Why don’t more people remember Bill Withers? Here’s a guy who had one of the most distinctive voices of the ’70s and, with “Lean on Me”, one of its most indelible hits. Yet compared to contemporaries like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or even Al Green, he’s virtually forgotten. Maybe it’s because he neither died tragically nor continued to crank out watered-down rehashes of past glories, but simply stopped recording — not at the peak of his career, it’s true, but still when he was doing pretty well for himself. Nobody likes a quitter, especially the record-buying public.
Well, guess what? Columbia Records is reissuing his back catalog, and you still won’t see Bill Withers coming soon to a suburban performing arts center or Indian casino near you. Maybe he’s just plain obstinate, maybe he’s got some horrible disease or drug habit, but I prefer to believe that this is a cat who’s just too cool to play the comeback game.
Because, trust me, Bill Withers is one cool cat. Oh, I know — all you remember him for is the sappy “Lean on Me”, but that song, though still charming in its own way, is a far cry from the loose-limbed country funk that was really Withers’ strong suit. If you don’t believe me, just ask Me’Shell Ngedeocello, Gil Scott-Heron and the Black Eyed Peas, all cool cats themselves and all reinterpreters of Withers’ work.
But the ultimate proof of Withers’ coolness lies in his own best recordings, and for that, you have to start with 1972’s Still Bill, Withers’ second major-label release, following fast on the heels of his hit debut Just As I Am. That album, produced by Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the MG’s fame, announced Withers as a charmingly countrified vocalist with a flair for giving both soul ballads and funkier uptempo numbers a folksy, intimate vibe. Still Bill picks up in a similar vein, but with Withers producing and writing all of his own material, the uniqueness of his style is more fully realized, and nearly all of the tracks bristle with energy and excitement of a group of musicians who knew they were on to something good.
Withers’ collaborators on Still Bill were part of a group of Los Angeles-based musicians called the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (who had scored a hit of their own in 1970 with “Express Yourself”) — keyboardist and arranger Ray Jackson, drummer James Gadson, bassist Melvin Dunlap, and the group’s secret weapon, an astonishingly versatile and restrained guitarist named Benorce Blackman. Together with Withers, these guys developed a unique style of bluesy funk that was the perfect soundtrack to the emotional drama the leaked out from around the corners of Withers’ laid-back West Virginia drawl.
Perhaps no cut on Still Bill better illustrates this than the scorching opener, “Lonely Town, Lonely Street”. As Withers, at his soul brother gutsiest, tears into some of his best lyrics (“You can walk along a crowded street / But the city really ain’t no bigger / Than the friendly people that you meet”), the band lays down a smoking funk groove with the organic, head-bopping looseness of a back porch jug band, while some dramatic strings provide a more widescreen counterpoint. All of the slow jams on Still Bill build on a similar mix of sounds, and all are great in their own way — the kiss-off classic “Who is He (And What is He to You)?”, on which Withers famously growls “dadgummit” with more smoldering intensity than such a word could ever reasonably be expected to have; the wah-wah-driven “Another Day to Run”; and the album’s closing track, “Take it All In and Check it All Out”, which sets a Withers sermon on pragmatism to a jittery groove punctuated by Blackman’s spiky funk guitar chords. These tracks represent Withers’ signature sound, and it’s so rarely been imitated with any success that they still sound as fresh as if they’d been recorded yesterday.
Elsewhere on Still Bill, Withers’ versatility as a singer/songwriter rivals that of fellow soul man Stevie Wonder, whose breakthrough album Talking Book upstaged Withers’ stunning sophomore effort. On the sweetly understated “Let Me in Your Life”, Withers shows the facility with tender, folksy ballads that would later become his preferred stock-in-trade (as heard on latter-day hits like “Just the Two of Us” and “I Want to Spend the Night”). He ventures into jazzier terrain with the lovely “I Don’t Know”, which features a Blackman solo that would do George Benson proud, and lets the blues that informs nearly all of his work take center stage on the done-me-wrong slow burner “I Don’t Want You on My Mind”. He also takes his trademark country funk into catchier, more uptempo territory on the irresistible “Kissing My Love”, which deservedly became one of the album’s three hits.
The other two hits that Still Bill produced could not be more different from one another, even though their titles suggest variations on a theme: “Use Me” and “Lean on Me”. The former, easily the album’s funkiest track and arguably its best, employs some tricky, syncopated percussion and an irresistible keyboard hook to propel Withers’ tale of good love gone bad — or maybe it’s the other way around? With some of Withers’ smartest, and funniest, lyrics (“It’s true you really do abuse me / You get me in a crowd of high-class people / And then you act real rude to me …. I wanna spread the news / That if it feels this good gettin’ used / You just keep on using me / Until you use me up”), “Use Me” is one of those songs that has stood up well to overexposure on oldies radio, and will probably never go out of style, as long as good sex continues to unite couples who have no other reason for staying together. “Lean on Me” has fared less well over the years, in part because the naked sincerity of its brotherhood-of-man lyrics is out of style these days, but the unforgivably cheesy remake by Club Noveau in the late ’80s probably didn’t help, either. I still admire the emotional honesty and charm of Withers’ version, but it’s a novelty track compared to the rest of his early work, which is unfortunate considering it’s the song he remains best-known for.
There are plenty of Bill Withers’ greatest hits collections to choose from, but for my money, Still Bill in its entirety is essential listening for any fan of early ’70s funk and R&B. Columbia even sweetens the pot for collectors by throwing in two tracks off Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall (a Carnegie Hall album being the early ’70s equivalent of an MTV Unplugged set). The excellent live versions featured here of “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” and “Let Me in Your Life” are probably as close as you’ll get to hearing Bill Withers in concert these days — this is one old recording artist who’s content to let his past achievements speak for themselves, and that alone, as far as I’m concerned, makes him one of the coolest cats ever to put his voice on vinyl.