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A Soul Man From the '60s Is Back in the Groove Again : Pop music: With the success of Bellmark Records' young rappers, founder Al Bell returns to the record biz big leagues.

September 21, 1993|BRUCE HARING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave . . . Tag Team and Duice?

They're all the same to Al Bell, who guided such Stax Records stars as Redding and Hayes in the '60s and '70s, and now has a second life with his four-year-old Hollywood-based Bellmark Records.

Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" on the Life label is one of the top selling singles in the country, according to SoundScan figures, while Duice's "Dazzey Duks" on the TMR imprint is also making big noise on the national single charts. Both are distributed through Bellmark.

"I'm having just as much fun today as I did in the '60s," said Bell, taking time out from the buzz of activity outside his office, where a small staff works two national hits. "We're dealing with things today like I did many years ago. And it's fun each step of the way--painful at times--but fun. It proved to me: same old record business."

Bell's success on the charts continues a career that has seen several incarnations.

A teen-age disc jockey in Little Rock, Ark., during that city's volatile school integration battles in the late '50s, Bell served as a street liaison between the governor and advocates for the black schoolchildren of Central High School. From there, Bell joined Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Midway, Ga.

Stints as a disc jockey and assistant station manager at radio stations in Memphis and Washington followed, jobs where Bell honed his feel for popular music by hanging out in barbershops and other outlets with jukeboxes, watching what selections patrons made and their reactions.

He then made his formal entry into the record business via what was then a tiny but thriving Memphis label: Stax Records.

"When I went in there it was a young production company, driven by rawness and honesty," he said. "I thought it was the music everyone ought to hear, which I believed when I played the songs on the radio. I believed in that then and have seen how it has affected the whole of the music industry. I watch things (now) that are subtle and see how that's the Stax influence."

Although Stax eventually went belly up in the mid-'70s, the label's legacy lives on in its recordings, which range from the gospel sounds of the Staple Singers to "Wicked" Wilson Pickett, and include such R&B standards as "Soul Man" and "Knock on Wood." Bell rose from national director of promotions to chairman of the board and executive vice president of Stax.

Bell subsequently took a sabbatical from the music business, discouraged by the advent of disco.

"I started having a problem with what I saw happening to the music business," he said. "There was too much emphasis on beats per minutes and a hook line, and no emphasis placed on the artist. Something was missing--they called it 'soul' back in my early days."

Bell kept a boutique label and released a few singles, but essentially hid out in Little Rock.

He returned to full-time duty as the president of Motown Records in the late '80s, experiencing the last days of Berry Gordy Jr.'s rule there before the company was sold to MCA and Massachusetts investment firm Boston Ventures in 1988.

Searching for a new project post-Motown, Bell decided to put his marketing expertise to use and founded Bellmark, an acronym for Al Bell Marketing. The label is targeted toward what Bell describes as "God-inspired music," more an attitude than religious requirement, which explains why Bellmark can release both gospel and rap music.

Noting that some rappers have come to him with products "rated X," Bell says he's turned around a few attitudes by emphasizing that "clean and wholesome" isn't necessarily a compromise.

"I just spent the weekend talking to one artist that we're getting ready to do some product on," Bell said. "He had some things in there about 2 o'clock in the morning, some crazy stuff. I said, 'You got to get rid of this dirt, man, because you're not doing anything but holding yourself back.' "

Likewise, Tag Team--one of Bell's current hot sellers--had to be persuaded to take the high road.

"There were some things in there . . . I convinced them to edit out," he continued.

Surprisingly, Bell has no performing background save for a semester in his high school choir. But the veteran record man has a more important skill.

"I was born with the ability to hear," he said. "I can hear it when it's right and can tell you when it's wrong."

Bellmark has several projects in the works, including gospel-music television specials. The label is also being hotly courted by several major distributors. "Perhaps somewhere we might find a relationship," Bell said. "Otherwise, we're perfectly happy sitting here on the corner of Hollywood and Sycamore with no bureaucracy and able to make decisions in 15 minutes if we want to."

And all the while letting the competition know that Al Bell is back.

"If you're not out here with hit records, there's a question about whether you can still perform," said Bell. "But here we are with youth music performing comparable to anyone else that's out here. As a result of that, the attitude is: Al can still perform."

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