Owner of Stax Records | Class of 2002
Al Bell (born Alvertis Isbell in Brinkley, Arkansas) is the former Chairman and Owner of Stax Records, where he was responsible for the careers of numerous music icons and the overall direction of American soul music and subsequently served as President of Motown Records Group. Today, Bell is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Al Bell Presents, LLC, presenting a unique new paradigm of business innovation within the greater music industry.
Something happened inside of him one evening in Little Rock in 1971. Al Bell was sitting on the hood of an old school bus that his father kept in the backyard. He had just been to the funeral of his murdered brother. He didn’t feel comfortable, even in that familiar place. Thinking about his brother, he began to hear music. Specifically, a bass line. Then words. I know a place / Ain’t nobody crying / Ain’t nobody worried / Ain’t no smilin’ faces / Lying to the races. That became “I’ll Take You There.” Recorded by the Staple Singers and released by Stax Records, the single written and produced by Bell was number one on the Billboard R&B Singles chart for four weeks.
Throughout his career, Bell has been considered a visionary, a seer, an icon, a music mogul, a communications and entertainment maverick, and a legend, which is how most people throughout the industry view him today. But he is not finished writing new chapters for his legend. He currently serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Al Bell Presents LLC, a new “rare performing artist” career and business development paradigm.
In 2011, Bell received the highest honor the music industry bestows, the Grammy Trustees Award, putting him in the company of an elite group that includes Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Ira Gershwin, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and others who have received the award for making industry-changing contributions in music in their lifetimes. Bell has always been ahead of his time. Because of his ability to see things that others cannot and the guts to act on what he sees, he has always been miles ahead of his competitors.
In the 1970s, two of the largest African-American-owned businesses in America were Motown Records and Stax Records. Bell, who owned Stax, introduced marketing and promotional innovations that changed the music industry. It was believed impossible, but Stax produced gold and platinum hits with artists such as Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Johnny Taylor, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs, the Bar Kays, Otis Redding, the Emotions, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Richard Pryor, Billy Eckstine, Albert King, the Dramatics, and others.
Stax Records worked with Melvin Van Peebles on the release of his revolutionary film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and with MGM Studios on the release of the film Shaft. In both cases, Bell employed marketing and promotional techniques that woke the film industry to the potential in the black marketplace and led to the black film renaissance of the 1970s. He successfully marketed the “Theme from Shaft” performed by Isaac Hayes, which won an Oscar for Best Original Song. As a result, he became the first African American to win that honor—or any other Academy Award—in a non-acting category. Bell added to the roster of box office hits with the landmark 1973 film Wattstax, a documentary based on a Stax Records concert that entertained 112,000 people in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
In Soulsville USA: The Stax Records Story, a book by Rob Bowman chronicling the history of Stax Records, the Rev. Jesse Jackson says, “Stax was not just a record company. It was a sound. It was a piece of culture. It was a moment of conscience and experience of mankind….At the right time, it meant a lot to us. People still heavily borrow upon the tradition of Stax and the lineage laid down by the very special genius of Al Bell.”
In the 1980s, Al Bell became President of the Motown Records Group (Motown had relocated to Los Angeles from Detroit) and worked with Berry Gordy in the sale of Motown to the MCA/ Boston Ventures Group. After that, Bell discovered the music group Tag Team and released “Whoomp! (There It Is),” which sold over five million copies and remains one of the biggest-selling singles in history. Then, Prince asked Al Bell to release a single record, after Warner Bros. Records turned Prince down. Bell released “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and gave Prince his biggest-selling single ever.
Bell has received many honors and awards, including the National Award of Achievement from the U.S. Department of Commerce. He has been listed in Who’s Who in Black America and was honored by Black Enterprise magazine in 1972 and 1973 as No. 2 in the Top 100 Black-Owned Businesses. Ebony magazine honored him in 1972 as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Black Men and in 1973 as one of the Top 1000 Most Successful Black Men in the World. He received an Achievement Award from the Boy Scouts of America in 1975, the Alex Haley Roots Award from the Greater Washington, D.C., Business Center in 1977, and the W. C. Handy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
Bell received the Arthur A. Fletcher Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Black Chamber of Commerce in 2008, and he received honorary doctorate degrees from Philander Smith College in 1972 and 2011. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from National Association of Blacks in Higher Education in 2012 and was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Black Accountants in 2012. Also in 2012, he was recognized and honored during “An Evening with Al Bell” at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
In May 2014, Arkansas’s Maumelle High School honored Bell by creating the Al Bell Award of Excellence, presented annually to a deserving Maumelle High School band student. This joins the school’s John Philip Sousa, Louis Armstrong, and Semper Fidelis Awards.
On February 13, 2015, Bell was inducted into the prestigious Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. Through this honor, Bell joins an exceptional list of inductees who have been recognized to be among the best in Arkansas business for their outstanding achievements and their impact on the future business leaders in Arkansas and around the world. Also in 2015, on June 6, Bell was inducted into the Official Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame in Clarksdale, Mississippi, with a subsequent induction ceremony held in October in Detroit, Michigan.
On September 29, 2015, Bell was honored with an induction into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, which showcases the careers of the Natural State’s sons and daughters who have made their marks on the entertainment world.