[by Ken Hunt, London] The Grateful Dead turned Kris Kristofferson’s Me And Bobby McGee into a road movie. With the Full Tilt Boogie Band, her finest ever band behind her, Janis Joplin turned the song into an increasingly urgent love song. Beginning with Joplin’s acoustic strumming and voice, the song built, propelled by Clark Pierson’s drums and Ken Pearson’s Hammond organ. Then nearly three minutes into the song, Richard Bell’s piano slides in unobtrusively. From there on in, the ensemble interpretation steadily steps up its frenzied energy. Together, the whole band delivers one of the Pearl album’s - and Joplin’s - defining statements.
Pearl (1971) was Joplin’s farewell kiss and her finest studio album, a posthumous one as it turned out. When she OD’d in October 1970, she left behind an unfinished album produced by the man who had defined the Elektra rock era, Paul Rothchild, some live recordings - notably from the June and July 1970 Canadian Festival Express Tour that they undertook with The Band, Buddy Guy, Delaney and Bonnie, the Grateful Dead, Ian and Sylvie (Tyson), the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Seatrain and others. Recordings from that trip appeared on the expanded Sony Legacy edition of Pearl (2005). Worse, she left behind one of the great rock bands high and dry, high and dry on the cusp. After her death, the Full Tilt Boogie Band added an instrumental, Buried Alive In The Blues, to make up the minutes on Pearl. Everyone got a chance to shine.
Many musicians invariably get trapped in the era of their initial or that one big success. It is a peril of the trade and public perceptions. For a gigging musician like Bell that did not apply, even though his short-lived Full Tilt Boogie Band stint grabbed people’s attention and the headlines. Born on 5 March 1946 in Toronto, he died on 15 June 2007 in the same city’s Sunnybrook Hospital. Four members of the Full Tilt Boogie Band were from Canada, as Joplin announces in the introduction to Bell’s piano-driven That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll on the expanded edition of Pearl.
Bell had worked his way through the ranks of Canadian rock. During the 1960s Bell played keyboards with that most seminal of rock bands, the Ronnie Hawkins Band - seminal because of the Canadian talent it fostered and nurtured. Hawkins was the band leader par excellence recruiting members of the band on the promise of great music, average wages and, as Robbie Robertson smiled to camera in the film The Last Waltz, most excellent nookie opportunities. Joplin’s manager Albert Grossman stole Bell from Hawkins’ band, much to Hawkins’ chagrin, much in the manner that Grossman had inveigled a chunk of Hawkins’ band away to form the band that backed Dylan. They became known as The Band - the band that Bell joined in 1991, again in the duel keyboardist role, as he had in the Full Tilt Boogie Band, this time working with one of rock music’s keyboard greats, Garth Hudson.
Bell played on The Band’s three last albums, the post-Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel Jericho (1993), High On The Hog (1996) and Jubilation (1998) before Rick Danko of The Band’s death on 10 December 1999 called a halt to proceedings. Bell also worked as a session musician or band member with Burrito Deluxe, Paul Butterfield, Bruce Cockburn, the Cowboy Junkies, Bob Dylan, Colin Linden, Bill Morganfield (Muddy Waters’ son) and John Sebastian.