The Memphis Music Foundation elected former Stax Records executive Al Bell as its new chairman this week. Bell takes over from longtime board chairman Phil Trenary.
"Economic empowerment and economic development," Bell responds when asked what his focus will be. "When I say empowerment, I'm talking about individual. When I say development, I'm talking about institutions and businesses. Everything I do will be about that."
Bell praises the city's "diverse, authentic music base" and asserts, familiarly, that one challenge is to get locals to appreciate the city's cultural assets as much as people around the country and around the world.
Bell's long, historic music career is best know for his period as an executive and eventual co-owner of Stax, leading the label during the era marked by Isaac Hayes' rise to superstardom and the historic WattStax concert.
A veteran of an era when civic interest in the music business was minimal, Bell seems to have a special appreciation for the helping-hand role organizations like the Music Foundation can play in what is generally an entrepreneurial business.
"The cornerstone of the foundation is vested in the Memphis Music Resource Center," Bell says, referring to the Foundation's free, hands-on career development workspace. "It's a living library and work station with committed staffers. As it was being developed and completed, I looked back and said, my god, I wish we'd had something like this when we were building Stax and Hi. We had to do go out and bump our heads, get knocked down, get back up, lose money."
Bell says he wants to "inform, educate, and motivate" the people of Memphis on the benefits of a strong music industry, but says his focus needs to be on the business community.
"We can accelerate the growth and success of our artists and musicians, and as a result of that create economic opportunity," Bell says.
The city has a shaky history when it comes to relying on a high-profile representative of Memphis' musical glory days to impact the present, as witnessed by Elvis cohort Jerry Schilling's rocky tenure with the Music Commission before the private, not-for-profit Music Foundation split off from it. But Bell insists he won't be overly focused on imparting history lessons.
"The only thing that's important to me about the past is that the knowledge and understanding of it enables me to better fashion my future," Bell says. "I think future. I'm current. I'm not yesterday. I'm always today and tomorrow. What's important about the past is we have something to build on. When I was young I dealt with older people, because I wanted to learn from them. As I've gotten older, I deal more with younger people, because I want to stay current."
An Arkansas native, Bell currently resides in North Little Rock. Following his tenure at Stax, Bell spent some time as president of Motown. In recent years, he's shepherded such hit records as Tag Team's five-million-selling "Whoomp! There It Is" and Prince's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."