Richard Bell first came to my attention in 1970 when I heard Janis Joplin singing”Me and Bobby McGee”. The record was released not long after she passed away and I really liked the sound of her singing and I loved the band that was playing and especially the piano player.
Forward to 1984, and I was playing on what some people might call the chitlin circuit in Alabama, Georgia and my home state of Mississippi. I became friends with some musicians in a band called “The Convertibles” based in Atlanta. I noticed on an equipment case the name Valerie Carter who was, and still is, one of my favorite singers and I asked who the case belonged to. The keyboard player said it was his and he had been her band leader. His name was Richard Bell.
Then I heard Richard play and I knew right away I was in the presence of someone very special. We hit it off right away and not long after that first meeting I was at a party at the place Richard was living with some other musicians and I saw a gold record for the album “Pearl” by Janis Joplin. I asked him where he got it and he said he’d played on it. I found out right away that this guy was not only a “sho nuff” bad ass musician but he was also very humble. We became great friends and played a lot together.
A couple of years later I moved to Nashville and tried to get him to do the same thing but I think he’d been wandering a long time and wanted to get back to his hometown of Toronto. We stayed in touch and over the years we still did quite a few sessions and gigs together thanks to our dear friend, the great guitarist, writer, producer Colin Linden. I found out over all those years what an important part Richard played in lots of musical situations that he never really talked about. He played with people like The Band, Ronnie Hawkins, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Cockburn and tons of other folks. he always made everyone feel important. He didn’t care if you were famous or just getting started in the business. He was the best musician I’ve ever known and also one of my dearest friends.
Richard got sick about a couple of years ago and passed away June 15,2007. After he passed, Colin and I were talking and Colin put together a list of the records Richard had played on that he knew about. It looks like it’s over 400 albums. He was an influence not only as a musician but as a person too. It just doesn’t get any better than Richard Bell. He was a real Rock n Roll Joe.
I grew up in Houston, Texas, in the the sixties and seventies. The Houston music scene at the time was healthy, albeit somewhat undefined. Lightning Hopkins, Houston’s most famous bluesman, was feeling his oats. The Thirteenth Floor Elevators had a national hit. And when you turned on your radio and heard “This is Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, Texas, y’all. Put that hamburger down and let’s all do the Tighten Up!” Well…you had to do what the man said, and get to dancin’.
Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were writing songs there in the late sixties. Their presence gave way to a new and vibrant group of singer-songwriter folkies who emerged in the early to mid-seventies. Houston became a small haven for these young song slingers. Pool halls and beer joints abandoned their hardcore, country shuffle bands and started holding open mike nights. Don Sanders, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Shake Russell, Eric Taylor, and Lyle Lovett were among this throng of troubadours who played for tips and beer in the neon coated Gulf Coast nightlife.
I loved them all. However, my favorite was the bearded blues rocker, John Vandiver. Short and squatty with round wire rim specs perched on a happy red nose, John looked to all the world like the son of Santa. He played big fat hollow body electric guitars that bounced on his jolly girth and shook the rafters when he broke into “Key to the Highway” by Big Bill Broonzy. He had a gentle speaking voice that turned into a golden megaphone when he belted out “Send Me to the Electric Chair” or “Saint James Infirmary”. His timing was atomic and the solos he played were melodic and rocking and unimaginable to me given that he played solo. John was equally magnetic when he fronted a band or was called up to lead a finale, but the magic was seeing one man make so much sound.
Vandiver was humble and gracious to other performers, whether he was giving a short history on the song he was about to perform or sharing the bill with national touring acts, he was more than generous. I remember seeing him open for Willis Alan Ramsey to a packed house. John started his set by explaining that he was the opening act and we could talk and scream to our hearts content while he was on stage. Then he paused and said, “Willis is the greatest thing going and you guys need to listen when he sings.” Of course as you can guess, John wound up doing three encores. So in the end it wasn’t just the music, it was the man and warmth and courage you could feel every time he took the stage.
John Vandiver was murdered in 1985 by some drug dealers who mistakenly thought he was the involved in a high level cocaine operation. When they realized their error and wound up empty handed, the dealers shot John and slayed his girlfriend.
Shortly after the tragedy, John’s friend, guitar maker Bill Collings packed up his one man shop and dedicated his life to helping the police find John’s killers. Collings could not stand to see the case go dark. He worked tirelessly with the Houston detectives until eventually the assailants were apprehended and sent to prison. Bill reopened his guitar shop and within a few years was making some of the finest guitars in the world. He still makes them today. You would have to ask Bill, but I believe Bill found his calling and his muse in the musical life and tragic death of his dear friend, John Vandiver.