William Bell, The Byrds: The Well Runs Dry
William Bell longed for home. It was the summer of 1960 and his career as a rhythm and blues singer was proceeding slowly. It had been five years since he received $500 for winning a talent contest at the annual Mid-South Fair in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. This was quite an accomplishment for a 16 year old. Winning the contest also earned him a trip to Chicago to sing at a club with the Red Saunders Band. Saunders was impressed with the prodigy and helped Bell get a job as a singer for Phineas Newborn’s Orchestra.
Singing with Newborn’s band was not glamorous work. For two summers the band toured with The Paul Miller Circus, with Bell singing to accompany trapeze artists. One six-week gig in New York was extended to three months and Bell felt homesick. That feeling served as inspiration for what may be his finest song.
“You Don’t Miss Your Water” was written and recorded by William Bell in 1961 as the B-side to his single, “Formula of Love.” Eventually disc jockeys at rhythm and blues stations flipped the record over, preferring the B-side to the intended hit single. Although the song’s story is sad, the melody is spirited. The opening, with its country church piano, eases us into a tale of woe. Bell relates where things went wrong. With remorse, he declares, “In the beginning you really loved me, but I was blind and I could not see.” Bell has the biblical allusions working here. The narrative intrigues. The character is not a wicked sort, just an unfaithful guy. And it’s clear the guy will receive his comeuppance.
The song’s story is brief but engaging. Bell sings, “I was a playboy,” alluding to liaisons with others. He didn’t take his commitment seriously and his betrayals cost him dearly. The one who loved him without question lost faith and moved on. The well had run dry. Bell’s soulful and sincere lament has staying power. His delivery is smooth and subtle but the message cuts right to the bone.
William Bell was a vital force at Stax/Volt Records throughout the sixties, even as a two-year military stint stalled his momentum. So once discharged from the service in 1965, he fell in the shadow of another Stax/Volt singer, one Otis Redding. On his 1965 album, Otis Blue, Redding offered a dramatic and heavy-hearted version of “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” Among his many strengths as a recording artist, Redding recognized great material and possessed the ability to put his own spin on well known songs. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was a natural for Otis Redding as it would be for other great acts.
Three years after Redding’s version of “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” The Byrds offered their own brilliant rendition. The Byrds were already known for blending musical influences into a style known as folk-rock. In the Spring of ’65 they introduced the music of Bob Dylan to the rock and roll masses with their hit recording of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The success of “Mr. Tambourine Man” led The Byrds to eventually record 14 more Dylan compositions. Often referred to as “the thinking man’s rock group,” The Byrds counted The Beatles among their most avid fans. As with The Beatles, The Byrds were expanding the realm of rock music. They not only covered Dylan. They also performed songs by Jackie DeShannon, Carole King, Stephen Foster, Pete Seeger and others. The words to their hit recording “Turn, Turn, Turn” were adapted by Seeger from the book of Ecclesiastes. They blended jazz and psychedelic sounds on “Eight Miles High,” perhaps their most impressive original.
The Byrds were loaded with talent. Their front man was lead singer Roger McGuinn, with his captivating vocals and jingle-jangle guitar. Among McGuinn’s band mates were Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and David Crosby, all great songwriters, singers and performers. For more than a quarter century, long after their involvement with The Byrds, they would still create great music but it would be with other groups or as solo acts.
First Clark left the band. Then Crosby. Replacing Crosby was Gram Parsons. As it turned out, that was like Jim Rice replacing Carl Yastremzski in left field for The Boston Red Sox. One Hall of Famer in for another. Parsons would figure prominently on Sweetheart of The Rodeo, The Byrds’ 1968 album that featured “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” Originally planned as a 2-record set encompassing much of America’s musical landscape, The Byrds took a decidedly country-western direction with the album, mostly due to Parsons’ influence. In his short tragic life, he developed a love for country and western music that would not only have an impact on his own work but also on much of American popular music over the coming decades.
The Byrds’ rendition of “You Don’t Miss Your Water” covers a good chunk of America’s musical landscape. Here is a rock and roll band performing a country version of a rhythm and blues song. As did Bell’s, The Byrds’ version opens with a spirited piano, yet the sound is brighter. But even with the faster tempo, it still relates a prodigal’s remorse. As McGuinn* sings, “But when you left me, oh how I cried,” the pain is evident. The Byrds pull it off.
Despite their hit singles and innovative albums, the popularity of The Byrds had diminished somewhat in just three years time. Releasing an album featuring songs written by Woody Guthrie, Ira and Charles Louvin, Merle Haggard, Luke McDaniel, William Bell and Merle Travis did not seem the way to produce a hit in the tumultuous late sixties. Yet more than 40 years later, the verdict has long been clear: Sweetheart of the Rodeo is a masterpiece. The album is still included on many all-time best album charts by critics and aficionados alike. The Byrds’ innovative approach to “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is one of the reasons the album will long be considered a classic.
*Due to legal matters, three of the five songs featuring lead vocals recorded by Gram Parsons were left off “Sweetheart of The Rodeo.” On the finished product, McGuinn provided the lead vocals. McGuinn later said Parsons’ vocals were much better. One of the three songs in question was “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” The Parsons versions are now available on the Columbia Legacy CD edition of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and The Byrds’ 4 CD box set, “There Is A Season.” The other Parsons versions left off but now available are “Life In Prison” and “The Christian Life.”
Note: This story continues the Southern Song of the Day series.