Al Bell is a legend of the Memphis music scene. As a songwriter, record producer, and former chairman and owner of Stax Records—the famous soul-music label in Memphis—Bell propelled the careers of artists such as Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, and the Emotions. But Bell’s life and work were more than just music: he is an activist who worked for and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a nationally recognized business leader.
This interview, however, reaches back to a period before Bell began to accumulate the accolades that would be cited in his numerous lifetime-achievement awards and honorary degrees, indeed back to a time before he became Al Bell. It came about because of a long-forgotten accomplishment that I learned of in the course of the research for my current book project, which is a cultural history of the high school canon: the dozen or so books that have been taught to generation after generation of American students, including The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, and a suite of Shakespeare plays.
With Macbeth, I was interested in the once-common practice of having students memorize and recite famous passages, especially the monologue Macbeth delivers in act 5, upon hearing the report of Lady Macbeth’s death. A search in Readex’s African American Newspapers database turned up a particular column called “With the Schools” in the Arkansas State Press, dated March 14, 1958. This day’s column described the student activities at Scipio Africanus Jones High School in Little Rock, a Black school named after the lawyer who had guided the appeals of the “Elaine 12,” 12 Black men who had been sentenced to death following the race massacre in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919.
I wondered about the significance of studying and reciting Macbeth at a segregated high school in Little Rock in 1958. So I started googling, and found that “Alvertis Isbell” was the former name of Al Bell. I reached him by telephone last June to ask about his memories of high school, and that study of Macbeth. What I learned was a great deal more.
The School-Integration Advancement
By the spring of 1958, the school system in Little Rock had become the flash point in the national civil-rights struggle; the “Little Rock Nine” had enrolled at Central High that past September, under the protection of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army. I asked Mr. Bell what recitations from Macbeth—by Black students—meant in the context of school segregation and the civil-rights movement.
Andrew Newman (AN): My first question for you is whether you recall anything about that event.
Al Bell (AB): Very little. It’s been quite some time ago in my life. But I remember the impressions and things that I was reading and being taught, how I could see those same things happening in life today, as it related then, in particular, and certainly now, maybe even more so, as it related to … unbridled political ambitions, and things that I saw happening, then, at that time. Because that was 1957–58, back when we were experiencing—and I choose to say—the school-integration advancement, as opposed to the school-segregation crisis, here in Little Rock.
AN: This article in the Arkansas State Press is about the educational accomplishments of students at Scipio A. Jones High School. How do you think those accomplishments related to, as you describe it, the advancement of integration?
AB: At that time we were fighting—as African Americans—for equal rights. As we chimed and chanted and marched, especially around Central High School, we wanted equal rights. Instead of getting hand-me-down books with all kinds of notes in them, written by the kids from the white schools, we wanted books that were current books, just like they had gotten three or four years earlier. It was always a hand-me-down situation, so we were fighting for equal rights.
I’ve gotta tell you: in our segregated schools as African Americans, still, we learned more then than our kids do in school today. Because our teachers cared more and we still were there on the banks, on the threshold, on the platform of slavery.
And I never shall forget one soliloquy—or whatever you want to call it—that I learned, because I would hear it five days a week in school. And I’ve learned it, understood it, and lived it today. It was:
Good, better, best.
I shall never rest.
Until my good is better
And my better is the best.
That was programmed into us in that segregated Scipio Africanus Jones High School. [Listen to clip.]
Along with Alvertis Isbell, the names of his fellow reciters all appear on honor rolls and other notices about Scipio A. Jones High School that were published in the Arkansas State Press in the 1950s. Bell recalls that these friends were influential throughout his high school career and beyond.
AB: But through watching the things that were going on in Macbeth with political power—I mean, that Macbeth situation, I just couldn’t, and then Lady Macbeth …—it caused me at that point to keep my eyes open as it related to females—in terms of their influences … [laughing]
Those ladies that you just named there, they were in a class with me but they were also my friends. And they were the same ones that year that decided that I should run; I’d been made president of the state chapter of the National Honor Society, but they wanted me to become president of the student council, so I could make some changes in the school. And they convinced me—these ladies—convinced me to run for president of the student council and put together my campaign.
Wow, you’ve caused a lot to come back in my head. Let’s talk about what you want to talk about.
AN: I’m very interested! So did you become president of the student council?
AB: I became president of the student council. Those ladies put together my campaign, and I was a reasonably good speaker at that time, and they decided on the campaign issue for me. The campaign issue was that the one problem we had in school was in the cafeteria. When we went to buy our lunch, which was reasonably affordable at that time, there wasn’t salt on all of the tables. It was always a complaint: you’d get your food from the lunch area and go to the tables to sit down, but no salt was there. So they said, your campaign issue is, “If you elect me president of student council, I’m going to make sure there’s salt on every table in the cafeteria.” [laughing] And we worked on that, we ran a campaign, and I was elected.
AN: It’s an achievable campaign promise.
AB: Yeah, but I’ve gotta tell you. As I look back on that, when I went to the principal of the school, Elza H. Hunter, and said, “Mr. Hunter, I’m student-council president, and the students are asking a lot of me,” he said, “Yeah, I know they’re asking a lot of you, and you’re doing a lot of things here that hasn’t been done before. But you’re a pretty nice fella, so I’m gonna tolerate it.” He said, “And I will put salt—I like the way that campaign was happening—I will put salt on the cafeteria tables, on each one of those tables in the cafeteria.” And he did it.
That’s what got me into the music business, was those girls. The next thing they did was they came to me and said: “Listen, Alvertis, we want you to go to the principal and get us permission to have [what they called] record hops,” then, discos today. To have record hops after the football games and the basketball games on Friday night.
I said, “I can’t do that. I can’t go and talk to him about this.” They said, “Listen. We elected you president of the student council.” [laughing] That’s when I first began understanding politics. I’m not joking.
So I had to go, and I went to Mr. Hunter, and, after a bit he said, “Okay, you can do it. I’ll allow you to do it. In the multipurpose room, set up a table on the stage there, and take the stereo player in, and don’t let anybody touch it except you, because I don’t want it damaged, and if it’s damaged then you’re responsible for it and you’ve got to tell your parents and have your parents write me a letter to tell me that they are supporting your being responsible for anything happening to that stereo player.”
I said, “Now, what about music?” He said, “We don’t have any music and don’t have a line item in our budget to purchase music.” I said, “But what am I going to do about playing music?” He said, “That’s your problem.”
So I went back to my constituents and told the girls, “Listen. I’ve gotten permission to do this, that you asked me to do, but we don’t have any music, what are we gonna do?” They said, “It’s no problem. You just go around to all the students and tell them to let you have their records on Friday, and you get those records and you play them Friday night and give them back to them on Monday. And we’ll work with you on that so we can determine whose record belongs to whomever, and you get it back to them on Monday, when we’re back in school.” I said, “Okay.”
And then I started asking the students why they liked certain music and talked to the girls and asked them what they liked about certain music. And I tell you, they would tell me more than the guys. I really started learning music. I couldn’t sing, dance, play a musical instrument; couldn’t carry a tune in a vacuum-pack can. But I learned from those students at that point in time.
And once I got into radio, when people would call in and request the music, I’d ask them why, and what was it about that song that they were requesting that they liked. And they would tell me, and I would play it. And that’s what caused me to say some of the things I said, in high school, and on radio. Or putting my personality, which I started doing, into the music because I just knew what it was all about.
But it was those girls that caused me to do that. And from then until now, that’s been what has kept me active and understanding music. Because I deal with it from a social-science standpoint, if you know what I’m saying, and I’m a social-science marketer, making music for the people.
I began to understand and appreciate early on how our music, the African American music—and I learned that again when we did the ’67 tour throughout the continent of Europe with Stax—that our music, as the Europeans told me, was the authentic music that came from our culture. That authenticity was what Europeans appreciated the most about the music that came out of America.
V. R. Robinson
Scipio A. Jones High School closed in 1970. Today, the alumni association, which remains active, awards an annual postsecondary scholarship in the memory of V. R. Robinson, class of 1927 graduate and longtime English teacher at the school.
AN: Do you happen to remember the name of your English teacher from senior year?
AB: I sure do: Mrs. Virginia R. Robinson. V. R. Robinson is what they called her. Mrs. V. R. Robinson. She had a tremendous influence and impact on my life back then, some bad, and some good. When I say some bad, I don’t mean bad, but a little bit of pain … [laughing] But I really remember Mrs. Robinson; she was such a classy lady. She taught English and she would say “English and literature.”
When I graduated from high school and ended up right after my senior year as a disc jockey on radio—they had just opened the first Black radio-program station in this area at that time—now, Mrs. V. R. Robinson would listen to my show. And I gotta tell you, if I was ever anywhere close at any point in time to screwing up a verb, or even something else in anything I said, I want you to know that by the time I was off that broadcast, Mrs. V. R. Robinson was calling me and saying, “Alvertis, let me tell you what. I did not teach you to speak that way.” [laughing] She was—unbelievable, as I look back in retrospect today. Unbelievable, what that lady did.
V. R. Robinson called me one day. This was after I had entered the college and I had my classes structured and organized—fortunately the college worked with me, Philander Smith College—so I could still do my radio show. And Mrs. V. R. Robinson called me one day. She said, “Alvertis, I want to talk with you, because I want you to consider joining the Reverend Martin Luther King.”
I said, “Who is Martin Luther King, the Reverend Martin Luther King?”
And she told me. I said, “Well, Mrs. Robinson, I’m not about that.”
She said, “Oh, but you are. And you don’t know about him; at least you need to know about him. Why don’t you come by my house? What day can you come by my house, and I’ll arrange a time to get him on the phone and let you talk with him.” And we arranged that and I came by; she called Reverend King. And I was introduced to him and talked to him, and he told me about what he was about.
The movement hadn’t really taken off in my eyesight at that point in time; I was only slightly aware of it. But after the conversation, Mrs. Robinson kept informing me more about Reverend King, and that really influenced me.
I dropped out of radio. This was 1959. I dropped out of radio, out of college, went to Midway, Georgia, and became a student-teacher in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Workshops and taught and learned a lot there with Reverend Martin Luther King. I was a confidential friend and supporter of Dr. King until the day of his murder.
“I’ll Take You There”
Bell often tells the story of how he came to compose “I’ll Take You There,” the Staple Singers’ best-known hit, which reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972. But the Macbeth angle produced a new twist.
AN: This is what interests me so much about this subject: that we can work back through these books like Macbeth and really enter people’s lives. That they were more than just reading material or just an academic subject; they interrelate with people and history in really fascinating and unexpected ways. So it’s been very valuable talking to you about it.
AB: Let me tell you this. I did not think about this until maybe four or five o’clock this morning, when I was thinking about talking to you.
Something hit me, and I don’t know this to be anything other than me just sharing it with you. But a song was written through me, and I say that because I didn’t write it. The words were given to me, spiritually, and they came out of my mouth.
I had a problem in my life, at a certain point in time, reconciling death. I was the eldest, and the only one alive now, of my six brothers. My second baby brother was born with double pneumonia, died; two others after that were murdered. And I had a problem, just dealing with that. And after that second baby brother [was] murdered, I thought I was just going to go out of my mind. I spent time trying to find the person that murdered him and all of that.
I was at Stax at that time and was getting ready to do a production on the Staple Singers. I came to Little Rock to investigate my brother’s death, and went to the funeral. After that, in our culture, they have a repast, where people get together, socialize, and interact—family, friends, and all of that. That was at my father’s house, and we were gathered there. But I couldn’t interact with the people, because I was in such pain.
I went out into my father’s backyard. Under an old oak tree, he had an old school bus sitting there, which was there for the purpose of reminding him of where he had come from: meaning hauling cotton choppers and cotton pickers to the cotton fields, to being then a landscaping contractor, and he was excellent at it, and one of the best in the state, as a matter of fact.
(He did all the landscaping work for Arkansas governor Winthrop Rockefeller. At that time I got to know Winthrop Rockefeller, and Winthrop Rockefeller became my godfather as a result of that.)
But I went out into that backyard and sat on that school bus, and, while sitting there, into my head came a bass line. Don’t know where that came from. And I just started moaning and singing:
I know a place,
Ain’t nobody crying,
Ain’t nobody worried,
Ain’t no smiling faces,
Lying to the races.
Oh oh ah ah I’ll take you there. [Listen to clip.]
And after that I moaned and cried; the emotions came out of me.
Because that happened in that manner—even though I’m recorded as the writer of that song—I know inside of me that I didn’t write that song, that it was written through me. There’s only one verse; I went back afterward and tried to write other verses, but I couldn’t write another verse.
But it dawned on me: I said, “I don’t know this, but, like, I don’t know about that song,” but I remembered briefly, and I don’t remember the details, but I think it was after Macbeth had killed King Duncan to take over. I don’t remember it all, but one of his sons made a statement to one of his brothers that “there’s daggers, in men’s smiles.” It’s more to it than just that, but I remembered that: “There’s daggers in men’s smiles.”
And I wondered this morning if that statement of what he was saying had influenced me in “ain’t no smiling faces, lying to the races”—“there’s daggers in men’s smiles.”
And I’m wondering, I don’t know anything other than what I’m telling you, about four or five o’clock this morning, that came into my head. I said, I wonder if that was somewhere back in my brain and I just wasn’t consciously aware of it, that it came out at that time as I was big, passionate, and emotional, and all of that.
I don’t know, I don’t know if I’ll ever know. But it sure came into my head.
AN: It’s amazing. That was King Duncan’s son Donalbain. He says, “There’s daggers in men’s smiles: the near in blood, / The nearer bloody” (act 2, scene 3, lines 165–66).
AB: Ah, yeah, that’s right. “The near in blood, the nearer bloody.” Whoa … I don’t know, I don’t know, but that came into my head.
By far the most frequently memorized and recited passage from Macbeth is the “Tomorrow” monologue (act 5, scene 5, lines 21–30). Initially Mr. Bell didn’t remember the passage he had memorized, but as I read the monologue to him, he gasped. [Listen to clip.]
AN: The passage that most people recited or memorized to recite was the “Tomorrow” speech, which goes like this. This is after Macbeth learns about the death of his wife, Lady Macbeth, and he says:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
All of our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow—
AB: Ah—“Out, out, brief candle!” I’d forgotten that. I’m sorry for interrupting.
AN: Oh that’s fine. Do you think that’s what you memorized?
AB: Yes, I remember that! As you were saying it then, I had forgotten it. Wow. Wow.
AN: The conclusion of that passage is:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
AB: Andrew Newman, I thank you.
AN: You’re very welcome.
AB: I had forgotten that, even forgotten the words, until you started saying them to me just then. Wow. It’s back there somewhere in this brain. That’s a powerful organ. The most powerful organ in our body. That brain. Wow.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
Featured image: Opening of the Federal Theater Project production of Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre, Harlem (1936). Photograph by Library of Congress American Memory Collection / Wikimedia Commons