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Loving Hard Like a Bill Withers Song: Five Albums



By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Friday, June 16, 2017.



The thing that is important to remember about Bill Withers, is that when he officially “arrived” in the spring of 1971 with his debut album Just As I Am, he was a fully-formed 32-year-old.  To place in perspective, among the most popular male Soul vocalists of the era, Stevie Wonder had just turned 21; Curtis Mayfield, whose first recordings with The Impressions were released in 1958, was yet to turn 30; Donny Hathaway, then two albums into his career was 25; Ronald Isley, almost 15 years into his career, had just turned 30; Isaac Hayes was still a year away from his Academy Award and his 30th birthday;  and Michael Jackson -- who would cover Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” later that year, and arguably the most popular of the bunch -- was...12.

That is to say, Mr. Withers was both brand-new and a veteran -- to life -- when folk first heard “Harlem,” the song that opens Just As I Am.   In a world in which Michael Jackson first became a superstar singing “silly love songs”-- to echo Paul McCartney -- a Bill Withers song was the reflection of a grown-ass man -- a grown ass-Black Man from West Virginia, who had lived and loved hard; and lost twice as hard; ain't nary a  combination of “silly” and “love” in his vocabulary.

Just As I Am (1971)

Bill Withers closes side-A of his debut Just As I Am, a jazzy little groover, with the closest thing to a straightforward autobiography, as Withers name checks his producer, the legendary Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the MG's fame. What Mr. Jones -- as Withers refers to him -- implored him to do was to simply “do it good,” which should taken as the kind of encouragement that you could give an artist in the wide open spaces of the early 1970s.  


Mr. Withers’s career, might be correctly read as an index of that openness and its closure; there was likely some marketing exec in the studio, who said, like Bobby Womack recalled on a recording from the same period, “but you're not commercial.”  In Mr. Withers’s corner, besides Mr. Jones, was a visionary by the name of Clarence Avant, whose fledgling independent label Sussex would be home to Mr. Withers until it folded in 1974. And as for it being commercial, one might ask commercial to who? A phenomenal songwriter, whose genius was the unpretentious adornment of the music and his emotions, there clearly was an audience for a grown-ass, working-class -- he’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans on the album cover, as if he just literally just finished installing an airplane toilet as was his vocation before Just As I Am -- brown-liquor-drinking-after-church Black men.



Bill Withers - Just As I Am 1971


Save a cover of Lennon & McCartney’s “Let It Be,” nine of the eleven tracks were written and composed by Withers, in what sounds like a lifetime of keeping words and music in his head -- in between coffee breaks.  What made Bill Withers a star was the plaintive and damn-near mournful “Ain’t No Sunshine” -- babygurl done gone (and going), and per his own admission  he “oughtta  leave the young thang alone” -- with the remarkable run of “I know’s” that precede his admission, a literal reflection of how exhausted he is trying to keep up. And ain’t nothing more universal than the aging grown man enticed by a glimpse of legal youngness just beyond their grasp; you hear powerful echoes of “Ain’t No Sunshine” more than a generation later when Anthony Hamilton -- perhaps Withers’s purest heir -- sings “Coming From Where I’m From.”

If “Ain’t No Sunshine” found a pop audience -- it peaked at #3 on the pop charts and earned Withers his first Grammy Award -- it was “Grandma’s Hands” that would earn the singer-songwriter favor among Black audiences. The song was a tribute to Black women and Black othermothers, staking a claim on the vitality of community at a moment when Black communities -- from West Virginia to Chicago to Los Angeles -- were being transformed.  


And this is not to suggest that Withers’s images of community are overly romanticized; Grandma resonates in this case, because there’s a parent or two, not in the mix -- for whatever reasons -- a point made by Withers on the remarkable “I’m Her Daddy.”  To be sure there were likely few songs in the pop music pantheon that so matter-of-factly discussed out-of-wedlock birth, and in this case it is Withers narrating a confrontation with his daughter’s mother six-years after her birth, with the the simple query, “does she know, I’m her daddy?”.   But Mr. Withers is also about balance, so Just As I Am closes with “Better Off Dead,” a song about a man dealing with his demons, who admits that his wife and kids were better off without him.  Withers sings, “Now I must die by my own hand, ‘cause I’m not man enough to live alone” -- a lesson in the dangers of unchecked depression -- as the song and album ends with a single gunshot. Direct. Specific. Unadorned. Bill Withers.

Still Bill (1972)

By the time Still Bill was released in May of 1972, Bill Withers was well on his way to becoming a global pop star, on the strength of the album’s lead single “Lean on Me,” which became his first song to top the pop charts.  The song is among the handful of songs from the 1970s -- James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”; Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”; Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” -- that can be recognized as pop standards. As the title of the album might suggest, his meteoric rise notwithstanding, Withers was the still the same ole Bill Withers. While there might be truth to that, the title also highlights that the rawness of his debut, had given way to a more polished even urbane sound. Even still it is still Bill Withers.





Bill Withers – Still Bill (1972)



Still Bill is, in a word, iconic.

The opening side of Still Bill is as classic a suite of recordings that can be heard on any Pop-Soul recording from that era; it literally produced two top-of-pop chart-type songs and at least two others that would be referenced in any Soul-music starter kit.  Whereas the album opener “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” provides a quick rearview to Just As I Am -- from the vantage of  the new Cadillac, as opposed from the rusty Ford -- “Let Me in Your Life” finds Withers in peak form as balladeer, an aspect of his career that has been given short shrift, in part because there was so little available space in the culture for Black men to be tender. In  a powerful show of professional respect, Aretha Franklin would not only cover “Let Me In Your Life,” but used it for the title track, for what was arguably her strongest studio album in the 1970s.

The fleeting of moments of vulnerability heard from Withers on “Let Me In Your Life” immediately gives way to the full power of Mr. Withers’s rage on the track “Who Is He (and What is He to You)” (co-written with Stanley McKenny). Backed by sinister bass-line -- covered over a thrilling 11-minutes by Creative Source the next year, and a generation later by bassist Meshell Ndegeocello -- “Who Is He” provides insight to a grown man’s suspicion (“a man we just passed, just tried to stare me down”), jealousy (“when you cleared your throat was that your cue?”), resignation (“you're too much for one man, but not enough for two”), and finally rage (“dadgummit”). Withers’s signature groove is still apparent on the next track, “Use Me,” which peaked at #2 on the Pop charts.  Built around an infectious drum break, courtesy of veteran session drummer James Gadson, Withers still has woman problems -- in his mind she’s still untrustworthy, though he puts the blame on himself for staying put.

 The A-side closes with the ubiquitous “Lean on Me”; which would become a #1 pop hit 15 years later courtesy of Club Nouveau’s Grammy Award winning beat-machined version of the song.

By the Fall of 1972, Withers would headline at Carnegie Hall; one of the sessions was released as a live album, largely of material from his first two albums, though his live rendition of “Grandma’s Hand,” which featured an extended spoken introduction, is likely more popular now than the studio version. The same might be said of Withers’s exquisite live reading of “Let Me In Your Life.” The highlight of the live album, was song that Withers had not released as a studio recording, the thoughtful anti-Vietnam War ballad “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” which told the story of a vietnam veteran who lost his right arm.  Commercially, 1972 marked the peak of Withers’s career.

+'Justments (1974)

+'Justments was Withers’s last album with Sussex, which went bankrupt in 1975. Withers himself, was never comfortable with the limelight that accompanied his success, including his brief marriage to everybody’s Room 222/Let’s Do It Again  bae Denise Nicholas (their marital problems have long informed interpretations of Withers’s lyrics). Fully in control, +'Justments seems the album that Withers most wanted to record. Though "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh" was released as lead single -- in the same pocket that produced “Use Me” -- there were no obvious singles on the album. The highlight of the album are the sparse ballads like  the majestic “Stories,” “Liza” (a trinket for his young niece),  “Make a Smile for Me,” and the jazzy “Can We Pretend,” co-written by Nicholas with what  feels like couple trying to find common ground moving forward. 

Withers, who grew up in a coal town in West Virginia, closes +'Justments with the autobiographical  “Railroad Man” (joined by Jose Feliciano).  In the song, Withers reflects on the ways the the railroad fueled his imagination for travel, as well as informed his sense of rhythm as a songwriter. Like Just As I Am, there’s  sense of finality to the song; we hear of a railroad man who “stepped in front of the railroad train.”




To be sure, Bill Withers’s signing with Columbia, after the collapse of Sussex, was a lucrative one for the singer/songwriter; it was a relationship, nevertheless, fraught with frustration. A quick glance of the number of collaborators sheds some light on the new world the Withers had to navigate at Columbia, where there were higher expectations, yet -- ironically -- less attention paid to an artists who mattered little to the brand, but were critical to the bottom line.  Making Music generated no hit singles.  “I Wish You Well,” Withers’s send off to Denise Nicholas failed to reach the Billboard 100, and “Make Love to Your Mind” -- a song so busy, that Withers’s voice is almost lost, literally in the mix, barely cracked the top-10 R&B chart; Withers’s days as a chart-topping artist were largely over.

Yet there are simple gems, “I Love You Dawn” is two and a half minutes of uncut beauty; a cold ending that will leave you breathless. On “Paint a Pretty Picture,” finds Withers introspective over a strings and an electric piano, that highlight his core talent to actually paint pictures with his lyrics. The album ends with the wistful “Hello Like Before”; a chance encounter with a former lover, that masks obvious regrets, while considering new possibilities that can never be realized.  The song would be covered the following year by labelmate Jon Lucien, whose own brilliant, and admittedly overproduced rendition takes nothing from modesty of Withers’s original.  While Making Music, might have been a commercial failure, and indeed there were more to come, the aforementioned album cuts offer some of the best examples of the purity of Withers’s genius.

Menagerie (1977)

Following Naked and Warm (1976) -- easily the nadir of Withers’s recording career, save the ambitious “City of the Angels” and the drowsy, late-night lullaby “My Imagination” -- Withers returned with Menagerie.  Released as Disco was becoming a force -- the film Saturday Night Fever was released in the Fall of 1977 -- Withers was paired with hitmaker Skip Scarborough, who was responsible for Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” (originally recorded by Creative Source), LTD’s breakout “Love Ballad” (later a hit for George Benson), and “Don’t Ask My Neighbor,” from the Emotions.  Scarbrough’s gift to Withers was “Lovely Day” -- now a cornerstone of the Bill Withers’s songbook, and his bridge to the Hip-Hop Generation(s), thanks to films like Roll Bounce (2005). “Lovely Day” would be Withers’s last pop hit recorded in his name, and for all intents his last R&B hit. Yet the album remains a Withers classic because of tracks like “Then You Smile at Me,” “I Want to Spend the Night,” “Let Me Be the One You Need” (one of his strongest ballads) and the lovely “Tender Things.”  Almost thirty-years later, Kanye West would cull the unreleased track “Rosie”  from the Menagerie sessions, for his tribute to his grandmother on “Roses.”


Image result for Menagerie (1977)  bill withers


After the release of ‘Bout Love in 1978, Withers would not release another studio recording until 1985’s Watching You, Watching Me, largely because of the struggles he faced with his label. In response, Withers simply sat out, though he did contribute vocals to The Crusaders (“Soul Shadows”) and drummer Ralph MacDonald’s cover of Grover Washington, Jr.’s “In the Name of Love,” which earned a Grammy nomination in 1984. It was on the same album that the original “In the Name of Love” appeared,

Washington’s Winelight (1980), that Withers recorded what might be his most timeless vocals. “Just the Two of Us” was  a top-3 hit on both the Pop and R&B charts, earned the duo Grammy nominations for Best Song and Best Record, and a Grammy win for best R&B song. More than a decade later Will Smith would record a cover as a song for his young son.

Provided some gravitas following the success of  “Just the Two of Us” (on another label, no less), Columbia released  Watching You, Watching Me in 1985 (famously including many of the songs they rejected years earlier), fulfilling Withers’s contractual obligation to the label; it remains his  last studio recording.

In the aftermath of the stellar documentary about Withers,  Still Bill, Columbia released The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums, which serves as an ideal retrospective, and hopefully for others, a brilliant introduction to one of the defining voices of a generation.


Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of Africana Studies at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. He is the founder and curator of NewBlackman.


Loving Hard Like a Bill Withers Song: Five Albums

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