By Scott McLennan | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT OCTOBER 27, 2011
Musician and songwriter Doug Bell has lost record deals, lost money, and could have lost his life to cancer.
Yet at 64, Bell has never been busier. He is working on four albums, leading his popular ensemble Bellevue Cadillac, performing under his own name, and participating in various “supergroup’’ concerts.
“Doug has been around a long time, and he’s not going to take no for an answer,’’ says Aaron “Professor Louie’’ Hurwitz, a musician and recording engineer who lured Bell - also known as “The Professor’’ - up to Woodstock, N.Y., to work on an Americana album.
That should not be confused with the ukulele record Bell has going on in a studio in Sarasota, Fla., nor the solo album he’s working on. Bell and jazz guitarist Gerry Beaudoin are also somehow certain they can pull together a joint project.
“I feel like I’m 18,’’ says Bell of the breadth of his work.
Bell credits his years outside of music for teaching him business lessons. He attributes his successful bout against lung cancer with giving him the attitude to tackle life with zeal.
In his younger days, Bell worked the rock circuit, finally bailing in the early ’80s when his band Numbers didn’t hit. For a decade, the Hull resident immersed himself in businesses ranging from retail to real estate. Yet he suffered setbacks in that arena, too.
“I lost most of my money, and for 10 years had been denying my music,’’ Bell recalls of where he was at the dawn of the ’90s. “I was at my lowest point.’’
His response: “I don’t care.’’ And he meant that in the most positive of ways. He began writing songs he felt were true to him, assembled a band that made sense to him, and devised a stage show that appealed to him. That’s how Bellevue Cadillac was born.
Bellevue Cadillac famously turned down John F. Kennedy Jr.’s request to play at his wedding in 1996 (honoring a previous wedding commitment). The publicity thrust Bellevue into the limelight around the time a revival in swing music hit the country. Not that Bellevue was a swing band, but its horn-fueled song arrangements and tailored look fit the part.
Bellevue withstood the wane in swing’s popularity, thanks in part to the quality and diversity of Bell’s songs.
“People I regard as great see something in my songwriting, and that just means so much to me,’’ Bell says.
Bell’s road-honed performance skills, cache of songs, and guitar chops landed him among Boston’s musical big league, which feeds a popular “legends’’ concert program booked throughout the region. That explains why on occasion you’ll find Bell, and not Peter Wolf, belting out tunes with J. Geils Band’s bassist Danny Klein, harmonica player Magic Dick, and namesake guitarist.
This week, Bell sits in with guitar masters Geils and Beaudoin, sax legend Harry Allen, plus Blood, Sweat & Tears alum Fred Lipsius, and others for the Jay Geils All-Star Jazz and Blues Review concerts tonight and tomorrow at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport.
Beaudoin says he has known Bell for 25 years and considers him a kindred spirit.
“We both value writing our own songs. We’re both guitar players, but most important, we both believe there’s no room for an esoteric project,’’ says Beaudoin, who has already started mapping out a record with Bell.
Bell was already at work this year on his own solo album at Framingham’s Media Boss Studio when other recording projects sprung to life. Bellevue and Hurwitz’s band, Professor Louie and the Crowmatix, were together at a festival when Bell asked Hurwitz to supply some keyboards and accordion on the Media Boss sessions.
Hurwitz liked what he heard and wanted to know if Bell had other songs he’d be willing to record in Woodstock, where Hurwitz co-produced three albums for The Band and could round up musicians who work with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and the like.
“Doug writes great songs and I just wanted to get him into this environment where I learned some special approaches from The Band,’’ says Hurwitz.
Bell’s songs and engaging performance style were enough to likewise hook Bud Snyder at Sarasota’s Spirit Ranch studio. “He asked me to produce an album of him playing ukulele songs. I thought he was joking,’’ Snyder says.
But Bell was earnest in his quest to work up tunes on an instrument he had dabbled with in Bellevue and explored further working with the Cars’ keyboardist and uke maven Greg Hawkes. Snyder, who engineered live sound and recordings for the Allman Brothers Band, bought into Bell’s enthusiasm and produced Spirit Ranch’s inaugural ukulele session. But it was hardly that novelty that sold Snyder.
“There is something familiar and honest about his work,’’ Snyder says. “I listen to it and think, ‘That’s just Doug.’’
© 2011 THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY