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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: AL BELL'S EARLY DAYS

As part of our Black Music Month celebration, we revisit an excerpt from our profile of industry great and Stax Records luminary Al Bell. Stay tuned for our BMM special issue, hitting desks soon.

During his early teens in North Little Rock, Ark., Alvertis Isbell knew how to relate to the girls. He recalls, “I tried basketball, but the other guys were so good, I was always sitting on the bench. I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t dance.”

Bell determined that if he couldn’t get satisfaction by playing sports, he would entertain his fellow students by playing records at his high school sock hops. “There was no budget for records at the sock hops, so I got records from the girls," he says. "I would ask them why they liked a particular track by The Platters or The Moonglows or Coasters or Nat King Cole, and they would tell me how those records made them feel."

Eventually he drew the attention of Eddie Phelan, station manager of powerhouse Little Rock radio station KOKY.

“Mr. Phelan said, ‘Al, you have an uncanny gift for gab. I want to make a disc jockey out of you,’" Bell says "Two days later, I was on the morning gospel show with another DJ teaching me the ropes while I was playing the music.” Soon after that, the station’s jazz show was added to Bell’s portfolio. During his freshman year in college, Bell was given the coveted morning-drive slot. 

“I talked my butt off, but I listened harder than I talked. I grew to appreciate the diversity of musical appreciation of the black audience. I’d program The Platters into Jimmy Reed into The Coasters into B.B. King into Sam Cooke. When I went into the clubs, I watched how people danced and interacted with each other. The music that African-Americans appreciated was music that reflected what was going on in their lives.”

In 1961, Bell moved to WLOK in Memphis, where he met Stax president and co-founder Jim Stewart and a musical force of nature named David Porter.

“David would visit the station all the time and try to get me to play Stax records, which I often did because they were so great. Then I was offered a job at WUST in Washington, D.C. Now, the big cities weren’t playing Stax’s material at that time. So David said, ‘You got to take that job, man. Go there and you can play our music!’ Next thing I knew, he was in my office with an armload of records that I took to Washington.”

Bell points to Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” as a breakthrough. “That record had been played on WLAC [the 50,000-watt station] out of Nashville for almost a year, and it hadn’t broken nationally. Then I played it and it started breaking, and that got Jim Stewart’s attention. He would send me dubs and ask my opinion. If I liked his records, I played them. Carla Thomas was attending Howard University so I played her music, which made her popular—and me even more popular.”

Bell spread the word about his favorite Stax tracks to radio giants Paul “Fat Daddy” Johnson in Baltimore and Georgie Woods in Philadelphia. But things at WUST weren’t all good.

Dan Deaner, who owned the station, told me to stop playing the music I was playing because it wasn’t sophisticated enough for the D.C. market," he relates. "I went on the air the next morning and told the audience that Dan Deaner said I shouldn’t be playing this music. I then started to play that soul music and gave out his home phone number.”

After his shift, Bell was summoned to Deaner’s office. “As I got near the station, I couldn’t find a parking space. When I finally got there, I saw this crowd of people, and in the middle was Dan Deaner, who was all of 5'1" or 5'2", with a big, long cigar in his mouth. He said, ‘Come here, Al, and sign some autographs.’ An hour later, he took me inside and said, ‘Al, I’m gonna make you assistant manager of the station, and I’m giving you a $100 raise. And I’m gonna put your picture on every bus in town.’ That showed me how powerful soul music really was.”

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