By David Kirby
A sneak-preview from our Fall 2020 issue
Get a Job
Some companies use a test to evaluate potential employees that sounds goofy but is said to work. It goes like this: subjects are given six rings and asked to place them in any way they choose over a peg in the middle of the testing room.
I’ve tried this in my classroom, and the results confirm what I know about my students already. The highly motivated place themselves at a middle distance: to stand next to the peg would be too easy, and to get too far away guarantees a poor result.
In other words, an ideal employee (or student) would be neither a slacker nor a self-defeater but someone who creates reasonable and satisfying challenges.
The same idea works in music: you, the musician, supply the peg and the rings, and the audience plays the game. The audience wants not to breeze through your song or be baffled by it but to engage with it in a way that requires an effort yet satisfies. It’s kind of like taking a swim in the ocean. Yeah, you had to change out of your clothes, and the water’s chilly, and that one big wave roughed you up a bit.
But now that you’re back on the beach, didn’t it feel good?
One Night With You
No song from the thousands in the rhythm and blues catalog does a better job of pulling you in, tossing you around, and setting you back down on the sand than William Bell’s 1962 single “Any Other Way.” Born William Yarbrough in 1939 (he changed his name to honor a grandmother whose first name was Belle), William Bell is probably best known for his debut single, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” though his big hit was 1976’s “Tryin’ to Love Two,” which made it all the way to No. 1 on the R&B chart. As a songwriter, his most indelible achievement is the co-writing of “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which was a smash for both Albert King and Cream.
And then there’s “Any Other Way.” Rhythm and blues has always been a catchall term for any music made by African Americans and ostensibly for them. But songs in every category are prone to scramble over the walls of their confines, and in that sense, R&B is a pole vaulter. Okay, maybe Ruth Brown and Willie Mae Thornton and Johnny Otis didn’t attract the white audiences they deserve, but Fats Domino and Little Richard and Ray Charles sure did.
Some scholars distinguish R&B from the more up-tempo jump blues by pointing to a stronger gospel influence, which brings us to “Any Other Way.” Gospel music is about the love of God, and love is the Swiss army knife of emotions: if you love God, you can love anyone. When B. B. King was a little boy in Itta Bena, Mississippi, he made money by playing the guitar and singing on street corners, and when he sang gospel songs, people gathered around and clapped, but nobody gave him any money. So he kept singing the same songs, but every time he got to the words “my Lord,” he sang “my baby” instead, and from then on, passersby paid him. Another entertainer, Nathaniel “Magnificent” Montague, said there’s only a thin line between “I need you, Jesus” and “I need you, baby.” Okay, but the line’s not even that thin.
Here, take a listen:
Recently, as the song faded and left me with my thoughts, I followed my mind to the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus’s night of passion. Doomed to crucifixion the next day, he is accompanied by Peter, John and James, but Jesus is no more a glad-hander than the singer in the song is: he moves “a stone’s throw away” from them as an overwhelming sadness floods his spirit. He’s in a mood, understandably, and he asks his father in heaven to spare him more than once. Finally Jesus accepts his fate, but when he goes to check on his apostles, he finds that they’re about as trustworthy as the guy who buttonholes the singer: not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re asleep. (“The spirit is willing,” thinks Jesus, “but the flesh is weak.”) Then, not back-up singers, but an angel from heaven flies down to join him. In the end, both Jesus and the song’s protagonist face the music.
A Roman centurion can nail you to a cross, but so can a little slip of a girl. Either way, it hurts like hell.
Hold On, I’m Coming
First and foremost, though, “Any Other Way” is a version of the torch song or song about an unrequited love, that is, someone you carry a torch for. Only in this case, the singer is insisting that he doesn’tcarry a torch, not any more. And this is where things get interesting. In the first place, who is the girl? The singer refers to her as “my baby,” so they had something once, but what happened? And if she’s still interested enough to send someone to find out how the speaker’s doing, what are her feelings for him now?
And just who is the go-between anyway? The speaker says, “You say that you’re my friend,” meaning either he doesn’t know the other guy all that well or that the other guy is a friend who isn’t acting all that friendly. Damn guy could be a damn busybody poking his nose in where it don’t belong—could be he don’t even know the damn girl at all.
Throughout, the speaker exercises the restraint of a jilted lover in a Jane Austen novel. There are several versions of the song, and in the one you hear in the video, the singer says, “Tell her that I’m gay,” which, in later versions, becomes “Tell her I’m okay,” just in case you thought the happy couple broke up because the gentleman started batting for the other team. But “gay” then doesn’t mean what “gay” means now. In the pre-woke days, to be gay meant to be happy but in a light-hearted and restrained way.
And the singer in “Any Other Way” is nothing if not restrained. A rarity among pop songs of this (for that matter, any) period, this one consists of three quick verses. This guy’s got to say his piece and beat it before he starts blubbering! He doesn’t have time to sing a chorus between the verses the way it’s usually done, much less provide a vocal or instrumental bridge before the final verse.
Fortunately, some guys step out of the bushes to amplify the singer’s feelings after each verse and do some of the emotional work he’s not capable of. (These would be the fabled Memphis Horns, the sax-and-trumpet group that appears on Stax records by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and other soul greats.) And then those female backup singers appear out of nowhere like angels from heaven. Well, maybe: as they intone the song’s title over and over, you can’t tell whether they’re shepherding the speaker through his misery or rubbing it in.
The silent, nosy guy is now surrounded. The brass section and the backup singers are between him and the singer, who stutters as he desperately rephrases the title again and again and staggers away, getting smaller and smaller as he goes. But he keeps his dignity, and that’s what makes “Any Other Way” the best R&B song ever.
When an emotion is promised but never delivered, the audience will come back for more. We all know that an actor fighting tears is more moving than an actor who weeps. Here, too, the singer almost loses it but not quite. He’s the Goldilocks of R&B. He reveals as he conceals and vice versa. What he says is neither too much nor too little. It’s just right.
Charlene, tell the other job applicants they can go home now—Mr. Bell, you’re hired.
You’ve Got a Friend
Emotions under pressure will enter the heart like bullets, like water that lies quietly in a pool but leaps from a hose with a force that knocks down doors. Macduff trying not to weep for his slaughtered family, a Bernini statue that seems to want to speak, Keats’s attempt to make a silent urn speak: these flood me with joy.
Like “Any Other Way,” these works beat down the doors of our hearts by not saying too much, by leaving us gaps or blanks to fill. Critic Wolfgang Iser argues that successful texts contain gaps that powerfully affect the reader who must explain them, connect what they separate, and create in his or her mind those parts of the work that aren’t in the text.
Take, for example, Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” which describes a fellow lying in a burned-out basement and thinking about what a friend had said and hoping it was a lie. What had the friend said? My guess is that he said the fellow’s girl has been with some other guy. For a young person, what could be worse? There are infinite possibilities, but isn’t the song more powerful if we’re free to guess?
By the way, have you noticed how treacherous friends can be in popular music? There are a lot of songs out there that try to bring people together. But then there’s the that song takes a last drag on its cigarette, grinds the butt under its shoe, looks you in the eye, and says Here’s the hard truth, buster. You’re on your own.
Consider this story about the songwriter Doc Pomus. A 1972 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Doc is responsible for dozens of hits by some of the greatest rock and soul groups ever.
Like his contemporary Sam Cooke, Doc had a gift for making songs out of what happened before his eyes. Take, for example, “Save the Last Dance For Me,” a song recorded by the Drifters which was #1 on the pop chart for three weeks in 1960. Pomus was heavyset and used crutches because of a childhood bout with polio; he could barely walk and eventually was confined to a wheelchair. Nonetheless, he married a gorgeous blonde actress, and the song comes from Doc’s memory of his wedding day, as he sat with his crutches and watched, not a friend, but his brother Raoul whirl the new bride around the floor.
Now imagine the recording session. Ahmet Ertegun is producing the song for the Drifters, and they’ve done numerous takes because lead singer Ben E. King is just not feeling it. But just before the final take, as King steps up to the mike, Ertegun tells him the story of the fat cripple watching another man dancing with his pretty new wife. King’s eyes moisten, and he fights tears as he gives one of the most moving performances of his life.
Saturday Night at the Movies
Like Neil Young and Doc Pomus, William Bell offers the reader a perfect version of the ring-toss experiment. Voltaire said, “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” No great artist does that. A great artist gives you exactly what you need and no more. As Tom Petty says, “A good song should give you a lot of images. You should be able to make your own little movie in your head to a good song.”
Go back now and watch the movie you just made from William Bell’s script. Lost in thought, a guy on a sidewalk looks up and frowns. A man approaches who says he’s the guy’s friend, but is he? They talk. There’s something about a girl, an ex—from the sound of things, a recent ex. Abruptly, the singer starts dictating terms to the other fellow, even as he’s backing away. Tell her this, he says, tell her that. But look, I’ve got something in my throat. I’ve got to go now. That’s it! Goodbye.
And off he goes, broken-hearted yet resolute, determined to let no one see that he is destroyed, that where once beat a heart that brimmed with hope is a burned-out land where the sedge is withered from the lake and no birds sing. No one else sees that. But you do.
William Bell wouldn’t have it any other way.
Let’s Just Kiss and Say Goodbye
Much of the background information in this essay comes from Mr. Bell’s web site, http://www.williambell.com. At one point I clicked on the “Tour” button and read these ominous words: “There are no upcoming tour dates.” In alarm, I went back and clicked “Contact” and soon found myself in touch with his publicist, who assured me Mr. Bell was doing just fine and gave me his phone number.
I got up and walked around the room for about ten minutes making an eek-eek noise like the E string of a violin, and then I made the call. Having suggested earlier that William Bell is the love child of Jesus and Goldilocks, let me say that, in actuality, he is as kind, sweet, generous, and good-natured a gentleman as any who walks the earth today. And in terrific health, as far as I can tell. There are no upcoming tour dates because the world is sick, not him. The COVID-19 pandemic means no one is performing anywhere, though he and the band are tentatively scheduled to appear at the River Arts Fest in Memphis in October. (“Maybe.”)
Bell’s band is called Total Package, and you can get a taste of their genius in this clip from the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert series:
Total Package and William Bell have been together for 21 years, he told me, and in that time, only two members have left, both backup singers.
Their cohesion shows, as does Mr. Bell’s generosity. The last song in the clip is his other great one, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” It lasts almost eight minutes as the singer works his way through the group, giving a solo to one band member after another. I asked Mr. Bell to tell me a little about the song’s composition, and he told me one of the best stories of my career as a music journalist. The song was a smash for Albert King, of course, and it arrived late in the day, when the recording session for Mr. King’s in-progress album was almost done.
Thing is, they needed one more song. William Bell had a verse, a chorus, and the bass line worked out, and when he tried them out on Albert King, the bluesman liked what he heard and asked for the rest. Well, there was no rest. Mr. Bell asked Booker T. Jones, best known as the front man for Booker T. and the M.G.’s, to work with him, so off they went to Jones’s house, staying up all night to finish.
The next day, everybody came back to the studio, and here’s where the story gets good. “Albert King couldn’t read,” Mr. Bell told me over the phone. “You mean he couldn’t read music?” I said. “A lot of musicians can’t read music.” “No, I mean he couldn’t read!” said Mr. Bell. “Couldn’t read English. Couldn’t read words. So I stood next to him in the studio and whispered each line to him, and he sang it.”
Happily, the tempo of this iconic blues allows for that, and when you listen as the song’s slow but determined lines fall like hammer blows, you can imagine the one great performer standing at a mike and another leaning in to tell him and the world that if he didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have no luck at all.
Which brings us back to the song this essay is about.When I asked Mr. Bell how he composed “Any Other Way,” he said that, like a lot of his songs, it came to him while he was on the tour bus. “We’d been on the road for about two weeks,” he said, “and we had two months to go.” The full horror of the prolonged agony that is touring had settled in, making it a perfect time for doubts and suspicions to circle over one’s head like birds of prey. “I started thinking about how, when you had a great girlfriend, these so-called friends of yours would start coming around. And they always had an ulterior motive.”
Yes. The days are long and the nights longer. You have only yourself. Oh, and the music. It comforts you. It strengthens you. Listen! You are somebody. It’s going to be okay.