Trustees Award: Al Bell

Huey Lewis on 2011 Trustees Award recipient Al Bell, the man who put Memphis on the map
  • Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
    Al Bell
February 04, 2011 -- 7:00 am PST
By Huey Lewis /

In addition to the GRAMMY Awards, The Recording Academy presents Special Merit Awards recognizing contributions of significance to the recording field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award. Each year, The Academy invites friends and colleagues of Special Merit Awards recipients to pay tribute to the honorees' career accomplishments, while also adding colorful anecdotes and personal accounts. In the days leading up to the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards, will present the tributes to the 12 Special Merit Awards recipients for 2011.

Al Bell might be the person most responsible for my musical taste.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the '60s, with folk music and early psychedelic music as a backdrop, my constant radio companion was soul station KDIA in Oakland. Not the obvious choice for a suburban white kid, but then, my dad was a jazz drummer and my mom loved psychedelic stuff, and I needed something of my own. KDIA was the sister station of the famous WDIA in Memphis. Needless to say, both stations played a healthy dose of Stax records, which were either promoted, commissioned, produced, or written by Al Bell.

Alvertis Isbell was old school before the term. Soul music came from the church, and Al knew the church. As a young man he worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and when he speaks the similarity is striking. He came to Stax from radio where he was a DJ, both in Little Rock, Ark. and Washington, D.C. He started as a promotion man. Incredibly hardworking and dynamic, he became a co-owner of Stax and grew the company into the second-largest black-owned business of the '70s. He was incredibly ambitious, famously releasing 27 albums and 30 singles in one month. He was "hands-on," producing and even writing hits for the label including "I'll Take You There" for the Staple Singers. In 1972 he produced Wattstax, the all-Stax concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the Golden Globe-nominated film about the event. It's been said he "put Memphis on the map," an incredible statement when you consider the vast musical history of the town.

The demise of Stax Records in the mid-'70s was complicated and messy and resulted in Al retreating from the business for several years. But Al Bell is a fighter and he did not give up. With the help of Berry Gordy Jr. he rebuilt his career, first as president of Motown Records and then with his own label, Bellmark Records. And now as chairman of the Memphis Music Foundation, Al Bell is back in Memphis, doing what he's always been doing…promoting Memphis music.

At 70 years old, he seems newly invigorated. He's still a workaholic (his friends say he works 24 hours a day, breaking only at midnight to eat his wife's fried chicken), and still as passionate as ever. When I last saw him in late 2010, it was at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis at a playback party for our new record, Soulsville, which is a tribute to Memphis soul music. He was dressed immaculately, as usual, in a suit, monogrammed shirt, his tie perfectly matching his pocket square, and his cuff links shining. He was complimentary of the album, and especially the song selection, but then I knew we'd have the same taste.

(Huey Lewis, primarily with his band the News, has earned five GRAMMY nominations, including Record Of The Year nods for "The Power Of Love" and "The Heart Of Rock And Roll," and won the Best Music Video, Long Form award in 1985 for Huey Lewis & The News — The Heart Of Rock 'N' Roll. The group's newest album is the Memphis tribute Soulsville.)

This Special Merit Award is presented by vote of The Recording Academy's National Trustees to individuals who, during their careers in music, have made contributions, other than performance, to the field of recording. The Trustees Award was established in 1967. To view a complete list of Trustees Award recipients, click here.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Julie Andrews, Roy Haynes, Juilliard String Quartet, The Kingston Trio, Dolly Parton, Ramones, George Beverly Shea
Trustees Award: Wilma Cozart Fine, Bruce Lundvall
Technical GRAMMY Award: Roger Linn, Waves Audio Ltd.


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