He's best when he's strange
Bill Withers is best known for a handful of songs that which have become staples of oldies radio stations and covered by dozens of better known artists. His signature song of desperate love, “Aint’ No Sunshine”, has been recorded by more than 50 acts as talented and diverse as Tori Amos, Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, and Scott Walker. Wither’s supportive “Lean on Me” was a number one hit for Club Nouveau as well as popularized by the California Raisins, the cast of Glee, and the country trio of Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, and Keith Urban. The sultry “Use Me” was not only a hit for Withers, but also for Grace Jones and Aaron Neville. Most recently, it was the title tune for acoustic guitarist David Bromberg’s latest release. The upbeat “Lovely Day” became a success again when Withers re-recorded it with the Maroon 5. Diana Ross, Jill Scott and Luther Vandross featuring Busta Rhymes all scored with it. The jazzy “Just the Two of Us” has been covered by bassist Christian McBride, pop hip-hopper Will Smith, the Japanese band Exile and in Spanish by Jose Jose.
Oh, there are others songs that you might have listened to by Withers and others, such as “Grandma’s Hands” or “In the Hands of Love”. And chances are you have heard his work being sampled by rappers looking to give a song a smooth R&B style groove. But Wither’s best known for the five songs listed above, two of which are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Sony has just re-released all nine of Wither’s full-length albums initially issued between 1971-1985. The discs have been newly mastered from the original tapes with facsimile cardboard sleeves featuring the front and back cover art, all neatly packaged in a clamshell box with an informative 39-page booklet and extensive details about the recordings. The question is, does a musician who is famous for five or so songs merit having his entire catalogue put back in circulation. The answer is yes, despite the fact that not all of the albums are top notch. Four of the nine, which are the first four, are well worth hearing in their entirety. Besides the well-known material, the other tracks have much to offer. The last five albums are spottier. None are bad, some are quite good, and all contain some fine material. Listening to them in order will provide one an education in the evolution of popular rhythm and blues from the early ‘70s to the mid-‘80s.
When Withers first started his recording career in 1971, the military veteran was over 30 years old and considered too black for white radio and too white for black programming. After several rejections, he was signed by Sussex where he was fortuitously produced by Booker T. Jones, who employed several members of his band (Booker T. and the MGs) to back up Withers, with Stephen Stills on lead guitar. Wither’s mix of pop and gospel styles makes for a potent combination, whether he sings about the streets of Harlem, the plight of an unwed father, or of an alcoholic who plans to kill himself now his wife has left him. His smoke and honey voice gives him a folk authenticity. One identifies with the narrator, even on tracks like “Grandma’s Hands” where he sings of being beaten by a martinet father because of dropping an apple core. Withers’ smooth tone makes everything seem okay—even the pain of living.
The album’s hit, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, went platinum and won him a Grammy Award for best R&B song. What makes this R&B itself is questionable. It’s a largely acoustic number with a string arrangement. However, there is no question that Withers sounds “black”—for which R&B was a euphemism in the early ‘70s. The song itself succeeds despite—or maybe because of—Withers’ willingness to be a bit eccentric. He sings the words “I know” more than 25 times in a row (with different inflections) in the middle of the song. What may initially sound like filler comes off as deep through repetition. The album’s title Just As I Am befits Withers’ idiosyncrasies here and on the other tracks.
Withers recorded his second album between concert tours to strike while he was hot in the marketplace. Still Bill (1972) features a funkier band and has a cooler vibe. He sings about kissing and loving, but with an urgency not heard previously. This can best be felt on the hit from this disc, “Use Me”, where he makes it clear that he’s ready to trade self-respect for hot sex. The song literally pulsates with erotic energy. The album yielded another gold record, “Lean on Me”, whose booster lyrics applaud the importance of helping one another. The juxtaposition of these two songs that appear sequentially on the disc show that Withers hasn’t lost his quirkiness. The other cuts add to this impression as he addresses everything from material success, ephemeral beauty, and wasting time from a variety of perspectives that might best be described in the title of another one of the tracks, “I Don’t Know”. That’s not a confession of ignorance but a proclamation of the value of considering more than one vantage point, including one’s own feelings, about the important things in life.
Although he had only released two albums, his third one (Live at Carnegie Hall, 1973) was a live disc that leans heavily on his past recordings. Nine out of the 14 tracks appeared on his studio albums. However, Withers and his band really stretch things out and get in a groove, beginning with the eight-minute rendition of “Use Me”, twice as long as the original version that opens the record and sounds like the audience wishes it could go on forever. The material here betrays a social conscience, especially on “I Can’t Write Left Handed” that addresses the human costs of the war in Vietnam. Personalizing problems really helps him engage the audience, especially on the 13-plus-minute call and response version of “Harlem / Cold Baloney” that addresses poverty and hunger through the view of a child.
+‘Justments (1974) was Withers’ last album of new recordings for Sussex. The disc has much more of a quiet jazz vibe, one that he continued to pursue on later ventures, but still has rough edges. Withers continues to preach, but the gospel-tinge of earlier music is much more muted. Still, when he sings “You’re like a man loving Jesus / That says he can’t stand a Jew” on “You”, or testifies on “Stories” about the sad tale of a widow, you can feel the presence of the invisible church congregation. The album illustrates Withers struggling to find new themes and styles, but he is best when he just sounds like the old Bill, and gets weird as on his tall tale about growing up on the other side of the tracks on “Railroad Man”.
Unfortunately, Withers had troubles with his record label and began to record with Columbia that turned him into a more tasteful artist and reined in his strangeness. Making Music (1975) is a lush production with just a hint of quiet fire. He now “wishes you well / and sweet things to smell” and stuff so slickly mushy that you wait for the real Bill to appear. He was always sentimental, but so much so that it felt inspired. Now he could be greeting you on behalf of the Rotary Club. The music and lyrics are largely undistinguished. They are pleasant enough, but…. And even when he proclaims that “He Wants to Make Love to Your Mind” instead of the other person’s body, he comes off as bored more than passionate. Still, cuts like “She’s Lonely” about the problem of doing everything right, but still feeling isolated, reveals Withers creative juices have not totally, um, withered.
Withers gets his groove back on Naked and Warm (1976), as there is less smooth soft jazz and more of an R&B edge to the performances. He also gets a bit eccentric again, especially on the 10-minute-plus ode to Los Angeles, “City of the Angels”, that makes the Red Hot Chili Peppers seem almost tepid in comparison in its love for the city “When it rains I understand,” he croons as he forgives the town all its fault. And he gets downright funky again on tunes such as “Close to Me” and the title cut that wear their eros on their sleeves.
Menagerie (1977) takes a step backwards, although it does contain his sunny “Lovely Day”, famous for Withers holding a note for 18 seconds. Despite titles such as “She Wants to (Get on Down)” (which also found its way in the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar), the bulk of material is soft and gentle, as indicated by other titles such as “Tender Things” and “Lovely Night for Dancing”. These songs border on the sopoforic more than seductive.
‘Bout Love (1978) is in the same vein, but with more prominent Burt Bacharach style horn arrangements. Happily, Withers does get a bit strange again. As the title suggests, all the songs are about love, which he personifies and sings to on a song simply called “Love.” It may be full of clichés, but the warmth of Withers voice makes this and the other tunes enjoyable. There are no standout tracks, but as a whole the album works as a soundtrack to making love.
It took seven years for Withers to release another full length album because of problems with Columbia, but he still made music—including his Grammy Award winning collaboration with Grover Washington, Jr., “Just the Two of Us”. Sadly, that track is not on the box, nor are his ventures with the Crusaders and Ralph MacDonald. Watching You Watching Me (1985) returns Withers to a more sexy groove. The electronic accompaniment can be off-putting at first, especially on cuts such as “You Can’t Just Smile It Away” and “Something That Turns You On”, but their very cheesiness adds authenticity to his love feelings. He’s not afraid to sound naked over thumping synthesized beats. This album came out during the same year Foreigner put out “I Want to Know What Love Is” and has that grandiosity. Pomposity in the name of love is no vice, especially the sexual kind. “Oh Yeah,” Withers notes, “Whatever Happens” is going to turn to love making.
So check out all of Withers. At his worst, he’s just another smooth crooner. But watch out when he gets weird. That’s when he really cooks!
// Notes from the Road
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