It’s difficult to discuss this enduring 1970s acoustic soul singer without referencing one of my favourite jokes, so let’s get it out of the way first, shall we?
How do you turn a duck into a soul singer?
Put it in the microwave until its bill withers.
Withers was a relatively late comer to the music industry – he spent his twenties working in manual jobs like manufacturing aeroplane toilets. His debut Just As I Am was released in 1971, at the age of 32, and contained the iconic ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’. 1972’s more confident Still Bill followed in 1972, and contained another standard in ‘Lean On Me’.
At this point I’ve only covered Withers’ first two studio albums, and Live At Carnegie Hall, primarily because I’ve never seen copies of his later albums – even his first two albums were unreleased on CD for a long time. Withers continued having hits like ‘Lovely Day’ and ‘Just The Two Of Us’, before bowing out of the music industry with 1985’s Watching You Watching Me – interestingly, a local band had a huge New Zealand hit with a cover of that album’s ‘Sweet Lovers In The Night’ in 1988.
Withers’ music is eminently likable – he exudes a wisdom and humility that’s rare in popular music. His early records transcend genres intuitively – he’s bridging the gap between acoustic singer-songwriter and soul. While his catalogue arguably isn’t as deep and rich as some of his contemporaries, his early albums are excellent and among the best of their era.
Bill Withers Album Reviews
Just As I Am
Bill Withers was 32 years old when he recorded his debut album – it was recorded in a few spread-out sessions, as his cash strapped record label could afford studio time. He’s accompanied by Booker T. and the MGs, while Stephen Stills contributes some lead guitar. Particularly on Just As I Am, Withers’ acoustic soul bridges the gap between singer-songwriter introspection and soulful vocals and grooves to create an album with universal appeal. Withers’ maturity gives him a gravitas, a wisdom and grace that’s not common in popular music; songs like ‘Grandma’s Hand’ with their focus on tradition and heritage are profound and heartfelt.
The key song is ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’; it’s such a standard that it’s easy to forget how idiosyncratic it is – the bridge is Withers simply repeating the phrase “I know” ad infinitum. ‘Grandma’s Hand’ is the other standout, with Withers telling the story of his grandmother’s influence on his life. There are also notable covers – Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ and The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’, while there’s a pep talk to himself in ‘Do It Good’, social commentary in ‘Harlem’, and resigned tales of broken love in ‘I’m Her Daddy’ and ‘Hope She’ll Be Happier’.
Just As I Am is a very strong, and somewhat overlooked, debut – there’s far more to Withers than a few hit singles, and there’s a full album of worthwhile material here.
For his sophomore album, Withers collaborated with members of Charles Wright’s Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Still Bill is more confident sounding, which means that it loses some of the intimacy of the debut. There’s less of the acoustic soul of Just As I Am and more funk grooves; it’s another very strong, and very underrated album, it’s just not quite as unique as the debut.
The enduring song from Still Bill is ‘Lean On Me’ – it’s subsequently translated into dance and hip hop versions, but Withers’ version is endearing, written about the loss of community he felt after leaving his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia. The groove based songs that follow ‘Lean On Me’ are also strong – ‘Use Me’ is a nuanced tale of a bad relationship, while ‘Kissin’ My Love’ rides a laid-back shuffle – while there are still delicate, heartfelt songs like ‘Let Me In Your Life’. ‘Who Is He (And What Is To You)?’ is surprisingly paranoid from the usually genial Withers.
Still Bill isn’t quite as distinctive as Withers’ debut, but it’s a fine followup – both albums have been lost a little in the shuffle of great albums from the early 1970s, but are well worth discovering.
Live At Carnegie Hall
Live At Carnegie Hall is a celebrated double live album, and for good reason. It’s a strong document of Withers’ early solo career, showcasing his unique mixture of confidence and humility. It covers enough of Withers’ early highlights that it’s a good one shopping solution for him – although I’d recommend it as a complement to his studio albums, as five of the fifteen songs are Bill Withers’ compositions that aren’t on any of his studio albums.
Some of these songs are transformed in a live setting – for example ‘Better Off Dead’ is much punchier in this live rendition, while ‘Harlem/Cold Baloney’ is transformed into a fourteen minute soul epic. And it captures the essence of Withers, and some of his stage chat is as memorable as his songs – in ‘Grandma’s Hands’ he recalls how lively his grandmother’s church was: “At the funeral they used to have tie the caskets down!”
Live At Carnegie Hall is as valuable as Bill Withers’ studio albums, and it’s one of the few live albums that’s essential, not just to Bill Withers’ fans but as a document of 1970’s soul.
1974, not yet rated
I’ll cover this sometime – I think it’s a step down from his first two records.
Five Favourite Bill Withers’ Songs
Ain’t No Sunshine
Lean On Me
Who Is He (And What Is He to You)