NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — When you talk about legendary music producer and Arkansas native Al Bell, you have to talk about Stax Records.
Founded in 1957, the record label was synonymous with Southern soul music.
But it wasn't until the early 60s that Bell found himself at the studio during his time in Memphis. “Dave Porter, one of the writers there, came by the radio station and asked me to stop by the studio,” Bell said.
Loving the music the label was producing, he jumped at the opportunity to visit and he was welcomed by an unexpected sight.
“I look back in the studio and I see two white guys and two black guys in there playing music,” Bell said. “I see Al Jackson on drums, black. Steve Cropper on guitar, white, Donald Dunn, white, and Booker T. on the keys. The Hammond B3 Organ, black.”
After that, Bell knew Stax was where he belonged.
He brought with him some experience from launching two of his own labels, as well as an ear for music and a heart for people. And while he was there, he met Isaac Hayes and produced an album that would change the industry.
“With the album Hot Buttered Soul, we disrupted the industry as it relates to album sales of blacks at that time and album sales period,” Bell said.
He also got the chance to work with other legendary R&B artists.
“Otis Redding was the launching pad for Stax,” Bell recalled. And helped several Arkansas artists, like Johnnie Taylor, during their career.
“Johnnie Taylor was a dear, personal friend of mine,” Bell said. “Of the all the artists, all of them were loyal. But he was the most loyal and the one who was most proud to be on the label.”
But one of the biggest moments in his career came at a time of hardship.
In 1971, Bell made his way back to North Little Rock to bury his brother, who was shot to death. “I was here for four or five days doing nothing but looking for his murder,” Bell admitted.
But he found something else. After the funeral, Bell sat on an old school bus that was in his father's backyard and started to reflect. “I started crying. All I could do was cry,” Bell said. “And then I heard, ‘bum bum bum bum,’ in my head.”
It was the bass line of a song, and then he heard lyrics.
“I know a place where ain’t nobody cryin’, ain’t nobody worried, ain’t no smiling faces lyin’ to races, I’ll take you there,” Bell said. Bell wrote and produced the Staple Singers hit, "I'll Take You There."
“I was shocked,” Bell said. “That's a record we released into the market place and they've been playing from then until now.”
Then in 1975, Stax went bankrupt and Bell moved on. He would go on to work with Berry Gordy at Motown Records, and eventually launched Bellmark Records, where he helped create hits like "Whoomp! There It Is," and connected with music royalty.
“Prince called and said, ‘Al can you market a hit for me?’” Bell remembered. “I said, ‘I can't market a hit unless you bring me a hit.’” With his unique style of marketing and promotion, Bell gave Prince his biggest-selling single ever, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”
And then in 2011, he was given the Grammy Trustees Award. It's just one of the many accolades he's received in his more than 50 years in the industry.
But when asked to pick the accomplishment he's most proud of, Bell says there are too many to choose from.
“All I can say is thank you, father. Thank, God.”