Editor’s note: Al Bell is one of the 2015 inductees into the UA Walton College of Business Hall of Fame, which will be held February 13, 2015. His profile appears in the latest magazine edition of Talk Business & Politics, which you can read here.
When Al Bell learned that he had been named to the 2015 class of the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, the longtime music industry executive says that he was literally overwhelmed at being honored with the “giants” of Arkansas business and industry.
“I must tell you that it is quite humbling,” said Bell, the legendary Stax Records executive largely responsible for the Memphis sound that still influences rhythm and blues, pop, rap and soul music today. “I don’t know if I can get a greater honor – it brought me to tears to be recognized at home.”
Born Alvertis Isbell in Brinkley on March 15, 1940, Bell will be inducted into the state’s Business Hall of Fame on Feb. 13, 2015. Now 74, Bell’s long list of lifetime honors include The Trustee’s Award at the Grammy Awards, the W.C. Handy Lifetime Achievement Award, Arthur A. Fletcher Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the National Award of Achievement from the U.S. Department of Commerce. He was also inducted into The Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2002.
Yet, the influential music and entertainment executive says getting a seat at the table alongside Arkansas business heroes he has admired his entire life will be the crowning achievement of his lifelong career.
“To be recognized and listed amongst the giants that I have always admired and held in awe is quite an honor,” Bell said. “It says to me that someone had an appreciation for the contributions I have made as a business person while functioning in the music industry and other businesses.”
As a member of the 2015 class, Bell will join former Ebony magazine publisher John Johnson and Thelma L. Joshua and the late Ernest P. (Josh) Joshua, Sr., as the only other African-American honorees in the Arkansas Hall. Johnson, former CEO and chairman of Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co., was inducted with the 2001 class. The Joshuas, who founded J.M. Products, one of the largest manufacturers of ethnic hair-care products in the U.S., were inducted as part of the 2007 class.
THE SOUL MAN & THE BILLIONAIRE
The affable 6-foot-4-inch Bell can tell story after story about a career that gave America some of the most endearing soul classics in modern music history. But the most interesting and engaging part of a recent hour-long interview were colorful anecdotes about the soul man’s special relationship with Arkansas governor and billionaire philanthropist, the late Winthrop A. Rockefeller.
Bell said Rockefeller served as his very first mentor not long after the New York business and political icon moved his family to the foothills of Arkansas in 1953. Bell said Rockefeller, who was extremely popular with the African-American community as the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, took notice of him when he was only 16 years old while working at his father’s local grocery store in North Little Rock at the corner of Broadway and Hazel streets.
Bell said many of the business fundamentals and sophisticated risk-taking tactics he deployed as a young businessman in the recording and music industry were largely gleaned from his interactions with the East Coast industrialist. “He was my godfather and taught me business concepts and strategies that are still with me today,” he said.
One of Bell’s earliest risk-taking moves as a 30-something Stax executive occurred a few years before Rockefeller’s death in 1973. At the time, one of the cardinal rules in the music industry was that the average time for a single on an album for a black artist was only two minutes and 30 seconds. “It could never be longer than three minutes,” Bell recalled.
The other industry standard for black music artists was that there had to be at least 10 songs on an album, a long-lived urban tradition for the 12-inch LP (long-play) records that ushered in the golden era for American soul and R&B during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
But Bell said he decided to break the mold when he began working on a long-play album for a Memphis soul artist with a smooth and sensual baritone voice named Isaac Hayes. Called “Hot Buttered Soul,” the 1969 release is remembered today as a landmark classic in soul music. The soul masterpiece gave Hayes unusual creative license and included a lavish and expensive production with rich rhythm section arrangements and instrumental accompaniments by the Detroit Philharmonic Orchestra.
Side one on the album included a 12-minute cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic, “Walk On By.” The other song, “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” was an up-tempo funk-inspired jam session with voice-mimicking guitar riffs and rolling piano solos that lasted more than nine minutes.
Side two of the album included the shortest and longest songs on the album. The first song, “One Woman,” focused on the pangs of infidelity and betrayal in love. But the single that Bell says broke every rule in the music industry was an extended 18-minute reinterpretation of Jimmy Webb’s country music hit, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” The song famously begins with an eight-minute spoken introduction with a very low-sounding musical mix that builds to a climax of horns, strings, organs and vocals.
The Bell-Hayes produced classic also includes innovative engineering techniques that are still used in recording studios today. All four of Hayes’ songs from the album are still often sampled by contemporary urban artists, and remain as staples on “old school” urban radio stations across the U.S., as well as soul music-listening channels on cable TV and satellite radio.
Hayes’ second album ended up selling well over 1 million copies, a rarity at the time for black artists outside of Motown. “That [production] changed the dynamics of the industry … as it related to albums of African-Americans and album sales in general,” Bell evoked. “We did something that never had been done before in the industry … and that kind of [risk-taking] became a trademark of Stax Records.”
He added: “And it was some of the business concepts that I had learned from Mr. Rockefeller to have the audacity to take chances, and the guts to spend the money that at the time was unheard of for a black artist.”
BELL’S STAX SOUL MUSIC LEGACY LIVES ON
Under Bell’s helm, from 1965 until the company was forced into involuntary bankruptcy in 1975, the Arkansas recording executive helped build Stax Records into one of the most influential record labels in the world, working with artists such as Hayes, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, the Emotions, Johnnie Taylor, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, the Bar Kays, Richard Pryor and a host of others.
Bell also produced and wrote such hits as the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” At its height in the 1970s, the Memphis record label was the second-largest African-American-owned business in the U.S.
Founded by two white business owners, Memphis native Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, Stax began as a small, racially-integrated music studio. After Redding, its biggest star, died in 1967, and the severance of the label’s distribution deal with Atlantic Records in 1968, Stax was reorganized with Bell as chairman and the driving force behind the independent label.
After the demise of Stax, Bell went on to serve as president of Motown Records Group, and later started his own Bellmark Records label, releasing Prince’s, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” and Tag Team’s Platinum hit “Whoomp (There It is).” Stax is also remembered for having the sexiest and coolest album covers, many of which are still collectibles today.
Besides his relationship with Rockefeller, Bell says his greatest influence in life and business was his father, Albert Bell, who moved his family from Brinkley to North Little Rock in 1945. The younger Bell said his father first put him to work in his local Isbell’s Grocery, but also operated a landscape business that opened up the door for the younger Bell to meet Rockefeller and develop the close relationship that changed his life.
In building Stax into one of the nation’s most successful independent record labels, Bell said he learned the industry-changing, guerilla-style marketing and distribution tactics at Stax by watching how beverage vendors interacted with his father and other local store owners.
“At my father’s grocery store, I saw how Pepsi, Coke and beer distributors sold their products on consignment going from store to store, and then adjusting their inventories based on sales at each location,” he said.
Bell said he then took those same lessons and became familiar with every wholesale distributor and local record store owner who sold Stax records to urban and soul music lovers across the U.S.
“They know what people wanted better than these large distribution companies owned by publicly held companies who believed in throwing a piece of product on the wall and hoping it sticks,” said the longtime recording executive. “I took that into business, period, and frankly, I still believe in that today.”
There were other life lessons the Arkansas music legend learned during his colorful career that spanned more than a half century. Many occurred when he crossed paths with other humble American entrepreneurs and business people like Rockefeller who influenced him along the way – from legendary Motown executive Berry Gordy to Fedex Founder and Chairman Fred Smith of Memphis.
But the bottom line to Bell’s business successes was always making sure everyone involved in any business enterprise was rewarded for their work – whether the business was a local record shop, an entrepreneur’s own personal vision, or a multinational publicly held company. “If the business is enjoyable and profitable for everyone involved, then it will be a success,” Bell said of his personal business philosophy.
Bell lives in North Little Rock with wife, Lydia, and continues to be involved in the music industry today, traveling across the U.S. and Europe to work with independent music artists and producers. He also maintains an online music website and radio show at AlBellPresents.com.
And now, upon entering the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, Bell said he is simply overjoyed to be a part of the 2015 class. He said he looks forward to joining great people and businessmen like the first class of honorees in 1999, which included Arkansas business icons Sam Walton, Charles Murphy, William Dillard and Jack Stephens.
“I’m appreciative of American capitalism, including the spectacular ups and downs that I’ve had. That is what makes us great as a country – capitalism. God knows I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said the former Little Rock disc jockey.
And God also knows that America is better off for the wonderful music that the gifted Al Bell dreamed up in a Memphis recording studio that became known as Soulsville U.S.A.