Top positive review
Bill Withers: a True Original.
Reviewed in the United States on May 6, 2017
Bill Withers's first album was titled "Just As I Am" and that says a lot about the man himself. Bill Withers came on the scene without a gimmick, defied all the then-current conventions of pop and R&B music, did what he felt he needed to do and then left the whole scene behind when he grew tired of it, something few could do. He was his own man from the beginning and was always true to himself.
Much of this came from his background. He was born and raised in Slab Fork West Virginia, a coal mining town deep in the state close to where it meets Virginia and Kentucky. His father, like most of the men of the town, was a coal miner, and died when Bill, the youngest of six children, was thirteen. Bill had a pronounced stutter until he was nearly thirty, which affected his life growing up tremendously. He has discussed it in many interviews, including the one in the booklet. It naturally makes a person a bit solitary, introverted and often mistaken for being stupid. Though he grew up friends with the kids on both sides of the railroad tracks (near which he lived) in segregated Slab Fork, he knew he didn't want to live there and found inspiration in movies that showed that life wasn't like a noisy coal town everywhere. He used the Navy as an escape vehicle and stayed in it nine years, a time he felt he extended because of the stutter. He eventually overcame it though and overall it strengthened him and made him more independent than many others. He didn't even consider that deciding to go into music over the age of thirty and having just overcome stuttering any kind of problem.
Luck played a factor when his demo tape was heard by Clarence Avant of Sussex Records, a typical independent label of the day. What must have sold it was withers's voice. Bill Withers had one of the most distinctive voices: you always know when it's him singing. It's one of those special voices that can convey almost any emotion, from the hollow loneliness of Ain't No Sunshine to the pure joy of Lovely Day equally effectively. There's no trick to it, you can't say how he does it, he just does it. Another lucky thing was that the producer he was given at Sussex was none other than Booker T. Jones (of Booker T and the M.G.'s) who seemed to know just what Bill Withers wanted because the album, Just As I Am, and it's million-selling single, Ain't No Sunshine were pure Bill Withers in style.
Bill Withers recorded and performed in a stripped-down style, especially for the early 70's. Bill wrote all of his songs (sometimes with others but mostly not), music and lyrics, and knew instinctively that his voice was the thing and so usually was accompanied by his own acoustic guitar, bass, an electric guitar that was never too loud, a piano and sometimes an organ, especially in the funk numbers like Use Me. That's all he needed. Many people in the record business told him his records were underproduced, but he knew what he was doing and had the gold records to prove it. Also, contrary to the times, he did not wear tuxes or fancy clothes, or out-there psychedelic gear. Bill came on in normal, comfortable clothes, often a turtleneck or loose shirt. There was no choreography or light show. What you got was, as his second album title proclaimed, Just Bill. His music was just as direct: nothing fancy or over elaborated or worked up; just basically simple tunes that delivered the lyrics, and it worked beautifully. In later years, especially on 1977's Menagerie, he got jazzier, and that worked too, peaking with 1980's Just the Two of Us, with Grover Washington, Jr.
But Sussex folded owing taxes to the IRS, and Columbia bought the Sussex assets, including the masters and their roster. bill did okay at Columbia but was constantly butting heads with the A&R men and corporate executives. Bill was an artist who knew what he wanted to do, but to them he was a product and they wanted him to do what they thought would be profitable. This is not uncommon, but it really grated on Bill. I can't imagine what they wanted, maybe, it being the late 70's, they wanted him to do disco or something, but he recorded less frequently and did projects with others. He didn't have the need for the crowds, attention and applause that so many show business people seem to be totally consumed with. In fact, he'd had enough of it all by the early 80's and just quit. That's rare, very rare in his line of work. But as Bill said in an interview, his being over thirty when the whole thing started meant he was already who he was and not some kid just coming up in the world. He was just Bill and he did what he felt was best for himself and his family. A rare guy.
The collection here is an absolute joy to listen to. It opens with the later, jazz-influenced songs (four from Menagerie) then goes through the early 70's hits, personal favorites of his like Grandma's Hands, and the better album tracks covering virtually all his studio albums. Not every single is here but all the important ones are and the album tracks chosen are really good. Harlem is a particular standout from his first album and really paints a picture of the place with a New York uptown rhythm, the kind the Drifters might use. There are so many good songs here that you don't have to give a second thought to getting it. Just get it.
It as great to see Bill Withers inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. Even he sounded surprised. His career wasn't that long. He didn't have dozens of hits like the Temptations. But he was unique and he and his songs will be remembered for a long time.