A former milkman, Naval officer, and factory worker who didn't record his first album until the ripe old age of 32, Bill Withers was an unlikely success story. Yet success was immediate when Just As I am was released on the small Sussex label in 1971, in large part due to the Grammy winning #3 hit single "Ain't No Sunshine" and a uniquely minimalist acoustic soul sound. That sound was expanded somewhat on Still Bill, which arrived in 1972 and which was an even bigger hit, spurred on by Withers' signature song, "Lean On Me," a smash #1 hit. However, these two albums, both of which I consider to be minor classics, have been in and out of print during the intervening years, making this generous Raven 2-for-1 reissue (which also includes two additional, highly worthwhile bonus tracks) indispensable.
Sympathetically produced by the legendary Booker T. Jones, Just As I am had far more than just the bluesy, brilliantly somber "Ain't No Sunshine" (who among us hasn't sang along to its famous "I know I know" refrain?) going for it. There's the gritty urban drama, "Harlem," for instance, and the nostalgic "Grandma's Hands," both of which showcase Withers' highly visual, story-based lyrics and his urbane yet earthy, lightly funky soul sound. Less important yet still classy songs include the simple, sweetly melodic "Sweet Wanomi," his lively updates of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" and The Beatles' "Let It Be," and sparse, bluesy folk ballads such as "In My Heart" and "Moanin' and Groanin'."
The rest of the songs on the album are outstanding, including "Do It Good." I love the story behind this one; the wet-behind-the-ears Withers needed a confidence boost, so Booker T. reassured him to just "do what you do, but do it good." That's exactly what he does on this funky, rhythmic song, while "I'm Her Daddy" is a weightier track that tells about a father who was cheated out of a relationship with the 6 year old daughter he never knew about. Withers' vocal is suitably intense, giving the song a stunning emotional impact. "Better Off Dead" is likewise hard to shake, what with lyrics like "she couldn't stand me anymore, so she just took the kids and went" and "she's better off without me, and I'm better off dead now that she's gone." Heady stuff, but as far as I'm concerned this song and every other song on Just As I am (aside from "Ain't No Sunshine") pales compared to "Hope She'll Be Happier," which is simply one of the best soul ballads I've ever heard. A gorgeous keyboard melody and tear inducing lyrics like "I never really thought that she would leave me but she's gone" (delivered vocally for maximum emotional impact) and the more resigned "I hope she'll be happier with him" are devastating enough, but above all else it is Withers' great vocal that makes this song such a forgotten classic. Possessor of a warmly inviting, smoothly soulful voice, Withers' lays it all on the line on what is probably a very personal track, resulting in an utter masterpiece of a song that rivals Marvin Gaye, Al Green, or Stevie Wonder (to reference other giants of early seventies soul music) at their best.
On a side note, the impressive personnel helping out Withers on Just As I am included MG's Al Jackson Jr. (drums) and Donald "Duck" Dunn (bass), at least on the early sessions. Session aces Jim Keltner (drums) and ex-Flying Burrito Brother Chris Etheridge (bass) replaced that duo when record company complications arose, while Stephen Stills added guitar as well. Unfortunately, politics prevented Booker T. from producing Withers' second album, but Bill rebounded nicely by simply using his touring band (who he had recorded his demos with and who were also members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band), who co-produced and collaborated with Withers on the album that came to be called Still Bill.
If anything Withers actually upped the ante on this consistently stellar set, which captures him at a confident peak. Although Withers hasn't abandoned his uniquely laid-back brand of folksy soul, most of the album has a fuller sound and more of a funky rock edge to it than Just As I am. Granted, the gorgeously pleading ballad "Let Me In Your Life" is as intimate as anything he ever did, and "I Don't Know" is another modest album track that exudes warmth and class. However, songs such as "Use Me" (a #2 hit) and "Kissin' My Love" are more upbeat and up-tempo, as Withers and his backing band bring the funk big time, all while expanding their sonic palette by adding tasteful synthesizers and string embellishments. The band's rhythmic capabilities are also showcased on "Lonely Town, Lonely Street" and "Who Is He (And What Is He To You)," while "Another Day To Run," "I Don't Want You On My Mind," and "Take It All In And Check It All Out" comprise the ultra-intense threesome that concludes the album. Of course, the song that most people remember Withers for today is the classic "Lean On Me," an uplifting anthem about friendship on which his gospel roots comes to the fore. There's a funky sing along bridge as well, and once again it's apparent what a passionate, gifted singer Withers was. Perhaps the lyrics veer a little on the corny side, but only the coldest heart could fail to be moved by such a distinguished performance.
Adding further value to this excellent package are Terry Reilly's informative liner notes, a digitally remastered sound sure to please audiophiles, and two enjoyable bonus tracks. These encompass a moody, evocative soundtrack song, "Better Days," which picks up a head of steam for a jam ending, and an admirably rough hewn and energetic duet with Bobby Womack on Womack's classic rocker "It's All Over Now." Really, few better albums came out in 1971/1972 than these two, and given that Withers has become seriously overlooked and underappreciated over the years (in part because he stopped recording almost 20 years ago and keeps a low profile, letting his music speak for itself), this reissue provides a perfect opportunity to remember a unique talent who was a true American original.
Live At Carnegie Hall (Sussex '73, Columbia '97) Rating: A
Forget getting any of the numerous “best of” compilations out there on the market, none of them showcases the wit, charm, and sheer talent of Bill Withers as well as Live At Carnegie Hall. Superlatively recorded at the prestigious New York City concert venue, there was magic in the air that night as the good vibes between the ever-humble Withers, his excellent backing band (Melvin Dunlap, bass; James Gadson, drums; Bobbye Hall, percussion, Ray Jackson, piano and arrangements; Bernorce Blackman, guitar), and a pumped up crowd (who are totally into it) is contagious. Even Withers’ easy going between songs banter provides context and humor and actually enhances the experience, and his songs, both personal (primary topics including friendships, relationships, and grandmas!) and political (“I Can’t Write Left Handed” is among the greatest anti-war songs ever), reveal a master storyteller who always seems to get the small details right. Sure, musically you could argue that at times his music lacks an edge or is too laid back, or that his straightforward lyrics can be overly earnest (some might say “corny”), but Withers’ strength is in his modesty; these songs don’t bowl you over as being instantly great, but rather their quality becomes difficult to deny once one gets to know them. Simply put, this record is right for damn near any mood, and like all great live albums this one makes you wish that you were there and makes you feel like you are there. Of course, this album is not 100% live, as the strings were pasted on in the studio, but in most cases these are done with taste and care so it should only bother you if you care about the “authenticity” of live albums (I don’t so long as they sound good). Among the album’s plentiful highlights is the opener, an 8+ minute version of “Use Me” that’s flat-out funky and is one of several songs here where the crowd acts almost like another instrument. Withers’ warm, at times funky ode to friendship “Friend Of Mine” is also notable and is the song where he amusingly introduces the band, while “Ain’t No Sunshine” is sparse and haunting, and this version of “Grandma’s Hands,” with Withers’ alternately funny and poignant intro, is arguably definitive. His sad relationship songs “Better Off Dead” and “Hope She’ll Be Happier” are predictably great, especially the latter, which may even be better than the fantastic studio version. Carnegie Hall may be a big place, but there was still an intimacy to this concert that is most apparent on this riveting rendition, on which Withers totally knocks his vocal out of the park; tell me you don’t get chills on the “but she’s gone!” line or that you’re not totally impressed with Withers as a singer, and yours truly will be quite befuddled! Anyway, “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” featuring another extended spoken word introduction, is incredibly moving, with sparse church-y (background vocals and organ) backing setting the scene for Bill the master storyteller. However, though it has its serious moments this album is largely a festive affair. Take, for example, “Lean On Me,” an inspired performance and a real crowd pleaser, or the “Harlem/Cold Baloney” medley (all 13:43 of it), a fittingly funky finale with more audience participation that has the joyous intensity of a church sermon; it’s a shame that the song, and therefore the concert, has to eventually end. Simply put, this album has great songs, a great singer, a great band, and a great crowd; what’s not to like? Live At Carnegie Hall and the above-mentioned two-fer are the essential Bill Withers albums.
+'Justments (Sussex '74) Rating: A-
Okay, this one's not as essential, but it's still damn good. Although this album spawned no hits or even any songs that I've ever heard on the radio, the cumbersomely titled +'Justments was another consistently strong album on the whole, one that was primarily comprised of intense funky numbers and intimate ballads. The best effort in the first style is "You," which sports a tightly coiled intensity and provides a good example of the album's moodier merits and reliance on impressive string arrangements. The also-funky "Ruby Lee" and the 6+ minute jam "Railroad Man" are also worthwhile, as are songs that I can't easily label like the lightly funky, bluesy "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh," "Green Grass," which interestingly enough is almost like a duet with strings, and "Heartbreak Road," probably the album's most pop friendly tune, with strings again occupying a place of prominence. Still, it's on the ballads that Bill shines brightest, starting with "Stories," a sparse, intimate piano ballad where Withers really belts it out. That's just a warm up for the stunning trilogy of ballads that come later, however, encompassing the lovely "Can We Pretend," my personal favorite which features José Feliciano on guitar, "Liza," a beautiful, lullaby-like piece written to comfort his niece, and "Make A Smile For Me," with its atmospheric late night organ and more lush strings. On the whole, this album is more of a grower than the preceding albums, but given the chance I'm confident that its consistent quality will win over most listeners. Alas, finding it might not be so easy, as it was never even released on cd, though you can legally download it if you look around. This was the last album recorded on the small Sussex label, and though he had his moments thereafter recording for Columbia, his glossy later albums largely lack the gritty essence of his first four Sussex albums. Unfortunately, Withers has mostly been inactive since the mid-'80s.
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