Praised for his ‘behind-the-scenes’ work
LOS ANGELES — Al Bell paused, looked at the shining, golden Grammy trophy in front of him, and drew a big laugh with two simple words: “I accept.”
Bell was honored on Saturday afternoon during the Recording Academy’s Special Merit Awards ceremony at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.
Bell, the former Stax Records head, was given a 2011 Trustees Award Grammy — the equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement award for non-performers. Bell is the third such Memphis recipient in recent years, with the Stax co-founder the late Estelle Axton and Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell having been recognized in 2007 and 2008.
In a class of Grammy merit award winners filled with stars and legends like Dolly Parton and Julie Andrews, Bell may not have been the best-known name or the most familiar face, but by the time he left the stage his importance and contributions to the music business were more than evident.
Introduced by recording academy president and CEO Neil Portnow as “the Mayor of Soulsville,” the man born Alvertis Isbell was the subject of a 10-minute video tribute that noted his rise from the tiny town of Brinkley, Ark., to his career as a gospel and R&B deejay to his visionary leadership of Stax.
The film hailed him as “one of the most influential behind-the-scenes forces in music history,” specifically for helping in the “popularization of modern African-American music.”
Bell offered an emotional and forceful acceptance speech, thanking God, famed attorney James Neal — who defended him during the 1970s Stax court case in which he was acquitted on bank fraud charges — and his family, including his wife, Libby Isbell, and sons Gregory and Jonathan Isbell.
He also thanked the Memphis Music Foundation, for which he serves as chairman of the board, and even the New York Times and the The Commercial Appeal for their recent coverage of his career. But he reserved his greatest appreciation for the Recording Academy for “giving meaning to my contributions.”
Trailblazing female producer Wilma Cozart Fine and longtime Blue Note label head Bruce Lundvall joined Bell in receiving Trustees Awards.
In addition to country great Parton and actress/singer Andrews, folk group The Kingston Trio, punk pioneers the Ramones, jazz drummer Roy Haynes, gospel singer George Beverly Shea and The Julliard String Quartet were also given lifetime awards.
By Bob Mehr
Courtesy of Memphis Commercial Appeal
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