William Bell was born William Yarbrough in 1939 in Memphis. Judy Clay was born Judith Grace Guions in St. Pauls, North Carolina, just one year earlier. Around thirty years later they teamed up to cut a track at Stax Records in Memphis, “Private Number”, that achieved success in the UK, reaching number eight in the charts. So, what is their story?
Judy Clay was brought up by her grandmother in North Carolina and then moved to New York in the early fifties. She was adopted by Lee Drinkard Warrick, who managed the family Gospel group The Drinkard Singers and joined the group at the age of fourteen. Lee Warrick was the sister of Emily Drinkard, who performed as Cissy Houston, and the mother of Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick, who also sang with the group. Judy Clay made her recording debut with the Drinkard Singers on their 1954 album “The Newport Spiritual Stars”. After several personnel changes in the early 1960s, including Judy’s departure, the remaining members of the group became The Sweet Inspirations, who went on to sing background for Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley.
Judy left the Drinkard Singers in 1960 and made her first solo recording, “More Than You Know”, on Ember Records. Further Clay singles appeared on Lavette and then Scepter Records, but with little commercial success. “You Busted My Mind” was the best of the releases and the track became popular on the Northern Soul scene.
In 1967, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records teamed her up with white singer-songwriter Billy Vera to record “Storybook Children”, backed by The Sweet Inspirations. The record reached number twenty on the US R&B chart and number fifty-four on the Pop chart. The track was probably the first recording by an interracial duo for a major label. One more duet was released, which became a minor hit, but Billy Vera has spoken of the obstacles that they faced as an interracial act. In 1968 Judy went to Memphis to join Stax.
Meanwhile William Bell began writing songs at the age of ten. He won a local talent contest four years later and sang backing vocals for Rufus Thomas. He joined a local teenage singing group, the Del Rios, and was noticed by Stax Records, who signed him as a song-writer. Bell made his recording debut as a solo artist in 1961 with “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, one of his own songs, which just made it into the Hot 100 chart.
Between his 1961 debut and his duet with Judy Clay, William Bell released eighteen singles on the Stax label, of which only two more made it into the Hot 100 chart and five entered the R&B chart. The most successful were “Everybody Loves A Winner” in 1967 and “A Tribute to a King” in 1968. This last song was written by Bell as a tribute to his friend Otis Redding who had died in a plane crash in December 1967. Bell may well have joined the flight himself, if his concert in Chicago had not been cancelled due to the bad weather. The track was originally issued as the B side of “Every Man Ought to Have A Woman”, but the tribute to Otis was more popular than the A side, reaching number sixteen on the R&B chart.
And so, in 1968, Clay and Bell found themselves together in Memphis, at Stax Records. Bell and Booker T Jones wrote “Private Number” and the song was recorded and released. It entered the Pop and R&B charts, reaching numbers seventy-five and seventeen respectively. As noted above, UK fans were more appreciative, sending the single to number eight. The follow-up was another duet “My Baby Specializes”, which reached number fourty-five on the R&B chart, and then they went their separate ways.
Judy Clay returned to Atlantic Records to make one more record with Billy Vera, “Reaching for the Moon”, and then had a final solo release, “Greatest Love”, which made it to number forty-five on the R&B chart in 1970. She then worked as a backing vocalist with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Donny Hathaway and Wilson Pickett. Towards the end of her life, she returned to singing Gospel.
Meanwhile Bell released seventeen more singles on Stax, before the company folded in 1975. Only a few charted, including “Lovin’ On Borrowed Time”, which reached number twenty-two on the R&B chart in 1973. He switched to Mercury Records and, finally, in 1976, reached number one on the R&B chart with “Tryin’ To Love Two”. The song also reached number ten on the Pop chart, after fifteen years of trying.
The final chapter in William Bell’s career comes as something of a surprise. In 2016, Bell released a new album, produced by John Leventhal, called “This Is Where I Live”. The album contains new songs, along with a revived recording of Bell’s song “Born Under a Bad Sign” (music by Booker T Jones again!), which has been sung by anybody and everybody in the world of Blues music and was a minor hit for Albert King in 1967. It has since become an absolute standard. In 2017, “This Is Where I Live” was awarded a Grammy for ‘Best Americana Album’! William Bell sang “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Blues star Gary Clark Jr. at the Grammy ceremony.
On 1st September 2017, at the age of 78, Bell performed live at the Royal Albert Hall BBC Proms with Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra in a tribute concert to 50 years of Stax Records.
Sometimes, you get what you deserve, even though you may have to wait some time.