The making of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”

In a hotel on a stormy night, touring with a jazz orchestra, a young Stax songwriter’s thoughts turn to his girlfriend back home in Memphis

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Sixty years ago, a young soul singer and songwriter released his debut solo single on a small independent label in Memphis that had recently changed its name from Satellite to Stax. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” became a local hit for William Bell, boosting a career that began with his first composition at the age of 10 and continues to thrive today.

Having served his apprenticeship in the late ’50s with vocal group The Del Rios, Bell became the first male solo artist signed to Stax. Recorded as a demo with members of The Mar-Keys and MG’s, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was originally released as the B-side to “Formula Of Love”, only to be promoted when radio DJs preferred its raw, regretful despair. Taking a popular idiom as the cue for its title, Bell told the tale of a “playboy” who doesn’t realise what he has thrown away until it is too late. According to its composer, the ache in the song was not born from infidelity, but homesickness. “We had been away on tour for about six weeks over the summer,” he recalls. “It was just feeling melancholy at that time, missing my home and my girlfriend. It just came to mind.”

From the stately gospel chord changes to the echoes of “Amazing Grace” in the lyric – “I was blind/And I could not see” – “You Don’t Miss Your Water” reflected Bell’s youthful experiences singing in church. Since he cut the original in 1961, the song has been covered by Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, The Byrds, Peter Tosh, The Triffids and Brian Eno among others. “The message is universal: appreciate what you have,” says Bell by way of explanation. “Back then I didn’t realise what I was writing, but after I got a little older, I realised that although the world changes physically, every generation has the same wishes, desires and aspirations. If you just write truthfully about life and write things you think will help people, it will resonate.”

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It proved to be the first of several standards. Later in the ’60s, Bell wrote blues staple “Born Under A Bad Sign” with Booker T Jones for Albert King, covered by Cream and Jimi Hendrix, while the languorous “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” was recorded in the ’80s as “To Be A Lover” by Billy Idol. He’s still going strong. In 2017, This Is Where I Live won Bell a Grammy. Now 82, he spoke to Uncut from Georgia, between sessions in the studio. “Busy, busy,” he chuckles. “I can’t let any grass grow under my feet!”

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