Edmonds-based musician LeRoy Bell never expected to be a stage actor. Then again, he never imagined he’d be on a reality TV show either.
Yet Bell is prepping for his theatrical debut, in the rocking musical “Passing Strange.” Directed by Tyrone Brown for Side Country Theatre, it opens Sunday, June 8, at ACT Theatre.
And in 2011, he made it on-camera as a finalist in TV’s “X-Factor” reality talent competition.
The easygoing singer-songwriter, whose warm, scratchy vocals and satisfying original tunes underpin his long career in music, has taken both experiences in stride.
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When theater producer John Sutherland contacted him about playing a role in “Passing Strange,” a coming-of-age bio- tale based on the rites of passage of the musician-writer Mark Stewart (aka Stew), Bell was a bit incredulous.
“At first I just kind of laughed and thought it was a joke,” recalled Bell, who has no acting training or credits. “I said, ‘You want me to be in a play?’ John said no, it was a musical. So I uploaded the video Spike Lee made of the show. I loved it, and realized that as the adult Stew I’d be mostly playing music, singing and narrating.”
He could relate to Stew’s story, explains Bell. “Like him, I came from a middle-class black family, not a mean-streets background, and I went through my own hippie Renaissance — the whole thing he talks about in the show, partying, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll. Like him, I also spent time in Europe, in Germany, where my father was stationed in the Army.”
Bell considers “Passing Strange,” which livened up Broadway in a 2011 run, “refreshing, really refreshing, because there are so many depictions of black people from meager or impoverished backgrounds, and not all of us lived that storyline. And some of Stew’s dialogue cracks me up.”
He points to a moment in the play when the young Stew visits Amsterdam. “This girl asks him, so you play jazz? And the blues? He gets pissed off and says to her, do you wear wooden shoes? I could relate, because a lot of people just assume black musicians play jazz or blues, and I don’t.”
Bell’s musical background is eclectic. Now in his early 60s, he’s been playing since his teens. In the 1970s, with cohort Casey James, he formed the successful band Bell and James, which released three albums and such singles as the hit “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night).”
Working with Bell’s uncle Thom Bell, a highly successful music producer who (with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) crafted the ’70s Philly soul sound, he and James also wrote tunes for such top artists as The O’Jays, Gladys Knight & the Pips and Elton John, including John hits “Are You Ready for Love” and “Mama Can’t Buy You Love.”
“My uncle kept us pretty busy. He worked with many artists and gave us first crack at submitting songs. But after the mid-1980s it kind of fell apart. We went off one label and didn’t get picked up by another. My pride was so injured I got disillusioned. I didn’t want to play music again, period.”
He eventually got back into the game, by playing drums with bands. “It was nice because the focus wasn’t on me, and I got out my aggressions by beating the hell out of those drums!”
In 2000, living in the Seattle area and determined “to do my own thing,” Bell went back into the studio to self-record “Spending Time,” a ruminative “acoustic soul” album of original material. Since then, he and his band, LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends, have cut more discs, gigged extensively and attracted an avid following.
Bell’s stint on the first U.S. season of Simon Cowell’s “The X-Factor” was, he says, an anomaly. “I thought I’d get some media attention for my own music on national TV. But when I made it on the air, they didn’t let me do my own stuff, which was the whole point! It was still great recognition, though. The show played in 150 countries.”
As he rehearses “Passing Strange” (which Bell calls “uplifting, kind of a party and a journey at the same time,”), the three-time father and granddad of six says he’s content. “I’m very, very happy with where I am now, because I’m doing my own records, and I’ve got a fantastic band that’s letting me take a hiatus to do this show. I couldn’t imagine anything better — except, maybe, more hit songs.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org