AL BELL (Alvertis Isbell) is a record producer, songwriter (“I’ll Take You There”) and label executive, best known as the owner of Stax Records during the latter half of the label’s nineteen-year existence. Bell was vital to the careers of many of Stax’s stars, including The Staples Singers, Isaac Hayes, The Emotions, and The Dramatics. Bell’s promotional efforts drove the “Memphis Sound” internationally, and made Stax the second-largest African-American owned business in the 1970s. In 2009, the BBC profiled Bell as “one of the icons of soul music.”
Bell began his music business career as a teenage disc jockey in Little Rock, Arkansas in the 50s, where he developed the feel of what makes a hit record. Following his career at Stax, Bell became President of Motown Records Group during its restructuring for sale to MCA and Boston Ventures Group, and later started his own label, Bellmark, whose releases included: Tag Team’s four-million selling single “Whoomp! (There It Is)” (1993), one of the biggest selling singles in recorded music history; and Duice’s two-million-selling single “Dazzey Duks.” Bell was later asked by Prince (aka “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”) to release a single record for him. Mr. Bell released the record and gave “The Artist” his biggest-selling single ever, “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World.”
Bell currently serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Al Bell Presents, an Intellectual Property Management Company that has established a new paradigm for the recorded music, broadcast music, and entertainment industries. Bell works in the independent music scene in Memphis, as well as maintaining an online music website, AlBellPresents.com.
Born in Mississipi, WILLA DEAN “DEANIE” PARKER came to Stax Records in 1963 after winning a talent contest where the prize was an audition at Stax. After that she was a house songwriter/vocalist. Her songs were recorded by Ann Peebles, Otis Redding, Albert King, among others, and have since been covered by Simply Red and Bette Midler and others. She released two singles as a singer/songwriter, “My Imaginary Guy,” and “Each Step I Take” (co-written with Steve Cropper). She stayed on at Stax as Director of Publicity, where she took pictures, wrote liner notes, served as a documentalist, until it closed permanently in 1976.
After her retirement, Parker became CEO of Soulsville, where she spearheaded a fundraising campaign to raise the $14 million required to build the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and The Stax Music Academy on the original site of Stax Records. Soulsville was also a force behind the South Memphis neighborhood’s redevelopment. In 2009, she executive produced the Emmy-winning documentary, I AM A MAN, about the 1968 sanitation strike that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis, to which she contributed the title song (with Fred Jones), the first song she wrote in 45 year. The film played numerous festivals, and won prizes at the CMJ Film Festival, Indie Memphis, Trimedia, Cape Fear, the Charlotte Film Festival, and Louisville Film Festival.
CHARLES “SKIP” PITTS was widely considered to have been one of the architects of soul, R&B, and funk guitar. He was best known for his virtuoso use of the “wah-wah” pedal.
Born in Washington D.C., Pitts performed on Gene Chandler’s “Rainbow ‘65,” at age seventeen. Pitts soon became the guitarist and bandleader for Wilson Pickett’s Midnight Movers, backing Pickett, as well as Sam & Dave. In 1969, Pitts joined the Isley Brothers band, for whom he created the signature riff for their chart-topping hit “It’s Your Thing.”
Pitts moved to Memphis in 1970 to join Isaac Hayes’ band. A year later, Pitts created the wah-wah guitar intro for “Theme From Shaft,” a song which earned Hayes an Academy Award®. He went on to work with Hayes over the next three decades, appearing on many of Hayes’ hit albums and soundtracks. He can been seen onstage performing with Hayes in the documentary WATTSTAX (1973) and in the blaxploitation film TRUCK TURNER (1974). He has also appeared in the films FORTY SHADES OF BLUE, BLACK SNAKE MOAN, and SOUL MEN. In the 1990s and 2000s, Pitts collaborated with Hayes on the John Singleton remake of SHAFT as well as the soundtrack for “South Park,” for which he received a gold record. When not working with Hayes, Pitts served as a session musician at Stax. His performances included hits by Rufus Thomas ,The Temprees, The Soul Children, and Albert King.
Pitts appeared on Al Green’s Grammy-nominated record “I Can't Stop,” produced by Willie Mitchell, as well as Cyndi Lauper’s Grammy-nominated “Memphis Blues.” In 1998, Pitts became a founding member of The Bo-Keys, a soul/jazz group formed by producer Scott Bomar as an homage to Memphis’ rich musical tradition, with whom he performed on the score of the Academy Award® winning HUSTLE & FLOW. He was also associated with the eclectic Memphis blues and soul band Elmo and the Shades.
In 2011, Pitts received a brass note on the Beale Street Walk of Fame. He died in Memphis the following year at the age of 65.
Porter has over 1700 songwriter/composer credits performed by a range of artists, including Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Celine Dion, Otis Redding, Drake, ZZ Top, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker, Buddy Miles, Ike & Tina Turner, Earth, Wind & Fire, Boz Scaggs, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Hall & Oates, Dusty Springfield, Ted Nugent, Bonnie Raitt, Wyclef Jean, Mary J. Blige, George Benson, Wu-Tang Clan, Eminem, Patsy Cline, Albert King, and the Eurythmics, among many others. He also has a voluminous list of credits as a producer.
A few of Porter’s best known songs include: Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” (1968 Grammy Winner), Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover” (1993 Grammy Winner), Will Smith's “Get Jiggy Wit It” (1999 Grammy Winner), Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and Biggie Smalls’ “Who Shot Ya?”
Porter was the first staff songwriter at Stax and was a catalyst for bringing in Isaac Hayes as a writing partner, with whom he would co-write over two hundred songs, including most of Sam & Dave’s hits, Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y,” among others. Porter then became a recording artist, and released several albums as a singer on Stax.
In 2012, Porter founded The Consortium MMT, a non-profit organization with a mission to develop a viable music industry in Memphis through structured teaching, experience and mentorship.
Country/Soul singers DONNA and SANDRA RHODES, along with Sandra’s then husband Charles Chalmers, contributed the harmonies to Al Green’s classic albums, and numerous other superstars to this date. They achieved worldwide success as Rhodes, Chalmer & Rhodes, and both Sandra and Donna released solo albums that are still highly regarded today. Sandra’s songs have been recorded by Skeeter Davis, Conway Tweety, and Isaac Hayes, among many others. They currently tour with their large extended family as “The Rhodes Show,” with Brenda “Bear” Barnett singing Charlie’s parts.
HI RHYTHM SECTION was the house band assembled by Willie Mitchell for his Royal Recording Studio in Memphis. The band, included the three teenage Hodges brothers, Charles Hodges (organ), Leroy Hodges (bass), and the late Mabon “Teenie Hodges(guitar), together with drummer Howard Grimes (or sometimes MGs drummer, the late Al Jackson, Jr.). Many recordings also used The Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love), usually with Willie’s brother James Mitchell arranging, and Mitchell’s stepson, Archie Turner, as an additional keyboard player. By the mid-1970s, they had appeared on 27 gold and platinum albums, and countless chart hits for Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay and others.
The Hodges brothers began playing together in their father's band, the Germantown Blue Dots, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Leroy Hodges then formed his own band, The Impalas, where he came into contact with Memphis trumpeter and bandleader Willie Mitchell. Younger brother “Teenie,” then an aspiring bass player, was unofficially adopted by Mitchell in the mid-1960s, and became a member of his regular band, soon joined by Charles and Leroy.
The Hodges brothers, with Grimes, recorded the 1976 LP “On the Loose” as Hi Rhythm, and 1994 saw the release of “Perfect Gentlemen,” featuring a fourth Hodges, Fred (keyboards, as well as Percy Wiggins on vocals. The band dissolved after Hi Records was sold in 1977, but regrouped as a touring band in 1979. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, the Hodges brothers toured with Albert Collins and Otis Clay, and periodically regrouped with Grimes and Turner. Charles Hodges left in the 1990s to become an ordained church minister.
Other band members continued to play together, sometimes with Jackson's cousin Steve Potts on percussion, providing their unique backdrops for Syl Johnson “Back in the Game” (1994), and the Willie Mitchell-produced Al Green comeback “I Can’t Stop.” They also toured with Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall), and were featured on her 2006 album “The Greatest.”
MARVELL THOMAS is a Memphis keyboardist, the son of Rufus Thomas, and the brother of Carla Thomas.
At age seventeen, Thomas was the first piano player to record at Stax Records. He played on the label’s earliest national hits, including William Bell’s “You Don't Miss Your Water,” and the company's very first hit, the Rufus and Carla Thomas duet, “Cause I Love You,” which featured sixteen-year-old Booker T. Jones on saxophone. He also played on some of the legendary Wilson Pickett sessions at Stax and at Muscle Shoals.
Thomas co-produced and played keyboards on the multi-platinum Isaac Hayes album “Hot Buttered Soul.” He jas worked frequently as keyboardist and arranger, appearing on albums by Johnnie Taylor, The Staple Singers, The Emotions, Albert King, Etta James, and Mavis Staples.