[13 November 2005]
Certain voices filter into the culture and just lodge there, stuck in our collective eardrum for good. They are both utterly unique voices and, somehow, voices that we believe have always been—like a pine tree or a cumulus cloud. Those kinds of voices—Sam Cooke’s gospel velvet or Tony Bennett’s urgent cry—are as natural as a sunrise. I think we hear them as apart from the timeline of pop music; they just are.
Which is why listening to this reissue of Bill Withers’ first album is so odd and so wonderful. Withers’ voice is iconic: “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lean on Me”, “Just the Two of Us”. Laconic, soulful, weary-wise—it belongs to us all. It’s hard to picture the actual Bill Withers, a young guy recently out of the army with an acoustic guitar, a bunch of songs, and a whole lot of hope. And that voice.
But Just As I Am presents precisely that young guy—a son of a West Virginia coal-miner and domestic servant, a black kid who hadn’t even sung much growing up. The songs are sufficiently autobiographical—“Grandma’s Hands”, “Harlem”, “I’m Her Daddy”—that this particular young guy with an acoustic guitar falls neatly within the “singer-songwriter” category of the 1970s, but the songs are sufficiently soulful that they also come out of the African-American tradition too. In the cover photo, the young Mr. Withers embodies that hybrid: a light-skinned black guy who is both carrying a lunch bucket and looking almost… preppy? The songs follow suit, featuring acoustic guitar yet gospel driven singing, being set by a band led by Booker T. Jones (the date’s producer and leader of “The MGs”) yet being sweetened occasionally by strings.
In the documentary featured on the DVD side of this “DualDisc”, Mr. Withers is interviewed by critic Elvis Mitchell, who professes wonderment that a black man would be singing folk music accompanied by acoustic guitar. Mr. Withers understands the feeling, noting that his career not only came out of nowhere but also was not tampered with in the usual way for this first recording. “They let me do exactly what I wanted to do.” And he notes, “I knew ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ was the best song on the record.” Though it was released as the B-side to “Harlem”, it blew up quickly and won Mr. Withers his first Grammy.
Both Mr. Withers and Mr. Mitchell have it right. Just As I Am threads the needle in ways that might seem impossible today. It is an accurate and personal portrait of the artist, it is a largely uncompromised personal vision, it avoids the clichés attached to soul music in the ‘60s, and then it crosses over to mass appeal because of its directness and simplicity. These dozen songs are almost wholly successful as music and as storytelling—coming at the listener without frills or pandering but loaded with melody and lyrical precision.
By now, of course, we’re immune to what a great song “Ain’t No Sunshine” really is. As Mr. Withers notes in the documentary, it’s a rare expression of a man’s romantic disappointment. And its signature moment—the repetition of “I know, I know, I know” over a simple beat and in two unembellished notes—is pop music gold: a hook of such ingenious simplicity that it can never be forgotten even after being heard only once. But it’s remarkable how fine the other songs are. “Grandma’s Hands” is a precise encapsulation of a family’s collective life, and “Harlem” is urban poetry set to a simple, modulating melody. “Sweet Wanomi” is the kind of plain-spoken love song you wish the people on American Idol were allowed to sing, and “Better Off Dead” makes lament into magic.
Even the two covers, “Everybody’s Talkin’”, the 1969 hit for Harry Nilsson, and The Beatles’ “Let It Be”, are here spun as gold. Though Mr. Withers says that the producers and label didn’t interfere at all, these tunes seem like reflexive attempts for airplay. The tunes did not get the airplay, but they are terrific nonetheless. “Everybody’s Talkin’” takes on a darker hue here, and it gives Mr. Withers reason to flex his vocal chops more than on most of his originals. “Let It Be” seems almost grandly ill-advised yet winds up a success. “Let It Be” has always, essentially, been a gospel-based song, and that’s how it’s tackled here—with church organ and soulfully thwacked tambourine moving the song along at a revival meeting pace. These songs, in the end, become part of Mr. Withers’ autobiography in song, and it becomes plausible that these were, indeed, his choices.
The DVD side of the disc is worth a half-hour of your life, featuring a grey-haired Mr. Withers explaining his motivations and childhood in a short “making of” documentary, and then three live performances of songs from the album. The live recordings are compelling and show a real band working the tunes with consummate professionalism and soul. It’s about as far from Ashlee Simpson as you’re likely to see these days. The documentary has a nostalgic tinge, as it suggests how unusual it would be today for a brilliant young singer-songwriter to emerge so purely on a major label.
While we wait for the next classic voice, the next Bill Withers, it’s nice that we’ve still got this great voice to enjoy.