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.