Universally beloved soul singer Bill Withers passed away this week. He came from the small coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, and spent his early career in the navy. His career as a professional musician was notably short – he released his first album in 1971 at the age of 33, while 1978’s ‘Bout Love was his penultimate record. His frustrations around record company politics around 1985’s Watching You Watching Me caused him to walk away from the music business altogether. In his short career Withers wrote a generous handful of loved songs – ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, ‘Lean On Me’, ‘Lovely Day’ and his duet with Grover Washington Jr. on ‘Just the Two Of Us’.
In 1967, after leaving the navy, Withers moved to Los Angeles and attempted to enter the music business. He released a one-off single, ‘Three Nights And A Morning’, produced by Mort Garson on Lotus Records. The single didn’t gain any attention, and Withers returned to his day job, making aeroplane toilet seats in a factory.
Withers’ 1967 single was unsuccessful, but in hindsight it’s a fascinating false start to his career. The a-side, ‘Three Nights and a Morning’ is an early version of ‘Harlem’, a Withers original later featured on 1971’s Just As I Am. It’s given a 1960s soul arrangement, akin to Stax or Motown, an arrangement that Withers would revisit on 1973’s superlative Live at Carnegie Hall.
The b-side is a cover of Irving Berlin’s ‘What’ll I Do?’, famously covered by Frank Sinatra in 1962. The arrangement is busy – it starts acapella before jumping into gospel. Withers was best loved for his warm and authentic songs; here he’s showcasing his abilities as a capable lead vocalist.
Withers’ career could have looked quite different if this debut single had been successful. In hindsight, emerging in the singer-songwriter era in the early 1970s suited his heartfelt and humane songs. It’s better that this his 1967 single is now a historical curiosity, not a career defining moment.