Black Pioneers: Al Bell

Al Bell headshot
Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

Al Bell is considered the driving force behind Stax Records as a producer, songwriter and executive during the company’s most productive period, from 1965 to 1975. He was responsible for promoting the careers of such talent as the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, and Otis Redding, among many others, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. The NWA Democrat-Gazette published an article about his life on this date in 2012.

Al Bell was born Alvertis Isbell on March 15, 1940, in Brinkley. Bell’s family moved to North Little Rock when he was five years old. Bell attended Scipio A. Jones High School in North Little Rock, the public high school for African American students during the period of segregation. After graduation, Bell attended Philander Smith College.

Bell had an opportunity to be a disc jockey at WLOK in Memphis. He started his own label, Devore, and used the studio facilities at Stax Records. Bell married Linda Mae Purifoy on Dec. 25, 1963, and they had two sons.

Bell took another disc jockey job in the Washington D.C. area but remained in touch with Stax owner Jim Stewart. Bell gained notoriety for being one of the only disc jockeys playing Stax music in the Washington D.C. area. Stewart began seeking Bell’s advice as he was creating a new market in the region for Stax music. In the fall of 1965, Bell officially joined Stax as head of promotion. Moving from the business side to production, Bell engineered Isaac Hayes’s debut album, Presenting Isaac Hayes (1967). However, Bell made his biggest contribution as a producer with the Staple Singers. 

By 1974, Bell had acquired Stax from Stewart, and it became the fifth-largest Black-owned company in America, according to Black Enterprise Magazine, even as the company was facing total financial collapse. Stax went bankrupt in December 1975, but Bell made an attempt to revive the label in 1978 through talks with Governor Bill Clinton. Clinton was interested in the economic benefits the label could bring to the state, but his first term as governor held unexpected challenges, and he was unable to win reelection, halting the plans for Stax’s rebirth.

Bell moved to California and set up a management firm that represented artists such as Mavis Staples and Prince. Bell used the time to re-establish contacts in the music industry and he took over as head of Motown Records Group for a time. Bell started Bellmark Records and Alvert Music, which produced some significant hits, including Tag Team’s Whoomp! There It Is. He was involved in several of the first lawsuits over music “sampling” while in California. By 2001, Bell was again living in North Little Rock. One of his sons was involved in the music business by that time and started Alpine Records with a studio in Byrant. 

Among his many honors, Bell was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2002, named the chairman of the Memphis Music Foundation in 2009, received a Grammy Trustees Award in 2011, and was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2014. In October 2018, Bell was named the McIlroy Family Visiting Professor in the Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Arkansas. In 2019, Bell announced he was moving his home and business to Bentonville.