Clay­ton’s salute to Bell a birth­day nod to friend

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Mark Jor­dan

Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

Wil­lie Clay­ton has known Mem­phis ra­dio leg­end Stan Bell for more than 15 years, and tonight Clay­ton will help cel­e­brate his friend’s birth­day with a con­cert at Min­gle­wood Hall.

“I can’t re­mem­ber ex­actly how far we’ve gone back, but I’ve known him a long time,” says Clay­ton. “His sup­port has been very im­por­tant over the years, and it’s an honor to play for him on his birth­day.”

The honor may well be­long to Bell, a top dee­jay at lo­cal R&B sta­tions WHRK K97.1 and, since 2001, V-101.1, who will be par­ty­ing with

one of the last great, old-school soul men. The show will also in­clude per­for­mances by Chicago new­comer Slique and Mem­phis’ own King El­lis.

In fact, while many of Clay­ton’s con­tem­po­raries have ei­ther faded into ob­scu­rity, re­tired, or passed away, Clay­ton, who marks his 40th an­niver­sary in the busi­ness this year, is just hit­ting his stride. His lat­est record, Love, Ro­mance & Re­spect, was re­leased in Novem­ber. The disc, which fea­tures a guest ap­pear­ance by ex-BLACK­street mem­ber Dave Hol­lis­ter, finds Clay­ton strik­ing a ma­ture, ’80s-style soul mood.

“It’s not tra­di­tional blues. It’s not South­ern soul. It’s straight-ahead R&B soul mu­sic,” says Clay­ton, who over the years has hit upon those styles and oth­ers. “If you’re fa­mil­iar with what Luther Van­dross and Ger­ald Lev­ert were do­ing, that’s what this is. Those guys are no longer with us so some­body’s got to keep it go­ing. Why not me?”

One rea­son Clay­ton has per­se­vered is be­cause he was so young when he started. Orig­i­nally from In­di­anola, Miss., Clay­ton was in his early teens when he cut his first record there in 1969. The Clay­tons then spent a few years in Mem­phis, where young Wil­lie gigged and hung out with the likes of Isaac Hayes and Luther In­gram.

When he was 15, how­ever, the Clay­tons moved to Chicago.

“Chicago was a bet­ter place for me to go if I was go­ing to branch out into the en­ter­tain­ment world,” says Clay­ton. “I could work more.”

Iron­i­cally, Clay­ton moved to Chicago only to wind up on a Mem­phis la­bel for his first big record deal. In 1971, Wil­lie Mitchell signed Clay­ton to Pawn Records, a sub­sidiary of the more cel­e­brated Hi im­print. Clay­ton recorded a hand­ful of sides for Pawn, in­clud­ing “It’s Time You Made Up Your Mind” and “I Must Be Los­ing You.” (Clay­ton’s recorded out­put for Pawn was col­lected on the 2003 UK release Pawn Stars! the Pawn La­bel Story 1974-78.) Though none of his record­ings were hits, Clay­ton still de­scribes his time with Mitchell as the turn­ing point in his ca­reer.

“I hon­estly have to say the best school­ing I got was from Wil­lie Mitchell,’ he says. “Wil­lie Mitchell would have you sing be­fore he would feed you. He was the pro­ducer that would make sure all your pro­nun­ci­a­tion was right. I learned more from him than any­one.”

Af­ter leav­ing Pawn, Clay­ton recorded for a suc­ces­sion of la­bels, chart­ing his first R&B hits in 1989 with “Tell Me” and “What A Way To Put It” on the Com­pleat la­bel. Other ef­forts in­clude his all-orig­i­nal 1993 al­bum Let’s Get To­gether, whose ti­tle was a par­tial trib­ute to Wil­lie Mitchell’s best known artist, Al Green, and 1998’s gospel out­ing God Has A Plan.

Through all the stylis­tic shifts, Clay­ton has de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as a singer’s singer, with a voice that has only ripened with age.

“The voice has got­ten stronger more than any­thing,” he says. “I know ex­actly what I want to do with it now. Be­fore, when I was first start­ing out, I was guess­ing.”

R&B star Wil­lie Clay­ton will sing for old friend dee­jay Stan Bell at Bell’s birth­day trib­ute, cit­ing the dee­jay’s sup­port of his mu­sic over the years.

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