I'm just getting started. I'm 70 years young going on 35. I believe we're at the greatest time in our industry; it's still alive. We just have to put on new thinking caps, take advantage of opportunities and not walk away from the fundamentals.